Cashing in on Care: Platform and Freelance Care as a Challenge to the European Directive on Improving Working Conditions in Platform Work

by Franziska Baum, PhD Student at the University of Hamburg

5 min read

Are platforms reshaping caregiving into a more precarious occupation? The rise of platformization has transformed employment dynamics in various low-paid sectors mainly along the lines of reconfigured demands of social reproduction. Tech companies, recognizing the need for solutions in managing time and care constraints, offer technological care fixes. The latest trend in tech appears to be turning care into a clickable commodity. This is particularly noteworthy as tech companies in ride hailing and logistics have predominantly turned to employing their workforce, foremost but not only in Germany, owing to worker resistance and increased regulation. In contrast, the self-employment model remains secure in cleaning and care work. As workers have contracts with each person they assist, the likelihood of being categorized as ‘properly self-employed‘ persists. Additionally, the absence of algorithmic management in digitally-mediated care makes it unlikely the European Directive on improving working conditions in platform work will alter the status of these workers.

Moreover, self-employment emerges as a viable alternative for caretakers. In my PhD project, the overwhelming majority of the 14 interviewed workers expressed a strong preference for self-employment in care, emphasizing a resistance to traditional employers in the field. Through a comprehensive analysis of a dataset containing over 2000 worker profiles from a German care platform, I also found that the majority of profile holders claim substantial relevant experience and expertise. My data offers two important insights: one, self-employment via platforms mainly occurs as a supplementary occupation for professional workers or, second, as a new profession after a career change facilitated by personal care experiences, practical training, internships, and certification. In both cases, workers do not identify as precarious ‘platform workers’. Hence, I follow the subject rather than the worker and the money, which means to start with paid and unpaid care services and their organization and how this influences workers lives and perspectives.

Contrary to platform research claims, I posit that labor platforms do not structure the trend towards self-employment in care. Instead, the care sector, marked by collective bargaining challenges, positions self-employment as a rational avenue for improving working conditions. Notably, workers in eldercare, particularly former care workers, opt for self-employed assistance to seniors as an individual strategy for enhancing their working conditions. Conversely, individuals, often women, choose self-employed care work as a means of overcoming re-entry barriers into employment after caregiving responsibilities or following a loss of purpose or employment in sectors like hospitality and retail (Baum 2024/forthcoming).

Interestingly, self-employed care workers do not necessarily rely on platforms for their choices of self-employment. Instead, certification, registration, and franchises allow them to access cash-for-care funds, implemented across the EU. Cash-for-care schemes aim to enhance care accessibility and primarily incentivize self-employment in the German care sector. Overall, my research points to two important points with regards to the EU Directive on improving working conditions in platform work:

- First, the platform economy exhibits different business models and demographics. Not all are equally well-served and will be impacted differently by this proposal.

- Second and relatedly, regulating against the flexible gig model can potentially go against the wishes of workers on digital care platforms who prefer being freelancers over being employed for the reasons I have laid out.

To ensure workers are adequately protected, policy-making should therefore focus on understanding the motivations behind choosing self-employed care: providing care for the elderly at home without succumbing to the time pressures of marketized caretaking as well as cashing in on care expertise otherwise underacknowledged and un/-der/paid.

About the Author

Franziska Baum is researching self-employed and platformized care work on a scholarship of the University of Hamburg and as team member of the joint research group ‘Care Transformation’ (funding from 2020-2024). In her PhD on the same topic she interrogates why workers choose self-employment and how they deal with the challenges of caring for others within a marketized care regime. Franziska is a trained logistician and social scientist, holding degrees in Sociology from Humboldt University Berlin and University of Amsterdam.

Technology, Employment and Wellbeing is a new FES blog that offers original insights on the ways new technologies impact the world of work. The blog focuses on bringing different views from tech practitioners, academic researchers, trade union representatives and policy makers.

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