‘We’re All Fighting The Giant’
Faced With Fragility And Uncertainty, Gig Workers Are Connecting Across Borders To Challenge Platforms’ Power And Policies.
This past July, Singh was on a midnight run, biking a chocolate mousse cake 7 kilometers across Mumbai, when he was rammed by a drunk driver on a scooter from behind. He got off with a few scratches and sprains, but his bike was badly smashed up. The cost of fixing it — 14,000 rupees ($189) — is about what he takes home in a month working for Zomato, the Indian food and grocery delivery app. So for the last month, he’s been fixing it up a bit at a time whenever he can get the money together.
Singh, in his 40s, speaks in long, flowing sentences peppered with literary references and fatalistic humor. He began riding for Zomato in 2020 after struggling to find work in India’s shrinking job market. “I googled ‘jobs I can find today,’” he told Rest of World. “And food delivery popped up. … It was the easiest job I’ve ever gotten in my life.”
Within an hour of signing up, he was delivering meals. For the first couple of weeks, it felt like easy money — he was on target to earn roughly $350 in a month, within the range the app had promised, around twice the average monthly salary in India.
But then the orders started drying up. Riders would be directed to “red zones” — areas where there was supposed to be a glut of orders — but there’d be no work there. They’d be sent onto another red zone, burning uncompensated time and fuel. He had to work longer and longer to make enough money, often riding for 12 hours or more a day, and the technology that directed him from gig to gig felt ever more intrusive.
Whenever the app decided he was behind schedule, his phone would ring, and an automated voice would tell him to speed up or face a penalty. To make up the time, he’d take risks, darting up a one-way street or jumping a red light. During idle moments, the app would serve up videos telling him how to please customers by smiling and bowing. Sometimes, those videos would remind drivers not to speak to the media, which is why Singh asked to be identified only by his surname, for fear of being banned from the app.
“You are a number, whether you like it or not,” Singh said, describing the exhaustion and anxiety that come from working for an algorithm whose decisions — who gets what gig, who gets suspended, who gets fined or rewarded — often feel arbitrary. “You are a number, you are an ID, you are a scooter icon that moves around a map. … The app does not know you. The app does not listen to you.”
Zomato didn’t respond to a request for comment.
With his bike currently in disrepair, Singh has been on the sidelines for the last month. It’s given him time to muse on his situation and that of his colleagues. He’d already created a Twitter account, @DeliveryBhoy, to chart his experiences on the road. Starting in August, he began sharing screenshots from within the Zomato app, showing the tiny payouts, unattainable targets, and arbitrary deductions that riders struggle with. His message — that platform work is hard, insecure, underpaid, and unappreciated — has resonated, not just among fellow riders in India, but with platform workers across the globe.
His account has only around 4,600 followers, but it’s already been cited by newspapers, academics, and activists worldwide. In August, Singh linked up with the Gig Workers Collective, which campaigns for rights for platform workers, primarily in the United States. Through the collective, Singh spoke over the phone with Willy Solis, a Texas-based “shopper” for the grocery delivery company Shipt and a leading figure in the U.S. platform workers’ movement. “In speaking to him, I heard our story,” Solis told Rest of World.
To understand how platform work is experienced worldwide, Rest of World, in partnership with the research company Premise, surveyed more than 4,900 gig workers across 15 countries. We combined their responses with data compiled by global labor bodies and academic researchers, along with in-depth interviews with gig workers in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Eastern Europe. We also approached six of the largest platform companies operating globally, none of which agreed to be interviewed. The data shows that, while the experience of platform work is very local and takes on features of the societies and economies in which it operates, it’s also universal. Platform workers, whether they’re based in the U.S. or Nigeria, Indonesia or Ethiopia, are all struggling with a shared set of challenges: insecurity, anxiety, low wages, and high costs.
While the nature of platform work means that workforces are atomized and divided — and platform companies have often refused to recognize workers’ groups and unions — the common experience of precarious and often dangerous work has helped to create a genuine, global movement that is taking the fight to the tech companies.
“There is just so much commonality. And it transcends cultures and transcends languages,” Solis said. “We’re all trying to figure out a way to fight back together collectively.”
After he left the Ukrainian army in 2019, Pavlo, who asked to be identified by only his first name, spent the winter months in Poland, working in warehouses and delivering for Uber Eats in his spare time. As the pandemic worsened, he returned home, but struggled to find work. He ended up in the capital, Kyiv, in need of money, so he signed up with Uber Eats again. After all, he reasoned, he’d already paid for the branded delivery bag. When Uber Eats suddenly withdrew from the Ukrainian market in June 2020, he went to work for its rival service, Bolt, instead.
A lot of former Ukrainian soldiers end up delivering for the platforms, Pavlo told Rest of World, because they get free public transport. That means they can sign up to deliver on foot, without having to buy or rent a bike, and then ride on the buses instead. And because most of the platform companies don’t report back to the authorities on who’s working for them, veterans can also keep claiming their unemployment benefits.
Delivery platforms have thrived in the pay-to-play informality of the Ukrainian economy. When Pavlo needed to get a health certificate to work for Bolt, the health centers were shut due to the pandemic, so he bought one online. The platforms, he said, rarely ask for documentation, and if they do, it’s easy enough to get hold of fakes. Some riders don’t have driver’s licenses, and Rest of World heard from several drivers that it’s common for accounts to be traded around, so that people — those without documentation, underage users, and riders previously banned from the platforms — can keep working. It should be against the law, Pavlo said. “But with our terrible economic situation, people are basically surviving by working for this platform, so what can you do?”
A Bolt spokesperson said, “Bolt checks the identification and legal ability to drive for all Bolt drivers. Any confirmed case of a driver letting other persons use their account will lead to a permanent block of the drivers’ account and may involve legal action.”
Gig work, which has often been characterized as part-time, flexible labor, is increasingly filling the gaps left by more stable work. Of the gig workers surveyed globally by Rest of World, more than half said that working for platforms makes up the majority, or all, of their income.
The work can be demanding. In Ukraine, Pavlo, who uses a bicycle rather than a motorbike, has to contend with Kyiv’s steep hills. Bolt compensates riders for the distances they travel, unlike its competitors, but it doesn’t take inclines into account. “The app thinks that you are always fresh to go, not tired,” he said. Eleven- or twelve-hour shifts are common, and some drivers have been found using amphetamines, possibly to stay awake. Road accidents involving couriers are common, and there have been several deaths. During Ukraine’s first wave of Covid-19, riders were offered masks by the platforms. But they had to go to the companies’ headquarters to pick them up, and there were few other health checks. Pavlo caught the virus in the summer of 2020 and spent two weeks holed up in self-imposed isolation. Others kept riding. “The only thing that was saving them was a mask and maybe cough syrup,” he said.
The Ukrainian government has struggled to regulate platform companies. Since 2014, political unrest, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an ongoing war with Russian-backed separatists in the east, and the pandemic have battered Ukraine’s economy. Despite the precarity that’s built into platform work, it’s seen as a way for thousands of people to get at least some income at a point where traditional employers aren’t hiring. “I would say that those companies really banked on this vulnerability, and this instability that has been part of the labor market in Ukraine, especially as the pandemic hit,” said Svitlana Iukhymovych, a workers’ rights campaigner at the Ukrainian advocacy group Labor Initiatives.
Globally, ride-hailing and food and grocery delivery platforms are well adapted to social stress. Once they’ve established themselves in a market, their model allows them to almost infinitely grow their workforce without dramatically increasing their costs. Workers pay for their vehicles, data, fuel, and often their insurance too. When they aren’t actively carrying a passenger or package, they’re typically not compensated. While the companies have invested billions in their technology and in subsidies to bring users onto their platforms, it’s actually their riders and drivers who are paying to scale them on the street — and carrying a lot of the risk if demand doesn’t match supply.
It’s also in the platform companies’ interest to create an oversupply of riders or drivers. Having more riders gives the platform more pricing power, pushing down costs for consumers. With a glut of workers, platforms can manipulate supply and demand at a granular level, flooding an area — the red zones that Singh talked about in India — with riders or drivers, engineering scarcity for their partners, who are compelled to take unprofitable gigs by algorithms that penalize them for not doing so. It’s this oversupply that allows the platforms to make increasingly ambitious promises to customers.
In India, for example, the major grocery delivery services are engaged in a race to the bottom on delivery times, with the major platforms now promising essentials to consumers’ doors in under 30 minutes. That’s partly enabled by their tech — their data allows them to anticipate demand and put popular products into fulfillment centers close to the customer — but it’s possible only with a large idle workforce who can be positioned in advance and compelled to take whatever gigs come. RedSeer, an Indian internet economy research company, forecasts that the country’s “quick commerce” market could grow by 15 times to reach $5 billion by 2025.
This dynamic also explains why, in the early days after a platform enters a market, it seems good for everyone. A small number of workers have the pick of the jobs. Fares and fees are subsidized by the companies, which are willing to burn investors’ capital to seed the market and build their user base. But as it absorbs more and more labor, the algorithm has more pieces to move around the board. It can become more demanding of its workers. Wait times between orders grow. Because many drivers and riders rent their vehicles, or have taken out loans to buy them, they have to work longer and longer shifts.
Rest of World spoke to riders and drivers in Ukraine, South Africa, Nigeria, Singapore, and India who all said the same: they had to be online for upward of 12 hours a day, simply to service the debt they’d taken on to work for the platforms. They weren’t in the majority — our survey shows that many workers do work less than eight hours per day — but on an hourly basis, 42% of the workers surveyed earned less than the statutory local minimum wage.
Workers have often found it hard to challenge platform companies on their pay. The earnings that platforms promise are theoretically achievable if workers can hit specific conditions — a certain number of gigs, for example — but those targets are often contingent on factors outside of the workers’ control.
It’s hard to know if the algorithm’s decisions are unfair or not, but it’s easy for the platform to say that a worker’s low earnings are their own fault because they’ve failed to achieve arbitrary targets, or because customers haven’t rewarded them through higher ratings or tips. (Fifty-one percent of respondents to Rest of World’s survey said that they make more than half their earnings from gratuities — tip your rider.)
Rest of World did find one Ukrainian delivery rider, Serhii, who was a vocal supporter of algorithmic management and was adamant that those who couldn’t cut it on the platforms were simply lazy. He rides in Kyiv for 12 hours a day on a rented motorbike, which he drives without a license.
Everyone Pavlo knew who complained to the platforms about their pay and conditions was told the same thing, he said, “You have to be grateful that you have the job when other people lost theirs because of the pandemic and be happy for what you have.”
Rest of World’s survey shows that workers’ feelings about the platforms are complex. Many — more than 60% — said that they were financially satisfied. But, at the same time, 62% also said that they were frequently anxious and scared on the job, afraid of accidents, assaults, illness, or simply not making enough money to cover their costs. More than two-thirds of the workers surveyed by Rest of World said they want out within a year. More than a quarter said they were planning on quitting within a month.
The individual stresses and the insecurity faced by gig workers are likely to have a broader social impact as platform work becomes more deeply embedded in economies. While the label “the Uber of …” has passed into parody, “platformization” is a standard feature of venture-funded technology. Meanwhile, the pioneers of the industry continue to expand their reach into new sectors — from ride-hailing into food delivery, and food delivery into groceries and logistics — as they look for ways to sweat their model.
Unchecked, they’re likely to succeed. The platforms have been able to outcompete incumbents in industries they’re trying to disrupt because they have ready cash and aren’t hemmed in by the same rules. They’re adjacent, separate, feeding off the markets without the social and regulatory obligations that slow traditional companies’ growth. They grow like strangler figs, which attach themselves to the outside of trees, starving them, eventually killing them and replacing their roots and branches with their own.
But the very facets of labor that these platforms disrupt — basic wages, workers’ rights — matter. “Normal employment, though it’s a contract between a firm and a worker, also has a collective good, because it contributes to the overall stability of consumption in the economy, and it also provides stability to people’s lives, so that they are less likely to have need of social support,” the sociologist Colin Crouch, professor emeritus at the University of Warwick, who has studied labor relations for more than half a century, told Rest of World. “When firms move into platform work, they’re actually dumping the costs of what they do onto the wider public. … In a way, the platform firms are parasitical.”
Society absorbs the costs in different ways, some very visible, others harder to see. In Ukraine, the wages that platforms pay to former soldiers are being quietly subsidized by unemployment benefits from the state and public-funded transport. In India, Zomato and its rival delivery platform Swiggy, along with ride-hailing operators Uber and Ola, have appealed to the public to help crowdfund for the welfare of their workers during the early days of the pandemic.
Sidestepping the obligations that society places on employers also allows platforms to avoid progressive policies put in place to reduce systemic inequities. Basic anti-discrimination ordinances such as maternity leave and other measures created to reduce inequality often don’t translate to platform work. Opaque algorithms and systems that rely on customer ratings to determine value can encode and amplify inequality, by race, by class, and particularly by gender.
A recent report from the International Labor Organization surveyed location-based platform workers in 2019 and 2020, and found that, in around a dozen countries, roughly 9% of delivery riders and 5% of ride-hailing drivers are female, reflective of higher barriers to entry for women. Around a quarter of the respondents to Rest of World’s survey were women. We found that they were less likely to be working in higher-paying forms of gig work, that they earned less overall than their male counterparts doing the same roles, and that they were less financially satisfied.
“Nobody should expect labor markets to be fair to people because they never have been,” Bama Athreya, a researcher specializing in gender, inequality, and labor at the Laudes Foundation, told Rest of World. But, she said, with technology-driven platforms, discrimination “is being put on overdrive, and that is going to then result in what looked like qualitatively new forms of exploitation.”
That may, Athreya and other experts said, be more acute in the Global South, where institutions and protections for workers and minorities are often weaker. But even in wealthier markets, platforms are rolling back progress already made. Labor experts who spoke to Rest of World were unanimous in their assessment of platform work as it’s currently manifested: Rather than a radical and progressive reimagining of labor, enabled by new technology and huge wells of data, it’s actually an erosion of decades of hard-won social protections and rights.
“The notion is that this is the future,” Crouch said. “But it is actually a very old method of working. It’s just because it uses the internet that gives the impression that it’s ever so modern.”
The way he sees it, Zweli Ngwenya lost his car to an Uber policy change. He’s been driving for the app in Johannesburg for five years and borrowed money to buy a sedan so that he could drive for UberX, the app’s flagship service. But this year, Uber announced a nationwide expansion of a new, cheaper category of ride, Uber Go. His earnings plummeted. “You are never consulted. You wake up one day, and there’s something new. … You receive an in-app message or an email that this thing is going to be introduced at the beginning of this day,” Ngwenya told Rest of World.
The change meant he couldn’t make enough to pay off the car loan, gas, and mobile data, and, in the end, the car was repossessed by the bank. *“*Honestly speaking, a lot of the drivers are losing cars,” he said. He’s now renting a vehicle to keep driving on the platform.
South Africa is a difficult place to be an Uber driver. Workers there reel off a litany of carjackings, murders, assaults with acid. Some of these have been targeted attacks by the country’s “taxi mafias,” others are just a symptom of the backbeat of urban violence in the country. Drivers have accused Uber of failing to protect them, putting them in harm’s way by pressuring them to take gigs, and being slow to help police to trace attackers. When things go wrong, “Uber is nowhere,” said Teresa Munchik, who has driven for Uber and is a labor organizer for The Movement, a drivers’ group, of which Ngwenya is also a member.
The Movement has put pressure on the company through strikes and protests, but it’s been difficult. “Uber absolutely refuses to recognize a group, let alone any kind of association,” Munchik said. “You’ve got no bargaining power.” Many drivers are also migrant workers, who feel vulnerable or lack proper documentation, making them nervous about joining protests, she added.
As they do elsewhere, Uber has told drivers that it doesn’t negotiate with groups, only individuals. “But … as an individual, you will always be told that if you’re not happy, you can always move out of the platform,” Ngwenya said.
The drivers have won some concessions — Ngwenya said the app now allows them to turn down rides that they feel are unsafe, without penalty, and tells them in advance if the user is paying cash or card. “Most of the drivers that I know, they try and avoid [cash] trips from dodgy areas … because we believe that it is hard to trace a trip in cash, right?” Ngwenya said. But earnings are still low and unpredictable. When he spoke to Rest of World in August, Ngwenya had been driving for seven hours and had made just 200 rand ($13) so far that day.
On the other end of the continent, in Lagos, Uber driver Ayoade Ibrahim described an almost identical situation. Drivers are routinely victims of robberies and assaults. Many are struggling to make ends meet due to dwindling fares and rising costs. As in South Africa, many Nigerian drivers rent their vehicles or buy them on hire purchase, but even those who own their own vehicles are struggling to meet the cost of gas and maintenance, compelling them to work longer hours and take greater risks. “Because people aren’t making [enough] money, they overstress themselves, and they are involved in accidents every day.”
Ibrahim is one of the co-founders of the National Union of Professional App-Based Transport Workers (NUPABW), a 10,000-strong union of drivers working for Uber and Bolt in Nigeria. Ten of his members have died on the roads in just the last few months, he said.
In late August, NUPABW helped organize three days of demonstrations outside the Nigerian parliament in Abuja, with a memorial to its lost members. But getting the government to listen to its concerns has been a struggle, Ibrahim said. The companies have lobbyists, PR, and marketing teams. In Nigeria, as in South Africa, drivers’ groups worry they’ve been infiltrated by strike breakers and corporate informants.
Uber did not respond to requests for comment.
The drivers groups who spoke to Rest of World say that they, like the drivers themselves, are strapped for cash and that money goes a long way in influencing policy. “Look at what happened in California. They spent $200 million in order to lock down the drivers with Prop 22,” Ibrahim said, referring to a ballot measure in the U.S. state that exempted app-based transportation and ride sharing companies from having to classify their workers as employees. The bill was backed by tech companies, including Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash. Workers and labor groups said that since Prop 22 passed in November 2020, Californian platform workers’ earnings fell.
Even though it was later declared unconstitutional, Prop 22 felt like a defeat for platform workers worldwide. It’s not the only one. In Ukraine, the country’s self-defined “tech-forward” government passed a new law that effectively allows companies to define themselves as technology platforms and define their workers as contractors. “We have this weird mythology in Ukraine that only the IT sector can bring money,” George Sandul, Labor Initiatives’ legal director, said.
The atomization of the global workforce under the platform companies has made it hard for workers to push back. Most of the companies insist that their relationship is always with individuals — the workforce isn’t a single body but an open market of independent contractors — and that they won’t negotiate with organizations speaking on workers’ behalf. But as conditions get worse, platform workers are increasingly getting organized. Among the workers surveyed by Rest of World, 48% said they’re now part of a formal group or union; 49% said they’d participated in strikes or other industrial actions. Among delivery workers, that rose to 59%.
More significantly, they’re organizing across national borders. Just as the companies that own and invest in the platforms are creatures of globalization, able to move capital and business models from place to place, so too is the workers’ movement, using globalized communications infrastructure to organize, meeting in international WhatsApp groups and Telegram channels, to share experiences, express solidarity, and coordinate their actions. The movement has become increasingly formal, and increasingly focused, working together to find chinks in the platform companies’ defenses, reasoning that each local victory against the giants brings them closer to systemic change.
In Nigeria and South Africa, Ibrahim and Ngwenya are, separately but in parallel, preparing cases against Uber and Bolt, thanks in no small part to a group of Uber drivers thousands of kilometers away in London.
Yaseen Aslam started driving for Uber about a year after the company launched in the U.K. in 2012. In late 2014, he helped create an association of ride-hailing drivers, facing down resistance from traditional transport workers’ unions, who were more interested in lobbying for the apps to be banned entirely. They reached out to drivers groups in San Francisco and New York. “What we found very quickly is what Uber was doing in San Francisco would apply to New York, and then, from New York, it’s applied to other places like London,” he said, over the phone from the U.K., where he’d just come off a night shift. The network grew, albeit informally through WhatsApp and Facebook groups. In 2019, they organized an international drivers’ strike ahead of Uber’s initial public offering in New York.
Not long after, Aslam was approached by the Open Society Foundations, which offered to support him to build a more formal international coalition. In January 2020, the new International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers (IAATW) held its inaugural event in Oxford, bringing in delegates from 23 countries. They created a manifesto that demands fair pay, transparency in algorithmic management decisions, and a cap on the number of drivers allowed on the platforms.
The association, whose affiliates include the UK App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU), of which Aslam is president, and The Movement in South Africa, meets monthly. Ibrahim is on the board of directors. Being able to swap experiences is, Aslam said, “empowering. … Don’t forget, we’re fighting the giant here. And [the platforms’] whole model is about isolating people.”
The IAATW’s mutual support goes far beyond solidarity, however. In 2016, Aslam and another Uber driver, James Farrar, took Uber to an employment tribunal, arguing that they should be classified as “workers” for Uber, rather than as ‘partners,’ or contractors. Workers in U.K. law aren’t necessarily employees, but they do have access to many of the same rights, including a minimum wage. They won that case and two further appeals, before the case ended up in the U.K.’s high court. In February 2021, seven judges ruled unanimously in the drivers’ favor, stating that under the law, drivers are working for Uber from the moment they log onto the app and should be paid minimum wage for all the hours they’re available for rides.
It is a limited victory. The ruling doesn’t cover couriers for Uber Eats or any other platforms. Uber continues to resist the judgment. In June, it signed a different agreement with another British union, the GMB, which doesn’t allow collective bargaining over wages. Not all countries have the legal category of “worker,” making it hard to replicate in jurisdictions that don’t use common law frameworks. But it does show that it’s possible to beat the giants and chip away at their arguments, one country at a time.
The ruling has rippled through the IAATW’s members. In South Africa, drivers had already failed in a similar tribunal, but the victory in London prompted them to reopen the case, with help from Leigh Day, who have represented Uber drivers in the U.K.. Ngwenya has joined the suit. In Nigeria, Ibrahim and the NUPABW are about to launch their own class action suit, demanding to be recognized as workers.
“It makes us stronger,” Aslam said. “Because if we win something in one country, it’s a victory for all of us.”
There is a power in the simplicity of the argument that Aslam, Ibrahim, Ngwenya, and others are making: Platform work is work, so it needs to be fairly paid. Making that stick is the key to preventing platforms from manipulating supply and demand, compelling drivers to take risks, and pushing them into debt.
“For me that’s winning, because then I will know that if I’m online, I’m at work; I am getting something,” Ngwenya said. (In India, Singh put it more colorfully: “If you want to bugger me up the arse, do it,” he said. “But pay me for it.”)
Campaigners said that even though the battle for platform workers’ rights is often portrayed as an existential one for the tech companies, it doesn’t have to be. “They make enough money that they can provide minimum floor guarantees. And they can do this quite easily just … by limiting the number of people that can work for them,” Matthew Cole, a postdoctoral researcher at the Fairwork Foundation, which studies platform work around the world, told Rest of World. If they can’t pay living wages and stay in business, he added, then maybe they simply aren’t viable. “They’re capitalist business models. If you can’t make money, the market will push you out, right? You’re not entitled to be a successful business.”
Aslam, Ibrahim, Munchik, and Ngwenya have stuck at platform work because they’re sure it can be better, despite the many flaws in the model. In Ukraine, Pavlo has quit, taking his chances in the labor market instead of slogging up Kyiv’s hills. In Mumbai, Singh is close to fixing up his bike. He’s kept up his social media onslaught, but he’ll soon be back on the streets.
“I feel very frightened; I’m really intimidated,” he said. It’s still monsoon season, and the roads in Mumbai are often flooded during heavy rain. He’s worried that the next accident he has could be far worse. “This can happen to me again. This was sort of a sign that: ‘Listen, dude, if you continue doing this, the next time you’re going to die,’” he said. “But I have two months of bills to pay my landlord. … I don’t have money to actually live, to eat, or to do any of that. So you know, I have no choice, man. Fear is not an option.”