The gig economy - a precarious form of maintenance

Posted by j.laird on 2 September 2020 - 9:30am

Uber driver
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

By Institute Fellow Laura James.

The Festival of Maintenance and the Maintainers recently ran our first joint online event, about the gig economy, a precarious form of maintenance. You can watch the recorded event now on YouTube. 

The Festival of Maintenance

The Festival of Maintenance is a celebration of those who maintain different parts of our world, and how they do it, recognising the often hidden work done in repair, custodianship, stewardship, tending and caring for the things that matter.

It has been taking place since 2018, when it ran for the first time in London. Our original motivations came from the maker movement and a general sense that in technology we focus so much on shiny new developments that maintaining things afterwards is overlooked.  Our small team of volunteers are having a very reflective year in 2020, partly because of the need to shift what we do online and therefore an opportunity to update and adapt our activities, and partly because the pandemic has moved maintenance into public discourse in new ways, as many maintainers are now “essential workers.”  


Maintainers can be found in many contexts, including nature, software, infrastructure, industry, information, arts and heritage. The Festival brings together traditional disciplines of maintenance, repair and stewardship, with new forms such as supporting digital products, sustaining open source software, and moderating online communities. The Festival aims to share learning around maintainer skills and tools and how maintenance is resourced and rewarded, and to boost the morale of maintainers across sectors with inspiring ideas and stories. The Festival of Maintenance is starting a lasting conversation across communities of maintainers and stewards, building shared practices, and raising awareness more widely of the value of this work and where it sits within our society. 

My Software Sustainability Institute fellowship enhanced the 2019 Festival in Liverpool, and also took me to the Maintainers conference in Washington DC, strengthening our links with this more US-centred community, growing out of social science academia. The Maintainers have particular interests in software, information, and transport maintenance fields at the moment.  This collaboration has been really helpful this year, as we’ve moved to running online events, and the larger community from working with the Maintainers has given us access to a wider range of speakers, and also a bigger audience. 

Gig economy

Inspired by the challenges of the pandemic, we felt it was important to host a discussion about the “gig economy” and the ways that maintenance gig workers (couriers, shoppers, drivers, etc) sustain daily life, and as such have been recognized as “essential workers.” A BBC article about the gig economy says:

What is the so-called "gig" economy, a phrase increasingly in use, and seemingly so in connection with employment disputes? According to one definition, it is "a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs".

And - taking opposing partisan viewpoints - it is either a working environment that offers flexibility with regard to employment hours, or... it is a form of exploitation with very little workplace protection.

… In the gig economy, instead of a regular wage, workers get paid for the "gigs" they do, such as a food delivery or a car journey.

Our growing recent dependence on gig workers raises an important question: what steps do companies, governments, and individuals take to maintain gig workers - or, in other words, to ensure that this form of labour is sustainable? 

Online discussion

Our two speakers represented both sides of the Atlantic:

Katie J. Wells is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. She writes about the changing relationship between cities, technology and work. She has published findings on smart cities, housing policy, and Washington, D.C. history in academic journals such as Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and Urban Geography, and has discussed the real-time impacts of her research in media stories in The Washington Post, National Public Radio, ABC National News, CityLab, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

Niels van Doorn is an Assistant Professor in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. He is also the Principal Investigator of the Platform Labor research project (2018-2023), funded by the European Research Council. His research examines how digital platforms are transforming labour, social reproduction and urban governance in post-welfare societies.

The discussion with Katie Wells and Niels van Doorn was great, and I was struck by a few points about how gig work platforms interact with the political sphere. Obviously they are a major lobby force, as many corporations are, but they have tech in their favour - no one wants to be seen as against innovation. They also support people who are partially employed or underemployed, which gives them a lot of political power - if Uber loses its licence in a major city like London, that's tens of thousands of people becoming unemployed, and political suicide for any politicians who caused it. So their own workforce is weaponised, alongside their data - such companies have useful information governments can't access, which can be used as capital in regulatory arbitrage, and shifting to regulatory entrepreneurship. 

The spaces between software, data, empowerment, exploitation, and sustainability (in all its forms) have always been of interest to the Festival of Maintenance. We’re looking forward to other events which push at the boundaries of these topics with a special focus on the new context of the pandemic through 2020. We'll be hosting more online events soon.

Want to discuss this post with us? Send us an email or contact us on Twitter @SoftwareSaved.  

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