Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Negotiating Dependencies and Precarity in the On-Demand Economy
There is growing evidence of ride-hailing platforms’ adverse impact on drivers. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands of drivers continue to work on these platforms. Why? The key contribution of this paper is to show that workers in technology-mediated labour markets come to be increasingly dependent on the technology-provider in order to connect with the customers. As more and more customers choose to get various tasks done via intermediary platforms, for workers who perform such tasks for a living, this translates into growing dependencies on these infrastructuralized platforms for their livelihoods and thus increased vulnerabilities to the impact of platform design and policies. These ‘new dependencies’, therefore, make it critical for us not to conflate workers’ continued use of platforms with their experiencing benefits. By drawing upon a qualitative study with auto-rickshaw drivers using Ola, a ride-hailing platform similar to Uber in India, the paper shows that a consequence of ‘new dependencies’ for drivers is that they are stuck ‘between a rock and a hard place’ whereby: a) on the one hand, the platform design heightens their precarity, provides them with little benefit, and often leads to tensions with customers, b) on the other, a shift of more and more customers from street-hailing to app-based hailing over time exacerbates dependencies for drivers on these very platforms, leaving them with little choice but to continue to use them for work.