Working on-demand in the domestic sector: A case study on the experiences of platform domestic work in Cape Town

Master Thesis


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There is a growing presence of platform companies of the gig economy that are providing platform domestic work in South Africa, more specifically cleaning services. In the platform domestic work model, the provision of domestic service is now undertaken on an on-demand basis and is organized and structured virtually though an online platform or ‘app' provided and managed by private technology companies or platform companies. Platform companies in the sector are part of the wider shift towards the modernization of domestic work through commercialization by private, for-profit companies. Using an interpretivist case study approach, this study sought to understand domestic workers' motivations for becoming platform domestic workers, their experiences of the job and the ways in which the platform domestic work model is structured and executed. This study is based on in-depth qualitative interviews with ten platform domestic workers in Cape Town, and a document analysis of public interviews and published company materials about their platform company SweepSouth. Findings in this study were analysed using a labour process theory lens that is based on the permissive-power framework of platform work governance by Vallas and Schor (2020). This study finds that the commercialization of domestic work through the gig economy addresses unemployment in the domestic sector by allowing workers easy and reliable access to a regular supply of jobs through digital platforms. However, it does not overcome underemployment in the sector, which prompts workers to seek additional work outside the digital platform. Platform leakage, a phenomenon whereby platform workers and platform customers transact outside of the platform following their initial service interaction on the platform, was found to be a common occurrence among platform domestic workers in this case study. Platform leakage shows that domestic workers approach the platform as a networking tool to gain access to regular cleaning work with clients on and off the platform, and to also gain access to more favourable work opportunities once matched to desirable clients on the platform. This study also found that working on-demand as a platform domestic worker is a highly insecure form of work. Platform domestic workers experience intensified levels of commodification on the platform and a market despotism in the regulation of their labour effort. Managerial control over platform domestic workers' labor is exercised indirectly and from a distance, through the practice of management-by-customers and the algorithmic surveillance and monitoring of work and productivity on the platform. This affords the platform immensely consequential “permissive power” over workers and the platform domestic work labor process. This study argues that the gig economy and gig work as an externally driven force of modernization in the domestic sector leads to the severe commodification of domestic workers. There is a need for a worker-led and or negotiated gig economy transformation of the domestic sector that empowers platform domestic workers and guarantees their access to rights and labour protections as workers.