Both workers and consumers are bearing the brunt of changes to contemporary service industry jobs caused by the advent of the sharing economy. In this week’s Working-Class Perspective, Diane Negra and John Russo describe how digital platforms, automation, and control of workers’ behavior jointly undermine the quality of work while also pitting customers and customer service providers against one another.
Regardless of whether we buy these claims about benefits to workers, there are numerous signs that the sharing economy creates antagonism between workers and customers. The apps and automated systems that underlie these new work structures require both workers and customers to rely on technology, yet the systems are often faulty and poorly designed. While these systems promise transparency and trust, they also create tensions. For example, such systems unfailingly include algorithmic performance assessment of service industry workers. As technology writer and software engineer Tom Slee has argued, “Rather than bringing a new openness and personal trust to our interactions, [such shifts are] bringing a new form of surveillance where service workers must live in fear of being snitched on, and while the company CEOs talk benevolently of their communities of users, the reality has a harder edge of centralised control.” The increasing antagonism resulting from the perpetuation of inequality among “stakeholders” has received insufficient attention.
Service industry workers have long operated as the front-line interface with customers, having to respond to complaints about company practices that they don’t control. Now service workers have even less control due to structural and technological platforms. When platforms fail, inconveniencing and frustrating customers, workers have little power to resolve disputes. At the same time given the dependence on technology and lacking access to customer information, they cannot build relationships with customers over time. Indeed, it is almost impossible to contact the same customer service representative twice, so consumers then become obliged to give the same information over and over again. The interactions between customers and workers often predictably devolve, generating frustration, impotence, and anger on both sides and voiceless workers subjected to performance review by customers following interactions. Dependence on technology estranges service workers from customers, undermining the possibility of finding satisfaction on the job because of increased misunderstandings and conflicts.
The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-16 academic year, John Russo, and Georgetown University English professor, Sherry Linkon, who authored this post. It features several regular and guest contributors.