Earlier this year in Hong Kong and Europe, gig workers for the delivery app Deliveroo went on strike to demand better wages and working conditions. In some instances, they were able to shut the app down and limit the ability of users to order food and, most amazingly, withstood any attempt by the app to break their action.
Along with a recent strike by contract and gig workers at Amazon warehouses in Europe and protests in New York City, it’s a sign that something has changed with regard to worker power in the gig economy. Despite the huge odds, workers are starting to fight back, and win.
If demonstrations continue, it would dampen the dreams of rightwing free-market economists to turn labor into a flexible input, much like raw materials or capital, to be manipulated for maximum profit. Whole sectors of the workplace are being “gigified,” with labor-on-demand workers replacing full-time employees.
“They control many many aspects of how [workers] do their job, and that control is indirect,” says Alex Rosenblat, a researcher at Data & Society, a nonprofit research institute based in New York City “Is it not clear that the app is your boss, or an algorithm is in control.”
Gig workers don’t congregate in a fixed physical location. Their communication is mediated by an app, making it harder for gig workers to organize.
For decades, workers have been employed on a temporary basis in industries such as construction, home care, child care, and domestic work. But the growth of gig platforms has brought more industries under this model, now a huge segment of the global economy and a key reason for rising inequality in developed economies. Besides Uber and Deliveroo, there are Taskrabbit, Amazon Mechanical Turk, Grab, Didi and numerous other highly lucrative, increasingly powerful platforms.
Unlike in factories, where labor organizing first grew into a political force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, gig workers don’t congregate in a fixed physical location. Their communication is mediated by an app. This makes it harder for gig workers to share information with each other and for organizers to know who is working for a particular gig platform.
This is why, until recently, organizing and strike attempts by gig workers regularly failed. It was easy to get replacement workers through in-app incentives like surge pricing to break strikes. So what’s changing?
For one thing, workers and their allies are beginning to use the very tools that empowered platforms to share information and build a community.
“We saw gig workers, who did not have other means of contacting each other across the country, using things like Facebook groups and online forums to start speaking with others about how algorithms work and were changing and affecting their income,” says Yana Calou, engagement and training manager at Coworker.org.
New entities are working to build on these informal gig worker networks, sometimes in collaboration with nonprofit organizations like Coworker.org or labor unions. One sign of their success appeared in the nation’s largest market for ride-hailing—New York City. The Independent Drivers Guild was initially founded to represent the black car industry, but now encompasses Uber, Lyft, Juno, and other app-based drivers, in partnership with the Machinists Union. They are actively lobbying for worker protections, including what they hope will be the first fair pay legislation for gig workers in the country.
If demonstrations continue, it would dampen the dreams of rightwing free-market economists to turn labor into a flexible input to be manipulated for maximum profit.
“Apps like Uber and Lyft cannot be allowed to exploit loopholes in the law to pay drivers sub-minimum wage pay rates. This has been a long time coming and we are excited to see the city starting to take action. This is huge,” said Ryan Price, executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild in a press statement. “Thousands of our members have poured their hearts, souls and time into this campaign and it feels good to be heard.”
Yet it remains to be seen what a more ethical, worker-friendly gig economy would look like. What ultimately needs to change is the entire model underpinning the gig economy, and exploitative capitalism in general. One idea gaining traction? Platform cooperatives, in which workers would own part of the platforms they work for, sharing in profits and having real decision-maker power.
“It would be exciting to see the world’s 99 percent own 99 percent of the world’s wealth—a utopian dream which may one day become a reality,” wrote Yanto Chandra, an associate professor with the Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong. “Platform cooperatives may be an effective way to achieve this shared prosperity.”
One thing is clear: The days of venture-capital-backed platforms exploiting mostly silent workers is over. While it won’t be easy, what happening in Europe, Hong Kong, and New York City is a sign that workers can successfully organize in the digital economy.