Platform work and international higher education: Reflections from/with ISS students

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ISS students have long held jobs next to their studies. Increasingly, this work is done in the gig economy. In this article, we look into the relation between international higher education and the gig economy. We do so based on research with and by ISS students, looking at the case of pet-sitting and food delivery.

Platform economy: an entry point into the labour market

I have a friend. He is trying to come to ISS…He is aware of Deliveroo already. I told him how during the day if I have long hours, I can earn €100. He said ‘wow!’. Do that for more days and that should be more than a director’s salary in Ghana, even if that is for a month (Deliveroo rider from Ghana, January 2019)

The emerging gig, or platform economy, is associated with a long list of concerns ranging from diminishing labour protection and rights to fears about algorithmic management. It is therefore not surprising to see workers with a migrant background overrepresented in the gig economy – and this includes international students.

'The platform economy has … become a factor in the planning of international education and in becoming an international student.'

However, by delimiting the discussion to the (real) problems of the gig economy and viewing migrants as most affected by it, we lose sight of how international education and the gig economy actually interact and how this produces particular migration trajectories and experiences. As the quote above shows, prospective students know about the gig economy before setting foot in the Netherlands. The platform economy has thus become a factor in the planning of international education and in becoming an international student.

Despite its problems, the platformization of work has removed some barriers to accessing the Dutch labour market. Typically, no previous work experience is required, no letter of application or CV, no references, no language requirements, no stressful interviews. One just fills out an online form (available in English), sets up an account and waits for it to be approved. There may be an identity check after which one can login and start earning.

The ease of entering the work makes the gig economy a likely first entry point in the Dutch labour market. Additionally, the self-employment model exempts gig work from legal restrictions applicable to non-EU students such as a limit on the number of hours one can work and a work permit requirement (‘TWV’). Finally, being one’s own boss allows fitting the work around one’s study schedule.

Platform work in migrant students’ lives

Earning money is an important reason for international students to enter the gig economy. For men, food delivery work is common, and the earnings help realise degrees of male providership for self and others. Women are more often involved in pet-sitting and claimed that the work was about more than money. Shadowing a fellow student involved in dog sitting through Pawshake for a research exercise,[1] Daya recorded her saying:

The reason why I do pet-sitting is more because I love dogs... Also, this activity can give networking opportunities. We never know who we will meet, right?

This led Daya to conclude that pet-sitting can be a cure for homesickness (missing one’s own pets) and offers a chance for unexpected opportunities, next to a source of income. In Pawshake, pet-sitting takes broadly two forms: the pet comes to stay with the ‘pet-sitter’, or the pet-sitter comes to stay at the ‘pet-parent’s’ place. The latter takes international students out of the ISS bubble and shows them ‘how the Dutch live’. For the former, students can easily integrate pet-sitting into their study schedule: walk the dog before class and check in between classes.

‘Women are more often involved in pet-sitting and claimed that the work was about more than money.’

Making this work means finding out whether ‘the dog can be left alone for a few hours’ as Catalina observed (2019). Laura probed this further in an interview with an ISS pet-sitter: ‘a puppy requires more times to go out, they can pee in your room and maybe if they are anxious they can eat whatever they find around’. Therefore, it is important to ask about the age of the dog in months as the app only gives the age in years. In addition, fitting dog sitting around the study timetable may turn it into a collective effort. Shared international student accommodation becomes an asset, or as Laura observed, a community of international students may also function as a ‘community of dog sitters’. Students help each other out with pet-sitting when stuck in class or group assignments, students (alumni included) refer pet-sitting requests to peers if already occupied themselves.

The role of migrant students’ network was also important for the food deliverers. Information about delivery addresses that usually gave a substantial tip is shared within a select group of fellow riders only, typically those sharing country of origin. And when encountering trouble on the road, migrant riders would reach out to country-fellows rather than contacting the platform’s helpdesk:

Especially the first week was hard. My first day…I was delivering an order… and then my tyre got blasted. I was worried, I didn’t know what to do. Whether Deliveroo would deduct my money… I then called U. [also from Ghana]. By that time U. was a bit experienced because he had introduced us. So I called him and he came with a bike. But then Deliveroo called me. I told them I was just waiting for a bike to come. They said, ‘no problem’, and that next time I had any problem at all I should just let them know. (Deliveroo rider from Ghana, January 2019.)

Gig work: transforming and perpetuating migrant identities

The encounters of food delivery workers with other city residents are largely limited to other underemployed migrants, such as those working as kitchen and restaurant staff, while contact with better off clients (international or Dutch) is often fleeting. This is different for pet-sitters. Laura and Catalina noted how prior to a first pet-sitting appointment it was common to meet up with the pet-parent, at times at their residence, or over a drink in a café. And if the gig developed into a regular pet-sitting arrangement, the pet-sitter would not only develop a relationship with the pet but also with its owner. Additionally, cruising the street of The Hague with a dog transforms migrants’ social position in the city. Laura observed that when walking a dog it is easier to start up a conversation with a stranger about their dog. This led Laura to conclude that due to her pet-sitting work: ‘I have now these “relationships” with pet-parents that otherwise I wouldn’t have created’. For Laura, doing pet-sitting has substantially transformed her experience of being in the Hague:

I spend more time outdoors, I walk more, I interact with Dutch people and I adjust my schedules to care for and take her [dog] out until the pet-parent comes to pick her up. When I am with her, people perceive me differently: for M [the pet-owner] I am la niñera [the baby sitter], for my fellow students I am her pet-sitter but for strangers I am the owner. I have to admit that A. is not only a dog that I take care of, she has also become my daily companion.

Graduating from the gig economy?

Well, actually I was searching for a job back home but wasn’t getting any. Then there were these guys who had remained who were saying: ‘You shouldn’t have gone. Come back and do the one year [search year]. You make some money. There is money in Deliveroo. Come back!’ So there was persistent pressure from them…so I came back (Deliveroo rider from Ghana, January 2019)

Few international students aspire to remain in the gig economy long term. So why are they still there post-graduation? Here, the Dutch search year visa (‘zoekjaar visum’) is key. For many, the principal objective of the search year visa (retaining international talent in the Netherlands) is dependent on the visa holders’ involvement in platform work.

‘Euros earned through an additional year of platform work means international students do not just return with a degree but also with savings.’

It allows them to pay the bills while the search is on. For others, a search visa means postponing return migration. Euros earned through an additional year of platform work means international students do not just return with a degree but also with savings. For others (such as the rider quoted above), it is widespread unemployment back home which renders working in the platform economy in the Netherlands a preferred position from which to look for jobs in their home country. Across these diverse scenarios, the international degree itself is insufficient to immediately transform the migration trajectory in desired ways. Keeping open the prospect of doing so eventually is dependent on continued involvement in the Dutch platform economy.

Footnote

[1] The research exercises referred to in this article were all carried out as part of the ISS research technique course in ethnography (2018-19).

By Roy Huijsmans (ISS), with Hamdu (ISS 2017-18), Issaka Adams (ISS 2017-18), Catalina Arango (ISS 2018-19), Laura Avila (ISS 2018-19), Daya Sudrajat (ISS 2018-19)

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