An important new report by Data & Society highlights the employment barriers and discrimination risks created by online labor platforms for non-white, low-income, older, or non-native-English-speaking workers, who may be frozen out of use of the platforms altogether.[1]

Researchers interviewed in-home child and elder care workers and housecleaners who use online platforms, such as Care.com, Handy, and UrbanSitter, to find work. The researchers found that these platforms required job-seekers to have certain skills—such as self-branding, digital communication fluency, and social media savviness—that do not reflect the skills or experience required for the work. Job-seekers also needed to know how to navigate the unspoken cultural norms that shape activity on these platforms, e.g., presenting a compelling work history while providing an appealing mix of information about one’s private life.

An example illustrates the problem: A West African immigrant and native French speaker trying to use Care.com found the language on the site confusing and struggled to write a biographical narrative for the site, which boasts 9.2 million registered worker profiles and has been described as the Amazon for caregiving. Despite having experience as a nanny and elder care companion and applying to jobs through the site daily, she received few responses from potential employers.[2]

Job seekers also need resources—such as reliable, high-speed Internet access and the time needed to manage their accounts—so that they can apply to jobs, update their profiles, and respond to messages, all of which can impact their rating and future job offers. Care.com, for example, identifies some platform users as “CarePros,” indicated by a badge next to a user’s profile, based on criteria such as opting in to mobile alerts, maintaining a high-star rating, and responding to 75 percent of messages within 24 hours.[3] And, because platform job openings can receive dozens of applicants in a short amount of time, users need to constantly check their accounts so that they don’t lose out on opportunities. Many caregivers simply can’t afford the resources needed to participate fully in online platforms.[4]

The authors of the project concluded that the skills needed to navigate online labor platforms exacerbate inequalities in the domestic work industry, because workers need to understand the unspoken cultural norms that shape activity on the platforms.[5] White, U.S.-born caregivers typically have access to higher-paying and higher-status jobs than non-white or foreign-born caregivers because of their perceived cultural matching or fit with employers, which is often based on stereotypes about a worker’s race or ethnicity.

“For careworkers with marginalized identities—including but not limited to race, ethnicity, age, sexuality, nationality, and disability—online visibility creates an additional burden to ensure that their presentation of self is broadly appealing to wide audiences.”[6]

Workers of color interviewed for the report spoke of losing jobs because of aggressive behavior and false accusations by customers, and of being worried about their safety as they waited an obligatory 30 minutes in a strange neighborhood.

Online labor platforms should adopt practices that decrease the risk of discrimination against non-white, older, or non-native-English-speaking workers. As a first step, they should comply with anti-discrimination laws that apply to employers. In addition, researchers have suggested some best practices to reduce the risk of discrimination:

  • Limit user profiles to information that is relevant to job postings—such as skills and prior work experience—and prohibit the posting of extraneous information, such as photos and personal biographical details.
  • Prominently feature the online platform’s non-discrimination policy, and require users to affirm their compliance with it before every transaction. Studies have shown that prominently requiring consent to a policy increases compliance.[7]
  • Ask for more details from customers filling out their ratings, in order to make it more difficult for customers to give bad reviews based on race.
  • Track and share with researchers data on reviews by the gender, race, language proficiency, and other characteristics of the workers.

Online labor platforms give the perception of an open and equal market where anyone can apply for a job. The reality, however, is far different. These platforms favor native English speakers with social media and self-branding savviness. They disadvantage non-white, low-income, older, or non-native-English-speaking workers, who are less likely to have these attributes. Online labor platforms should adopt practices described above to minimize the risk of discrimination and to level the playing field for all workers.


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Endnotes

[1] Julia Ticona, Alexandra Mateescu, & Alex Rosenblat, Beyond Disruption: How Tech Shapes Labor Across Domestic Work & Ridehailing, Data & Society, June 26, 2018, https://datasociety.net/output/beyond-disruption/.

[2] Id. at 27.

[3] Id. at 16, 28.

[4] Id. at 29.

[5] Id. at 24-26.

[6] Id. at 25.

[7] Ray Fishman & Michael Luca, Fixing Discrimination in Online Marketplaces, Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/12/fixing-discrimination-in-online-marketplaces.

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