‘Super platform’ myth produces precarious tech workers

Policymakers should pay attention to the deterioration of working conditions and labour rights under the super platform rivalry.

Expert comment
Published 23 January 2023 3 minute READ

As the pandemic-fuelled online consumption boom fades, tech giants including Google’s owner Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook owner Meta recently announced enormous layoffs after two years of aggressive expansion. Executives have blamed external economic factors: inflation, interest rate hikes, and the energy crisis. But a difficult economic climate may be compounding a more foundational change in strategy.

The quest to become a so-called super platform –  a one-stop shop for many different services – is destabilizing technology jobs. Elon Musk recently asked employees to work ‘longer hours at high intensity’ and for ‘exceptional performance’ after firing half of Twitter’s workforce. The precarity of gig and ‘low-skilled’ technology work is now expanding into the world of knowledge workers.

‘Hire and fire’ approach

‘We overhired for the world we’re in.’ That’s the diagnosis given by Stripe CEO Patrick Collison. Despite tripling its business volume during the pandemic, the US online payment company cut 14 per cent of its workforce at the end of last year. Food delivery platform DoorDash also laid off 1,000 workers after doubling its workforce in the previous year.

Facebook sacked 11,000 workers over what CEO Mark Zuckerberg called a ‘wrong’ decision to significantly increase investment after the online consumption boom did not go beyond the pandemic as predicted. Both Google and Microsoft are cutting more than 10,000 jobs after aggressively growing their workforces during the pandemic. 

The precarity of gig and ‘low-skilled’ technology work is now expanding into the world of knowledge workers.

Make no mistake: these were not mistakes. The drive to offer new services or enter new markets demands precisely this ‘hire and fire’ approach to growth. Any delay could cause companies to lose out to more aggressive rivals. 

In some cases, massive layoffs in some departments coincide with aggressive hiring elsewhere at the very same company. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said it will continue to hire in key areas such as artificial intelligence despite the layoffs, according to his memo to staff. The company is also considering a multi-billion dollar investment in OpenAI, the creators of ChatGPT.

The quest to become a super app

No app better highlights the lucrative potential of becoming a one-stop shop for everything and everyone than China’s WeChat. The messaging app developed by Tencent leverages the unparalleled diversity and depth of data on its 1 billion users, adding banking, gaming, ride-hailing, shopping and house hunting into its main portal. This is the super platform holy grail. 

The capture of user data from one area can make offers in other categories more efficient and relevant. Location data collected for real estate or ride-hailing can be leveraged for food delivery and retail offers. Banking, interest and even health data add further layers, opening up routes into advertising, dating and insurance.

Networked data collected from every aspect of life allowed Tencent to become a major player in each new business segment it entered within years, crushing alternative providers with poorer quality data. The fight to become the single super app is cutthroat, and by the logic of the power of networked data, the winner takes all.

While no Western company has truly succeeded in building a super platform as successful as WeChat, the gold rush is well underway. Ride-hailing leader Uber quickly became a dominant player in the food delivery business and has added more categories such as grocery delivery by leveraging its algorithmic management systems and a group of highly overlapping customers.

The fight to become the single super app is cutthroat, and by the logic of the power of networked data, the winner takes all.

Facebook, known as a free social media platform, has introduced many commerce functions in positioning itself as an online marketplace. Amazon has gone from operating online shopping sites to producing TV programmes in expanding revenue sources. For each, the premise is simple: the data they already have will allow them to do this better than anyone else, and the rewards include new kinds of data from which further expansion might be possible.

Growing precarity of tech workers

The quest for the super platform is having a profound impact on tech workers. Workers are under enormous pressure to keep up with the breakneck pace of the industry evolution, as companies relentlessly test new ideas, expand into new markets and opt in and out of services.

Companies are increasingly shifting towards hiring informal workers and outsourcing non-core activities in what is known as an ‘asset-light’ model. ‘Low-skilled’ platform workers, such as warehouse workers and delivery drivers, are experiencing rising precarity in a race to the bottom competition, but ruthless data prospecting means high-skilled tech workers are now facing similar challenges. 

Despite their better pay and social benefits as full-time employees, knowledge workers often have to work extreme hours to support companies’ fast expansion in the new business areas. An employee at a Chinese internet company typically works from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, known as the ‘996’ schedule.

‘Low-skilled’ platform workers are experiencing rising precarity in a race to the bottom competition, but ruthless data prospecting means high-skilled tech workers are now facing similar challenges.

And even long hours might not be enough. Ever shifting company priorities put additional pressure on in-work learning, or might simply lead to whole divisions within a company being made redundant. Just a year ago, the same ‘pandemic darlings’ that are now laying off staff were on a hiring binge as they were investing heavily to capture the surging demand for online services. 

Risk to labour rights

While the power of large digital platforms is increasingly raising the concerns of policymakers, current regulatory efforts have largely focused on the perspectives of consumer rights protection and fair competition. Insufficient attention is paid to the deterioration of working conditions and labour rights under the super platform rivalry.

Rising precarity cont.

The rising precarity of workers needs to be tackled through addressing the power imbalance between workers and large platforms. Super platforms depend on monopolized data, and this is sure to clash with current regulatory concerns about tech platform monopolies. Antitrust regulation is likely to benefit workers as much as consumers. Workers and their unions should also be more aware of how quickly shifting strategic priorities can disrupt their working conditions.

The rising precarity of workers needs to be tackled through addressing the power imbalance between workers and large platforms.

They might check to ensure their contracts better reflect this new reality, and the widespread use of data and technology to monitor worker productivity should also draw the attention of regulators.

The quest for the super app is ruthless. The relentless push to capture new markets off the back of wider and deeper datasets has long-term consequences for the workers tasked with delivering it.