Are tech companies ‘algorithmically amplifying’ insecurity in the gig economy?

New research published by University of Bristol Business School and Oxford University academics reveals how hundreds of thousands of gig workers regularly experience ‘reputational insecurity’. The study, ‘Platforms disrupting reputation: precarity and recognition struggles in the remote gig economy’ published in Sociology, shows that gig workers not only have to contend with the cost-of-living crisis and the ongoing pandemic but are also left feeling frustrated and hopeless by the algorithms used by tech companies.

According to the researchers, the use of algorithmic ratings as an alternative to traditional references and interpersonal recommendations and referrals has created widespread feelings of instability and uncertainty and a continuous fear regarding customer behaviour and worries about future access to work.

Dr Alex Wood, Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Future of Work at the University of Bristol Business School told us that ‘while undertaking the research I was shocked by the continuous worry that workers expressed regarding the potential consequences of receiving a single bad rating from an unfair or malevolent client and how this could leave them unable to continue making a living. Tech companies need to act to ensure that their algorithmic systems are no longer abused by customers to extract unpaid labour from workers.’

This insecurity is a result of platform companies relying on algorithmic reputation systems that score and rank workers based on customer­–generated ratings. Platforms also create new categories, such as ‘Rising star’ and ‘Top rated’ for those they deem high quality and trustworthy. However, the way platform algorithms rank workers and classify them into categories is not transparent and can be highly volatile. Meanwhile, workers are vulnerable to mistaken, capricious and even malicious customer rating behaviour and have no effective protections or organisational remedies. In fact, the research finds that it is widely felt that receiving a single low rating can effectively eclipse numerous positive ones, rendering a worker essentially invisible on the platform and unable to make a living.

The research based on 70 interviews with platform workers doing remote work in the gig economy as well as numerous participant observations is published open access by the British Sociological Association’s flagship journal Sociology. The finding of widespread ‘reputational insecurity’ has been supported by surveys that find over 60% of gig workers worry about clients giving them unfair feedback that would impact their future income.

The research also uncovered the worrying finding that workers frequently respond to reputational insecurity by undertaking unpaid labour. The researchers say workers regularly do unpaid work in the hope of gaining higher ratings from clients. Some workers continue to make free revisions for clients, while others cancel the contract and provide their work for free if they feel the customer is unsatisfied and can thus avoid harmful ratings.

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