Beyond Algorithmic Control: Flexibility, localized Control, and Paradox in the Decentered Labor Process of the On-Demand Economy

Authors: KE LI*, National University of Singapore
Topics: China
Keywords: Flexibility; De-centered Production; Labor Control; On-Demand Economy; China
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/11/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 34
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

The existing literature on labor control of on-demand platforms primarily concentrates on how algorithms manage the geographically dispersed workers. This article complicates this dominant storyline by examining how Didi Chuxing, China’s ride-hailing giant, contracts the supply and management of drivers out to local fleet management companies akin to labor intermediaries. I argue that drawing upon this mediated relationship, Didi revives what I call a quasi-organizational control over its drivers, mimicking a managerial pattern that usually occurs in a physical and formal workspace. This unique arrangement of local management has economic and political logics, which arose as a response to the paradox inherent in the decentered model of the on-demand economy and regulatory contexts particular to the Chinese context. This article makes three contributions. First, it challenges the relatively narrow focus on algorithmic management and calls for understanding labor control of on-demand platforms as a regime of hybridity that features continuity and renewal of previous managerial schemes. Second, it argues that labor control process involves managing not only labor power as the existing literature tends to recognize but also the largely neglected labor mobility. Finally, in articulating motivations underlying Didi’s local management, this article emphasizes that studies of platform labor should be particularly sensitive to the broader social contexts.

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