May 26, 2016 by quiqcleanpro
For four months I worked as a cleaner for a domestic cleaning app called Handy. During that time I was faced with the business end of a service providing platform, the likes of which dominate our phones and tablets. Burger, ride home, massage, clean linen. We’ve come to expect the ability to request services quickly and cheaply. But those who are providing the services are suffering from the anonymous gamification of capitalism, working for a faceless ‘boss’ that camouflages itself as a sharing community.
Hiring a cleaner is currently a pretty bourgeois concept in the UK, but the apps succeed in eliminating any vestiges of embarrassment for wanting in. It’s cheap, it’s easy and the first hour or so is often taken care of financially via offers advertised on Twitter and Facebook. I dusted Champagne bottles in Chelsea and scraped my way through two years’ worth of burnt fat on the inside of student ovens. I polished silver and threw away lube bottles covered in hair. Truly, service apps dissolve class boundaries that have existed for hundreds of years in the time it takes to copy and paste a voucher code.
What makes the app interface potentially damaging is the way in which it interrupts the traditional client/customer interaction. The reliance on the interface may make users reluctant to deviate from the app’s structured prompts and responses. For instance, at the end of a shift a professional might ask the customer to have a look round and make sure that everything has been completed to a good standard. Later in the evening if this same client discovers that they missed a spot, they can simply dock a couple of stars from the professional’s rating rather than suffer the embarrassment of actually interacting and of acknowledging the client/customer relationship.
The app also makes service requests for users casual, fun, and — crucially — impersonal. When a customer reviews the service they have been given, the real life implications of that action are far from their mind. But how would these ratings differ if customers knew the truth: that any rating less than a 5 translates irl to a suggestion that the employee be fired? This is something that cleaning professionals are warned of when they sign up to work through the app: if your average rating drops below a 4.25, you are automatically removed from the platform. When I spoke to people about this rule they were unaware of the implications of a less-than-five-star rating. No matter the service you provide, there are consumers who consider themselves the AA Gill of Yelp who will rate you three stars — fine in the context of giving feedback on a service seeking to improve, but completely untranslatable to a robotic hiring and firing system based on decimal points.
I applied to become a cleaner through the app’s website and they texted me the address for the ‘orientation’, which was the following day. There was no interview at all. They offer absolutely no training and hire everyone who walks through the door and passes the background check. While standing in front of a screen congratulating us on making it through this ‘selection process’, a woman who introduced herself as Yvonne explained to me and the other applicants that Handy take the first £38 of each professional’s earnings as compensation — for the background check and for a branded T shirt (which I was never given). After skimming 20% off all pay, they fire individuals who fail to reach a desired standard. Or rather — since firing an employee demands following a certain legal process — that professional is no longer able to access jobs through the platform. Handy, along with other apps of the same ilk, make it clear that they are not an employer — they’re simply an agent for connecting service providers and their customers. In reality the semantics of this arrangement frees companies from any social responsibility. The conveyor belt of cheap labour as a model of capitalism seems pretty transparent to a person who has been through the process. Hiring and firing en masse is simply of more economical sense to these companies than hiring those who are qualified and training them to be better.
As a professional you are rated by each customer. The star system, along with the vocabulary used by the company (‘claiming’ or ‘winning’ of jobs) is incredibly effective. Checking your overall rating is addictive, especially as there is a financial bonus attached to reaching the top rating (an increase in pay of £1 per hour for as long as you keep that rating). It’s the banal, real life equivalent of levelling up. Plus, you can see in real time your accumulated earnings. The system is a dream for companies in terms of reinforcing employee engagement. Service workers are providing cheap labour for a multitude of reasons, and morale is often low. The ‘fun face’ of capitalism offers employees the carrot of a good time, while also threatening with the stick of swift and un retractable punishment for failing to reach targets.
I was fired after four months when my average rating dropped. I received an email. “Due to low ratings,” it read, “Management have removed your access to the platform…We are sure you understand that maintaining ratings below a 4.2 shows you are not reaching an acceptable service level. Please return any keys you have to clients’ houses in the next 24 hours to avoid being charged to have the locks changed.” My jobs were cancelled from that moment and I was immediately out of work.
Poaching customers is obviously an issue Handy are aware of and try to tackle by re-routing all calls and texts between clients and professionals through the app, meaning that you never have access to a legitimate telephone number. I worked through this the old fashioned way by dropping notes through customers’ doors the day after I was fired. Some of those clients I’m still working for today. We know each other’s faces and communicate the old fashioned way: notes scribbled on the back of envelopes.
The mechanics of the app and the way in which it encourages workers to strive for excellence is interesting. It isn’t necessarily bad, although the fact that it operates as a sweetener for low income and job instability is unsettling. Gamification is undoubtedly useful in engaging workers who are providing work that is tiring and repetitive, and in the current economy that sort of work is a reality for more people than ever. It attempts to replace traditional management in the way it provides incentives for success. However, when the ‘boss’ is the app itself, which judges success and failure on a percentage and fires on this basis, service workers are getting the bleak reality of faceless capitalism. The disguise of labour as entertainment means that some people’s livelihoods are at the mercy of other people’s whims.