Understanding Work in the Online Platform Economy: A Critical Review


The outlines of the impact upon work of the ever more pervasive online platforms are beginning to come into focus. Previously, fairly settled terms such as “jobs”, “employment”, “labor”, and even “work” itself are, for some, being replaced by “income generation” or “value creation”. To capture the difference between platform-organized work or labor and traditional activities, we use the commonly used term “platform work.” This raises the question of whether a different context for the way goods and services are delivered is emerging. This essay reviews the extant understanding of the impact of platforms on work.

Initial analyses hailed platforms as new organizational forms that could create an economy based upon communitarian ideals such as “sharing”. Unfortunately, this narrow optimistic formulation has given way to a realization that platforms are capitalist enterprises. In contrast, there have been increasing concerns about platforms’ capacity to generate significant numbers of even mediocre quality jobs, their contribution to existing inequalities, and the work experiences of those dependent upon platforms for their income.  In this review, we suggest that most studies of platform work have been too narrow, focusing only on a small number of highly visible platforms that provide in-person and remote platform work. To comprehend the true extent of platform work, we argue it is necessary to extend study beyond in-person and remote service provision to include platform-mediated sales and virtual product provision. We then assess the impacts of platformizing these four categories of platform work across four different aspects of work: management power, work processes, social protection and labor rights, and skill demand and career prospects. Our conceptual analysis provides a more comprehensive understanding on the effects of online platforms on the changes in work that may serve policymakers facing the challenge of formulating, and re-formulating their targets, the categories of their policies.

Angela Garcia Calvo
Publication date: 
May 10, 2022
Publication type: 
Working Paper