Antagonism beyond employment: how the ‘subordinated agency’ of labour platforms generates conflict in the remote gig economy

By Alex Wood and Vili Lehdonvirta

Published by Socio-economic Review

This article investigates why gig economy workers who see themselves as self-employed freelancers also engage in collective action traditionally associated with regular employment. Using ethnographic evidence on the remote gig economy in North America, the UK and the Philippines, we argue that labour platforms increase the agency of workers to contract with clients and thus reduce the risk of false self-employment in terms of the worker–client relationship. However, in doing so, platforms create a new source of subordination to the platform itself. We term this phenomenon ‘subordinated agency’, and demonstrate that it entails a ‘structured antagonism’ with platforms that manifests in three areas: fees, competition and worker voice mechanisms. Subordinated agency creates worker desire for representation, greater voice and even unionization towards the platform, while preserving entrepreneurial attitudes towards clients.