When stay-at-home orders went into effect in the spring of 2020, confined to my Oakland neighborhood while caring for an infant and teaching remotely, I started an ethnographic project close to home: A continuation of my research on how independent brick-and mortar shops were navigating the shift to online sales, combining tech-savvy, influencer skills with the standard operating procedures of running a storefront. Small, non-essential shop owners repurposed their homes as staging, warehouse, and packing and shipping centers as they moved their wares online. For years before the pandemic, social media platforms like Instagram, e-commerce and point-of-sale platforms like Shopify, and niche e-commerce sites like Etsy became spaces for showcasing merchandise and facilitating transactions, for individual sellers and small-scale branded merchants alike. At the start of the pandemic, with storefronts closed to in-store browsing, shop owners turned to online sales to make ends meet.
I quickly found that care responsibilities also affected shop owners’ ability to stay afloat. For Lucy, a vintage boutique owner and a single mother of a 10-year-old, Zoom school meant she did not have childcare for her son during the day. She closed her brick-and-mortar store and began selling her rarer vintage items on eBay in between parenting tasks. Not seeing people in the store took away the part of the job she liked the most. She was also more nervous about maintaining her Instagram content during a personally difficult time. How much should she reveal to customers? On occasion, she posted life updates on her store account, but she also needed to translate post views into sales so she could pay her mortgage. She started sewing her own cloth facemasks out of deadstock vintage fabrics and listed them on Etsy along with her vintage goods.
Home-based women pieceworkers are not necessarily perceived as workers worth organizing
Ali Alkhatib, Michael S. Bernstein, and Margaret Levi draw comparisons between historical forms of piecework, including farm and domestic laborers, match-makers, and industrial workers, and contemporary on-demand work through platforms like TaskRabbit and Upwork. All of these forms of work are broken down into small discrete tasks and paid by output rather than by time. Pieceworkers, much like gig workers, are not paid for their “down time” between tasks, but compensated according to tasks completed. For instance, a Gig Workers Collective letter to Instacart’s CEO claims that their lack of commission and payment by the batch instead of by the order translates into an abysmally low base pay.
I contend that platform sellers like Lucy are in fact pieceworkers, although in the parlance of e-commerce platforms they are “entrepreneurs” who can dictate their own schedules, echoing the supposed perks of gig economy jobs. Online sellers don’t receive hourly wages or benefits from platforms— and their income is dependent on each and every individual sale they make, which requires a series of methodical tasks — but their labor is what makes platforms like Etsy run. Selling one item requires writing an enticing description and taking a flattering photograph, posting the content online, engaging with potential buyers through DMs, and receiving payment and shipping information through PSPs (payment service providers). Self-branding happens outside of shop hours and continues at home on personal devices, overlapping with other domestic responsibilities. Each sale requires a lengthy process, bleeding into home life as messages come in during dinner time, and requires both platform-based labor and physical labor like packing and shipping items (which during Covid means potentially risky trips to the post office). Online sellers are at the mercy of algorithms, which affect their visibility, and must learn an entire skillset that is not necessarily part of traditional retail.
Beyond imagining the home itself as a worksite — as it most certainly is, in the most life-making, social reproductive sense of the word “work” — home-based piecework is not a new phenomenon. The phrase “Working From Home,” while now associated with the ongoing pandemic, is also inseparable from women’s participation in the garment industry, the history of computing, and digital piecework. Connecting the various kinds of piecework performed from the home — from remote receptionists and people working for Amazon Mechanical Turk, to those involved in Multilevel Level Marketing (MLM) selling, to other forms of mommy influencer labor and platformized retail sales — shines a light on how women’s home-based work is often invisible and undervalued, whether it is for pay or not. I argue that these more feminized, pink-collar corners of the internet are also part of broader gig and piecework economies and help broaden the definition of “tech worker,” which is still often perceived in narrow, masculinist terms.
In general, home-based work has long provided women a means of informally participating in the labor force while simultaneously caring for young children or attending to other domestic duties like cooking, cleaning, and the less visible mental load of household management. In the late 19th century, poor immigrant women used their tenements as workshops to perform garment industry piecework. Media scholar Elizabeth Patton, in her book on the history of the home office, describes the circumstances of women who sewed garments or ran “baby farms,” meaning daycares, from their homes. This prompted public health campaigns against women’s paid work, which might detract from the idealized work of motherhood, featuring images of unkempt kids and unclean living quarters. As Patton puts it, “[t]he practices of baby farming and home manufacturing reveal contradictions in public discourse about the sanctity of the home and motherhood. Women were expected to put their family first by being present in the home to take care of them. Therefore, working-class women who engaged in home manufacturing or ran baby farms to earn income upheld middle-class ideals by not leaving the domestic sphere.” For garment pieceworkers, the home became an annex of the factory floor, helping employers justify low wages. Their logic was that women should be pleased to be able to work from home so they could satisfy their family obligations.
A closer look at similar home-based work arrangements in the history of computing expands the idea of who is a worker, and more specifically, a tech worker. Computer history is intimately connected to domestic and reproductive labor. As early as the 1960s, remote programming work allowed middle-class women with young children at home to maintain their paid jobs, even if it was a strain to fulfill two roles at the same time. In their chapter in Your Computer is on Fire, Mar Hicks includes a striking image of programmer Ann Moffatt working at the kitchen table with her baby by her side in 1966. Moffat and other programmers like her learned to negotiate multiple demands at once, attempting to project professionalism while they surreptitiously cared for their kids. (Mar Hicks notes that Stephanie “Steve” Shirley, who ran the UK-based startup called Freelance Programmers staffed almost entirely by women, played recordings of typing during her work calls “to drown out the noise her young son might make.”) Similarly, historian Laine Nooney describes the way that game designer Roberta Williams worked from her kitchen table. As a housewife and mother of two, Williams’s own experiences and mundane household objects informed her design choices and work habits as the co-founder of the game company Sierra Online: “The table would have been the most obvious surface in the Williams’s home large enough to map on, and in most suburban tract houses, especially those of the California ranch style, layouts were such that kitchens gave the optimal domestic observation — a mother could ‘work’ in a kitchen and still observe the play of her children in another ‘room’ of the home.”
Predatory opportunities as home-based forms of piecework are built on a scaffolding of cruel optimism
For many women workers in tech, even in more white-collar or well-compensated positions, there was never a true separation between waged labor and the work of social reproduction. This is especially true for contract or freelance tech workers who work from home, from the freelance programmers Hicks describes, working in the 1960s and ’70s, to contemporary white-collar contractors in tech, like the woman identified as “The Technical Writer” in Ben Tarnoff and Moira Weigel’s Voices from the Valley, who took on home-based contract work so she could balance caring for two young children with working full-time.
Ensconced within the home, women’s remote labor also mediates fantasies around automated personas and chatbots. Women workers who act as virtual receptionists or remote customer service representatives learn to behave as if they were AI, masking their accents and home environments to appeal to both customers and bosses. Sociologist Winnie Poster remarks on the ways that Indian call center workers who act as remote receptionists change their names and conversational patterns to hide their remote location, making customers think they are more locally based. Poster also documents the ways that both domestic and global forms of call center outsourcing, through receptionist agencies like Ruby Girls and Work-at-Home Moms, pride themselves on providing women jobs that enable them to care for children at home, even advertising women wearing headsets while holding babies on their laps. As Poster puts it, these companies “are coat-tailing crowdsourced labor onto domestic labor, taking advantage of women’s roles in one to facilitate the other.” Women use their own resources, like their home internet connection and kitchen table, to facilitate their jobs. They need to invest in personal computers, headsets, and specialized software. As in other kinds of gig work, the risks and costs are offloaded onto the worker, not the employer.
Home work is an underrecognized, unregulated part of the larger platform economy. Because they are localized inside their own homes, and often taking care of children and other household matters while they perform their paid work, home-based women pieceworkers are not necessarily perceived as workers worth organizing; or as true workers, in the way that Uber drivers or Amazon delivery workers are. Atomization and gender stereotypes conspire to make these women invisible as workers, at least to external viewers, and can also make it harder for women to find spaces for collectivity.
Aside from more formal participation in remote tech work, many women also engage in informal piecework economies attached to social media platforms, in activities ranging from direct selling through multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) to sponsored blogging. All of these varieties of home-based platform work promise to add to the family income while also providing the flexibility needed to care for young children.
While selling for an MLM brand, or producing sponsored content as a mommy blogger, is not typically considered “real” work, there are intimate links between “real” retail work and other entrepreneurial activities associated with femme influencer labor. In the pink-collar reaches of the internet like Pinterest, Instagram, and the mommy blog circuit, women combine influencer appeal with retail pragmatism: Momfluencers with large followings and savvy posting skills will have an easier time than sellers with little social media know-how. Online sellers must be careful not to alienate their friends with too many posts, or to disclose uncomfortable personal news that may diminish their curated image of idealized motherhood; the seller must walk a fine line between posting authentic content and oversharing. Selling should appear to be a form of pleasure, not work.
Over the course of the Covid-19 crisis, as many women had no choice but to leave the workforce amid daycare and school closures, MLMs pitched themselves as providing flexible financial opportunities as an alternative to the gig economy, which would more often than not mean driving, delivering, or shopping outside the home for companies like Uber, DoorDash, and Instacart. Unlike many gig economy jobs, MLMs rely on remote, social media-based labor — hosting virtual parties on FacebookLive, or posting to social media to convince their friends and family members to purchase items and become sellers themselves, perhaps asking them to host their own parties. Often, MLMs appeal to mothers who are looking to supplement their income and find social connection while caring for young kids; this is why MLMs, much like remote receptionist ads, tend to target stay-at-home mothers, with ads embedded on sites like ScaryMommy and Motherly. Perhaps you can fit in a few posts or brand-generated cut-and-paste messages while your baby is napping or your toddler is watching his favorite show.
With origins in the 19th-century United States — in companies like Southwestern Publishing, which sold religious pamphlets; and, in the 1930s, California Vitamin Company, which operated by a business model more recognizable today — MLMs now exist in nearly every corner of the world. (The Federal Trade Commission classifies some MLMs as illegal franchise fraud, but household names like Tupperware, Avon, and Mary Kay also rely on MLM models). MLMs are also development agents, portrayed as a means of neoliberal bootstrapping for poor women in the Global South. As Leonie Schiffauer argues in her ethnography of Amway sales in rural Siberia, people become involved with MLMs because of structures of social obligation: People feel compelled to buy products and become sellers themselves because of social pressures from neighbors and kin members, not necessarily because of financial incentives. The products sold through such networks are decidedly feminized: Essential oils, cosmetics, jewelry, leggings, and nutritional supplements.
Selling should appear to be a form of pleasure, not work
MLM sellers — often stereotyped according to their wine mom cursive #BossBabe aesthetic — share much in common with other remote workers and workers in the larger platform economy. MLMs are, to some degree, an arm of the original gig economy, a quick way of becoming an entrepreneur and avoiding the drudgery of mainstream, 9-to-5 waged labor. Your income depends on your own resources, like a car, insurance, gas, or the products you purchase to resell, taking on the risks of so-called entrepreneurialism while depending on platforms for your livelihood. In the parlance of MLMs, you are a “consultant,” not an employee, just as platforms characterize gig workers as “microentrepreneurs” or “independent contractors” who can be their own boss.
Like gig workers, MLM sellers are vulnerable to exploitation due to the casualized and unregulated nature of what they do: Many gig workers earn less than minimum wage, after factoring in their expenses, and MLMs sellers, who are also classified as contractors, are part of the 1099 economy; slim profit margins disappear altogether once tax season hits because consultants are “self-employed” in the same way that other independent contractors are. Independent Etsy sellers face similar taxation woes. But MLM selling — like influencer labor, which is also often devalued in part because of its feminization — is not commonly recognized as a form of labor at all. Unlike gig platforms or other kinds of piecework, which rely on individual, taskified production, MLMs suck capital from social relationships. Rather than outsourcing your labor to strangers, MLM sellers are selling themselves, their lifestyles, and their friends. MLMs often involve platform labor, but they tend to cannibalize already present social networks. Your greatest resource as a seller is your social circle, especially if you can convince your pals that selling is fun. Rather than pressure coming from managers or algorithms, peer pressure and neoliberal feminist empowerment narratives drive MLM sales. Tellingly, the Direct Selling Association, the national trade association for direct sales companies in the U.S., classifies MLM as an activity, not a job.
Journalists, reformers, politicians, and unions tend to pay more attention to gig workers like delivery or ride-hail drivers, but workers for Amazon Mechanical Turk, as legal scholar Veena Dubal has written, are also paid by the task instead of by the hour. Known as Turkers, they label images or perform content moderation for major platforms, corporations, and academic researchers, often working from home, sometimes while fulfilling other caregiving duties. Sherry Stanley, a Turker and organizer with Turkopticon, explains why she was drawn to the job and why the always-on, “flexible” hours became untenable: “In the beginning, MTurk was wonderful and I basked in the glory of being able to finally support my children. Then I started realizing I was working more and more hours and my life was becoming consumed with Turk. I set alarms that if I caught high paying work I would wake up in the middle of a dead sleep because I needed the money.”
The current crisis makes this overlap of domestic and employment-based duties much more difficult to hide. It has also heightened the predatory behaviors of platforms that push piecework as a way of accommodating reproductive labor through their supposed flexibility, while evading the sort of critique that the gig economy is increasingly receiving. The pandemic has been a boon to companies that facilitate on-demand convenience at the expense of their workers, and platforms have similarly capitalized on the crisis. And while this exploitation has come under fire from observers, much of the focus has been on masculinized labor, even while women have borne the brunt of pandemic unemployment. Many women, mothers in particular, have been pushed out of the workforce, and the numbers are particularly dire for Black and Latinx women. Companies have cut service sector, retail, and other customer-facing jobs. Home-based forms of piecework position themselves as alternatives to the gig economy, making it easier to earn money from the comfort of home. For people who are newly out of work, such predatory opportunities built on a scaffolding of cruel optimism offer some hope.
While 19th century public health reformers railed against garment industry piecework, digital piecework is now upheld as a form of inclusion and entrepreneurship for working parents or others who cannot easily leave home. It follows a similar logic as what Tressie McMillan Cottom refers to as the “predatory inclusion” of credit schemes and small business debt that target Black women entrepreneurs. Even while they’re bleeding money, MLM sellers will post about their success on social media to create the illusion that the entire business model works, or at least contributes a few hundred dollars to the family purse every month to save for vacations.
Feminized digital piecework is connected to what communication theorists Julie Wilson and Emily Chivers Yochim called “mothering through precarity” after the 2007–2008 recession, during which moms use the internet “mamasphere,” including sites like Pinterest and BabyCenter, to connect with each other and work through their personal difficulties. Rather than calling for collective action, however, the mundane pinning and posting on these sites tends to reinforce the nuclear family, and women are tasked with upholding the family’s happiness in the face of financial insecurity. Wilson and Chivers Yochim tie the privatization of happiness to neoliberal logics that hold mothers responsible for keeping their families afloat in difficult times, turning to entrepreneurial activities as a form of performative resilience.
Like other remote platform-based labor, a cultural insistence on hustling and entrepreneurship at the expense of collective action can make it hard for such workers to organize. If all of these feminized forms of digital piecework were to be recognized and dignified as work, what would the potential consequences be for the workers themselves? Increasingly, Influencer–creators are pushing for recognition as workers, as in the case of Black TikTok dancers going on strike and refusing to give up their creative labor for free, or Instagram influencers unionizing with SAG-AFTRA, pointing to the fact that all platform labor is indeed a kind of work.
What counts as real labor and who is defined as a worker? Whether it is paid or not, caring for children is hard work. It’s undervalued work both monetarily and in terms of social value, which is why caregivers try to supplement their income with various forms of piecework. Thinking about how care responsibilities intersect with remote contract-based work might help unite workers on opposite ends of the pay-scale.
In the same way that microworkers like Turkers have found remote solidarity through Turkoption; gig workers like Instacart shoppers are organizing through groups like Gig Workers Collective; and influencers have begun to push for collective bargaining rights, pink-collar, home-based pieceworkers in retail and other sectors may find ways of organizing themselves and demanding fairer treatment. On mamasphere sites, ads promise “8 Easy Side Hustle Ideas for Stay-At-Home Parents” and “How to Become a Virtual Assistant: Behind the Scenes,” but they may also offer space for connection and for organizing against the unfair or discriminatory practices of platforms and companies. Like the garment industry pieceworkers of the 19th century, digital pieceworkers may push back against the idea that flexibility, and the supposed benefit of being able to fulfill two roles at once — acting as both a mother and a hustler — is enough: Digital piecework, no matter how casualized, is work, and should be recognized and dignified as such.