The recent emergence of digital labour platforms in the care sector marks an upward trend across Europe. Despite this, it is a sector largely ignored by the literature on the platform economy. A report published by Digital Future Society Think Tank, aims to be a first step towards addressing this gap

Home care and digital
platforms in Spain

6 min read
Foto: Unsplash/ ROBIN WORRALL

In Spain, like in other Southern European countries such as Italy, the “familiarist” welfare system heavily relies on families. Traditionally, female relatives such as wives, mothers and daughters have provided the care of the elderly, dependent and infants in the private sphere of the home.

However, the 80s and 90s presented a challenge for this system with the mass entry of women into paid employment. This phenomenon, together with an ageing population, the limited advances made by men in taking up their share of domestic work and care responsibilities at home, and insufficient public and social and care services have resulted in the present day’s “social care crisis”. The need for long-term care has grown at a faster pace than the political capacity to respond in the context of an already fragile, familiarist welfare system. 

The law 39/2006 Ley de Promoción de la Autonomía Personal y Atención a las Personas en Situación de Dependencia, LAPAD (Promotion of the Autonomy and Care of People in a Situation of Dependency Law, LAPAD) introduced in 2006 represented a major step forward with the universal recognition of the right to care. Unfortunately, subsequent funding cuts have affected the law’s implementation, and there continues to be a widening gap between the demand and offer of care services. This has become strikingly obvious during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the home continues to be promoted as the ideal place for long-term care, and institutional public services do not reach all who need them. Female relatives either do the caring themselves or employ someone else – usually another woman, often foreign – to do the job. 

Within the context of privatization and the commodification of care, elderly care – both institutional and home care  has become a highly lucrative segment of the economy, with an increasing number of companies and investment funds entering the market over the last few years.

Against this backdrop and within the frame of a growing global digital platform economy, new digital intermediaries have emerged in Spain, tapping into the need for long-term care services. This phenomenon has been described by some in the media as the “uberisation” of the care sector.

Spain is not alone in this new development. The recent emergence of digital labour platforms in the care sector marks an upward trend across Europe. The same is true for other regions, with on-demand platforms offering care and other domestic services growing in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, India, South Africa and Mexico. Despite this, it is a sector largely ignored by the growing body of literature on the platform economy, which tends to focus on the transport and delivery sectors.

The report Home Care and Digital Platforms in Spain, recently published by Digital Future Society Think Tank, aims to be a first step towards addressing this gap in the literature. The exploratory research has identified two types of digital labour platforms operating in the home care sector. The first is what the report refers to as “multi-service” platforms. These offer a range of services connected to the household, including child and elderly care, care of pets, maintenance and repairs, private tuition, personal training and so on. They appear to operate with an “on-demand” model similar to platforms in other sectors. 

The second type of digital platform operating in the home care sector (the focus of the Digital Future Society report) specializes exclusively in the in-home care of the elderly and dependent. Within this group, the research in Spain identified nine businesses operating under two different models. Most of these nine businesses follow what is called the “digital placement agencies” model. They specialize in long-term care and act similarly to a traditional placement agency.

The platforms charge users an initial fee which includes assessing the client’s needs and selecting a carer, doing the legal and administrative work, such as contract signing and registering the carer in the Special System for Domestic Workers, on behalf of the family. The platform also offers ongoing “support” by charging a monthly fee covering managing payroll, finding a substitute carer during the summer holidays or sick leave, regular contact with the worker and family to follow up, and any contractual changes that might emerge. The other digital platforms follow an on-demand model. They specialize in short-term, one-off services. In this case, an independent worker provides the care, and the platform takes a cut of the hourly rate. 

Much like the overlapping field of domestic work, home care is characterized by having an overwhelmingly female workforce and being highly precarious and socially undervalued. In Spain, a large proportion of carers and domestic workers are foreign, and many receive cash in hand and work without a contract or social protection. A third of the domestic work sector is thought to be undeclared.

As the Digital Future Society report illustrates, the rise of these new digital intermediaries poses several questions. One such question regards the role of platforms in formalizing and professionalizing home care; two ambitions often championed by the platform founders during interviews conducted as part of the report’s research. These concepts need unpacking, though, and should be treated with caution. After all, attempts to formalize and professionalize the sector pre-date these new actors and have proved challenging in the past.

For some platforms, selecting the carer and then formalizing the working relationship they share with the family (contract and registration of the carer on the Special System for Domestic Workers) are indivisible services. In other words, these companies would not work with clients who only wish to use the platform to select a carer. In other cases, however, the platform only prepares the contract paperwork and registers the carer on the social security system upon the request of the family. 

It could be said the digital platforms that enforce the formalization of the user-carer relationship as a prerequisite for users to employ platform services are helping reduce the number of informal work arrangements. This is a cause for celebration. Given that estimates say a third of domestic work is undeclared, the entrance of new actors that positively contribute to the formalisation of working arrangements is of vital importance. 

In itself, though, formalization does not guarantee further professionalization of the sector or the regulation of working conditions. And even in these cases, families continue to employ workers under the Special System of Domestic Workers, often to provide care in a full time or live-in situation. So, there is still no professionalizing impact on the sector, strictly speaking in the sense that there is no increase in the actual numbers of carers employed as professional carers by local authorities or companies themselves.

Moreover, professionalization involves formal training, accreditation and a periodic revision of professional skills by the authorities. Aside from what the platforms can do individually, like offering their own training or setting entry requirements, they do not have competencies in any of these areas and appear to have a limited impact on the overall professionalization of the workforce.

The question remains on the role of platforms and technology in promoting decent work. Even in the cases where a contract formalizes the working relationship, this does not, by definition, go hand-in-hand with decent working conditions. Ensuring home carers are valued socially and enjoy full rights, and decent working conditions requires the participation of all social actors involved, including workers themselves.

Finally, the report ends with a call for further research on the home care sector, including the experiences, motivations and working conditions of those finding work, and also of those finding carers, through the new intermediaries of the digital era.