superconductr’s first foray into practical research in on-demand labour distributed through digital platforms consisted of recruiting a worker through TaskRabbit to participate in the first meeting of a reading group on Karl Marx’s Capital Volume 1. The worker was paid for attending the meeting, and also for watching part of the first video of David Harvey’s online video lecture series on Capital Volume 1 beforehand.
On the day, the hired worker arrived with considerable enthusiasm for the task ahead. It turned out that he had studied music at university and was familiar with the format of discussing critical theory in a reading group. Further research on the make-up of the TaskRabbit work force showed that as of 2013, 70% of TaskRabbit workers had at least a bachelor’s degree, 20% a master’s and 5% a PhD. After finishing university, the hired worker had been employed in music marketing, then in marketing for various start-ups. Since starting to work through TaskRabbit, he has been enjoying the freedom of not being anyone’s fixed employee.
The meeting began with introductions, during which the hired worker described his position as akin to that of a guinea pig. When briefly outlining some of the motivations behind this intervention, superconductr had to be careful to not let the generally jovial tone of the situation obscure the underlying class dynamics of having employed a person to join a meeting which was otherwise attended only by people who were there out of their own motivation. To this end, for example, an impromptu statement that the worker had been ‘invited’ had to be corrected to ’employed.’
The situation as a whole, with a person being paid to join an activity that others partake in without immediate financial reward does relate to some of the prevalent discussions on how boundaries between work and other activities have been dissolving, and on how certain kinds of gamified labour (playbour) have taken hold, at least in particular fields mostly relating to cognitive work. In relation to this, the intervention and the structural relations and power dynamics involved also raise the possibility of a benevolent actor hiring on-demand workers to perform non-work, pleasurable, tasks either chosen by the worker/s or by the requester, which in the latter case would involve a sort of imposed pleasurability. While usually made from a critical position of some sort, any intervention of this kind is still contributing to the profits of the platform or company through which the hiring arrangement is made. In fact, this type of strategy has already been pursued by a number of artists, with different but also to some extent related motivations in each case, including Andrew Norman Wilson (using India-based personal outsourcing company GetFriday), They Are Here (using Adecco, the company supplying temp workers to the Tate Modern art gallery), and Xtine Burroughs (using Amazon Mechanical Turk).
The discussion in the event of this intervention first focused on clarifying some of the terms in use by Marx and moved to progressively more and more intricate issues, in parallel to which the hired worker’s engagement with the discussion gradually diminished. Later the debate moved on to evaluating the usefulness of some of Marx’s categories for analysing contemporary economic and social developments, particular in relation to issues of precarity and changing class composition. At this point, members of the group expressed an interest in the hired worker’s own experiences in this regard, and a more involved discussion ensued again.
After the meeting, the worker expressed interest in continued employment. However, superconductr decided that for the time being the costs involved did not justify continuation of a research project whose ultimate purpose was somewhat difficult to ascertain.
In total, the worker was employed for three hours, billed at GBP 20 each. TaskRabbit’s service fee, subtracted from the advertised rate, is 30%. For a total of GBP 60, this would amount to GBP 18, which means that the net payment to the worker would be GBP 42. To the total advertised rate of GBP 60, TaskRabbit added a previously unannounced ‘Trust & Support’ fee at 7.5% (GBP 4.50), which ‘helps TaskRabbit provide incredible real time customer service, encourage trust in and use of the platform and invest in a range of operational and safety related measures.’ Thus, the total taken by TaskRabbit adds up to GBP 22.50. Finally, VAT was added to the total taken by TaskRabbit, which added another GBP 4.50 to the final fee paid of GBP 69.
|Advertised rate||Paid to worker||Taken by TaskRabbit||Total|
|Cost of labour||GBP 60.00||GBP 42.00||GBP 18.00|
|Trust & Support fee||GBP 4.50|
|Total paid||GBP 69.00|