In the context of an ageing population and rising demand for care services, employment prospects for care workers are projected to grow. One response to this has been the emergence of digital platforms which ‘intermediate’ care work by facilitating connections between care workers and people requiring care.

Care platforms embrace features of the on-demand economy such as incentivizing responsiveness and worker flexibility (Ticona and Mateescu, 2018). They may provide workers with new opportunities to earn additional income, improve skills or secure autonomy (Minifie, 2016). Critics argue however that the organization of platform work fragments work, de-skills professionals, places pressure on pay rates and reduces employment security (Graham et al., 2017Schörpf et al., 2017).

Care platforms, unlike community care agencies or aged care homes, usually designate carers as self-employed or independent contractors. In the absence of an employment relationship, platforms cannot directly manage workers and they cannot directly influence the service quality provided to clients. They can however create surplus value through the contractual terms and conditions that workers must sign up to in order to access work via the platform. These terms therefore offer an important window into the control strategies adopted by new business models in the digital economy.

Our study examined the terms and conditions and website content of nine digital platform companies which intermediate disability and aged care in Australia. In contrast to the majority of studies of digital platform work which have focused on transport and food delivery, the study focused on intermediated service work that is primarily undertaken by women and which involves the care of human bodies.

Four strategies of control were identified in the analysis.

The first was shifting the risks and responsibilities of doing business from the platform, to workers and clients. The terms of all platforms specifically disclaimed any employer-like relationship with carers, as is often associated with labour-hire, referral services, franchisors or in-home care agencies. Instead, care platforms asserted that they were an ‘intermediary service’, a ‘marketplace’, a ‘search facility provider’ or a ‘venue’.

This arm’s length relationship with labour (Veen et al., 2020) is common in many segments of the platform economy internationally and poses a fundamental challenge to the integrity of the labour law system (Stewart, 2002).

The terms of all care platforms denied responsibility for non-payments or delays in payments to carers. Some expressly stated the company would not assist with the collection or recovery of such debt.

Disputes between carers and clients associated with cancellations, payment rates and booking durations, had to be negotiated between the parties themselves. However, some care platforms provided a dispute resolution service if disagreements between carers and clients could not be resolved.

The second strategy of control was apportioning direct and indirect costs to workers and clients. Several platforms charged clients or carers for a range of tiered services such as premium subscriptions. Some of these charges may be inconsistent with the ‘free-of-charge principle’ which has long been incorporated in international labour standards. They may also lead to unjustified restricted access to jobs and to the marginalization of vulnerable job-seekers who cannot afford to pay premium prices (De Stefano and Wouter, 2019).

Most platforms charged commissions and third party processing fees before releasing client payments to carers. However, few platform terms provided details of pricing and payment structures. This obfuscation may lead workers to register with the platform without fully appreciating what financial or other benefits they might receive in exchange for their labour.

Terms clearly stated that care workers and clients were responsible for all direct and indirect costs associated with work undertaken via the platform. Direct costs included internet access, mobile phones and data charges, transport, vehicles and fuel, food and beverages, and the costs of accessing permits, registrations and licenses.

Indirect costs were reflected in the range of unpaid tasks required to access work but which were outside of allocated booking times. This included the time required to register with the platform, manage an online profile, upload current documentation such as qualifications, police checks and insurance, and negotiate – online, in-person or both – with prospective clients prior to accepting work.

Referred to by McCann and Murray (2010: 30) as ‘time out of life’, these indirect costs of self-employed care work occurred alongside a flat career structure where wages do not reflect experience and length of service (Carroll et al., 2009). Self-employed carers also lack access to paid leave, superannuation (pension) contributions, and other protections normally afforded to employees, suggesting an inevitable erosion of the hourly rate of pay set by the worker. As Fleming (2018) argues, shifting the usual costs and benefits associated with being an economic actor to an individual worker is associated with economic insecurity, low-skilled work and personal debt.

The third strategy of control was dictating contractual arrangements associated with service interactions between the worker and the platform, and the worker and the client. Two platforms expressly prohibited carers from engaging in ‘multi-apping’, where a worker simultaneously engages with a competitor platform, or working for a client offline when they had been matched via the platform.

These ‘lock-in’ clauses are a notable value capture feature of digital platforms (Gandini, 2019). However, while restrictive, it would seem likely that breaches would be difficult to monitor and discipline in practice.

Terms advised that carers should create an individual agreement with each new client for the services to be provided. Carers were also required to take responsibility for their own health and safety by inspecting premises and equipment on each occasion they arrived at a client’s home.

The fourth strategy of control was monitoring performance and quality standards of work. To create a valid profile, platform websites required proof of documented qualifications and registrations for certain types of care work. However, several noted that while the company may verify credentials, they were not obliged to do so. Numerous disclaimers denied accountability for the truthfulness, accuracy or omissions in information provided by platform users, and as a result, the quality of care services provided.

Care platforms reserved the right to suspend, modify and terminate a carer’s membership at any time for any reason such as when there was suspicion or proof of criminal activity. Terms did not specify that these access restrictions applied to clients.

Most, but not all terms set out the parameters of client reviews. Reviews could not generally be disputed or deleted by carers and in contrast to transport and food delivery (e.g. Veen et al., 2020) where two-way reviews are common, only one care platform allowed carers to rate clients.

The findings of the study suggest that care work intermediaries, via these four control strategies, not only utilise but also extend techniques of power that can undermine labour rights and protections. It has long been known that care workers, even those who have access to basic protections associated with an employment contract, lack the necessary influence to make reasonable claims on the fruits of their labour  (Dundon et al., 2017). However, the terms and conditions associated with digitally intermediated care work appear to further lower the costs of labour and reduce earnings for an already vulnerable group of workers.

The strategies of control identified are reflected in the technologies and corporate business models in the digital economy more broadly. They are also inextricably linked with the nature of care work specifically, which is localised, task-based, relational and feminised.

There is emerging evidence for example that digital platforms may be reproducing gendered features of the broader labour market (McDonald et al., 2019). Care work requires intimate contact with vulnerable individuals, often over a long period of time. In a relationship of mutual trust, carers may be reluctant to leave tasks incomplete and finish them in their own unpaid time (Baines 2004).

Overall, the study sheds new light on digitally intermediated work that is distinct from more transactional and impersonal on-demand work such as cleaning, maintenance or driving. With the rising demand for care associated with an ageing population, the study also highlights the contours of such work in an increasingly important segment of the service sector.

Paula McDonald, Penny Williams and Robyn Mayes are the winners of this year’s SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence (Work, Employment & Society journal) for their paper, Means of Control in the Organization of Digitally Intermediated Care Work.

Paula McDonald is Professor of Work and Organisation and Associate Dean, Research in the QUT Business School. Paula’s research addresses the profound social implications arising from a globalised, ‘collaborative’ economy. Her work spans topics including education to work transitions; public/private boundaries; and technology and work. Paula is a registered psychologist and a senior fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy.  Twitter: @PaulaMc32937836

Dr Penny Williams is a Senior Lecturer in the QUT School of Management whose research explores the changing nature of work and the intersections of technology and work.  Her research span work in the gig economy, flexible work arrangements, and the impact of technology, including AI, on work and workers. Penny has over 15 years experience in corporate HR and strategic consultancy roles, working across public and private sectors, nationally and internationally.  Twitter:  @Pen_JW

Robyn Mayes is a Professor in the QUT Faculty of Business and Law. Her research is informed by a social justice agenda and critical feminist approaches and spans corporate social responsibility and global production, gender in organisations, work and working in the gig economy, and labour migration and mobility. Robyn has served on the Board of the Immigrant Women’s Emergency Support Service (2016 to 2020) and the Australian Federal Government’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).  Twitter:  @robynpmayes