In the past year, there has been a historic push for unionization within Big Tech, from Amazon warehouses to Alphabet offices. Workers have won landmark legal actions against Uber in the United Kingdom and Deliveroo in the Netherlands. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic and the passing of the anti-labor Proposition 22 in California have painted a bleak future for gig workers in the United States, hope in worker activism has been reignited. The moment has come, it seems, for a global tech workers’ movement.
Remarkably absent in public and scholarly discussions of this moment, though, have been the experiences of workers in Big Tech’s largest labor markets. Across the Global South, there are thriving tech labor movements building worker power in diverse ways, despite informal employment relations and widespread precarity.
Forms of platform labor organizing in Jakarta and Bengaluru reflect some of the varied strategies workers in the Global South have adopted to survive and transform their precarious working conditions—low pay, a lack of standard contracts or benefits, physical danger, and threats of violence. In both cities, mobility platform drivers have found ways to develop social support structures, underpinned by mutual aid, while also investing in collective identity and power. Yet, the form these relationships have taken in both cities vary—a reminder of how important context is to understanding or advocating worker collectivization. These strategies signal possibilities for tech workers in increasingly similar precarious conditions around the world.
In Jakarta, Mba Mar, a ridehail motorbike driver, spends more time at her driver community’s basecamp than she does at home. In this roadside shelter, constructed over the course of a year by her community of ojol, or mobility platform drivers, she dispenses advice to new drivers, charges her cellphone, catches up on news floating around driver WhatsApp groups, and waits for the mobility platform she works for to match her with the next order. Everyday, as she rides her motorbike around the city in her personalized jacket, embroidered with her community’s emblem, she knows she is not alone. Her fellow ojol “have her back.”
Mar’s community is just one of the hundreds of platform driver collectives spread across Jakarta. Each has its own membership rules, ranging from moral expectations (members must be honest) to socializing expectations (members must remain an “active” part of the WhatsApp groups, attend all social events of the community, come to the basecamp at least once a week, and so on). Communities hold internal elections and have mandatory monthly member meetings. Some even have membership fees, which go into a common pool of money used to support community expenses. Most communities have built basecamps where drivers meet between orders, some calling these spaces their “second home.” Many issue ID cards to identify members in case of road accidents, and as a way to solidify their sense of belonging. Collectively, they have set up their own joint emergency response services, and informal insurance-like systems that use community savings to guarantee members small amounts of money in the case of accidents or deaths. They have also provided their members with Covid relief, such as distributing personal protective equipment and free groceries.
Individual ojol communities are connected to each other via WhatsApp groups and a language of brotherhood, creating a web of mutual aid, solidarity and friendship—organized by drivers, for drivers. There are more than one hundred ojol WhatsApp groups dedicated to different forms of association: groups for communities in a particular neighborhood, a city-wide group for emergency response, a group for driver communities who play football together. Salam Satu Aspal, the motto of the ojol, signals their unity: they share with each other the “Blessings of One Road.”
Jakarta’s driver communities began forming in 2016, as mobility platforms Gojek and Grab disrupted the local market. Drivers were seeking support to navigate unfamiliar technical requirements: many were using mobile apps for the first time, the algorithms managing them were difficult to understand, and drivers constantly needed IT support, as phones or apps stopped working. There was also a persistent threat of violence on the road from opang, the traditional motorbike taxi drivers, who for decades had had a near monopoly over daily transit in the city. But, as the popularity of app-based work increased in Jakarta in subsequent years, platform driver communities spread across the city, furnishing drivers with economic and political power.
These groups now have significant control over the streets of Jakarta. They are no longer threatened by the opang, can freely build basecamps, and even direct traffic during “ambulance escorts,” when communities coordinate to make sure the route for any ambulance carrying an ojol is clear. The latent power drivers have developed in their informal collectives has also given them the belief that they can negotiate with the platform companies. Both Gojek and Grab have created robust communication networks with driver communities, sending representatives to basecamps for feedback and discussions on any system changes or app updates. The companies also use community-built information networks, both online and offline, to disperse important messages about upcoming changes in rules. Driver communities often reach out to platform management through a chosen representative to give feedback on changes in the system, or suggest new changes through Twitter.
In a sign of how influential driver communities have become, both Gojek and Grab now even partner with communities to manage corporate-run shelters—a move that some drivers call co-opting and others call responsiveness. The platforms fund these shelters and develop rules—such as establishing a dress code, or times of operation—which are then enforced by the community members. While the shelters are open for any driver to rest in, the managing community becomes a liaison or middleman for the platform.
Indeed, many drivers are confident they can reach higher-ups in the platform through their community structures. “When we pick up the phone, or tweet to the company and tell them we’re part of a so-and-so community, they have to sit up and listen,” one driver told us. “We are not anonymous nobodies—they can’t ignore us.”
Life in the Global South has always been precarious since the advent of global capitalism, and many workers have turned to each other to mitigate their vulnerability. The shape their relationships take is, of course, informed by individual context and constraints. In Bengaluru, drivers have developed forms of support and worker power outside traditional unions. But, unlike in Jakarta, they often look to existing power brokers, especially political parties, to help them challenge their working conditions.
In Bengaluru, a substantial portion of app-based workers are migrants from other parts of Karnataka state. Historically, they have been vulnerable to xenophobic attacks from nativist groups seeking to keep the city for locals only. Insecure in their position in the city, Bengaluru’s platform workers rely on ties with relatives, friends of friends, and fellow migrants from their home districts. They look out for each other as the gig workers of Jakarta do: answering distress calls in the case of road accidents, helping each other navigate interactions with the police, and standing up for drivers who are reported to platforms for misconduct. But, unlike in Jakarta, where identity as a gig worker is the sole basis for collective organizing, in Bengaluru workers are bound together by numerous forms of kinship that are based on different combinations of shared caste, religion, or place of origin. Aid and support are furnished within these kinship groups.
App and other workers in the city have built solidarity over the years—but the path to that solidarity was shaped by varying degrees of suspicion and antipathy towards migrants, non-male people, and non-local language speakers. It was also shaped by platform workers’ status as new entrants into the market. In 2016, in the early days of Uber and its Indian counterpart Ola’s operations in the city, drivers faced a lot of hostility from auto rickshaw and traditional cab fleet drivers, because the app-based drivers were technologically equipped to provide on-demand services and not fully subject to existing transport laws, allowing them significantly more freedom in terms of area of operation and permits required.
Platform drivers were also not given the choice to join existing transport workers’ unions. As in other parts of the country, this was partly because local and regional unions are embroiled in urban, linguistic, religious, and other alliances to sustain their power. In addition, traditional unions were often antagonistic to workers disrupting the existing labor market. As a result, when early conversations around forming an association of app-based drivers began, the drivers who wanted representation sought affiliation and support from the political party in power in the city, signaling that new transport workers’ loyalty to the party could be valuable for future elections.
This strategy was informed by the app workers’ awareness that to broker agreements with tech companies (such as getting an increase in the minimum earnings on a ride or delivery whenever there was a rise in petrol prices), engage in visible collective action (such as strikes), and make demands to improve their working conditions, they first had to build relationships with local politicians, government officials, and city elites. App-based driving eventually became the normative, though not dominant, mode of work. Traditional and local workers realized that opposing platform work would harm their own communities, including rickshaw drivers and unemployed Kannadiga youth.
Since 2016, a number of self-proclaimed leaders and representatives of gig workers have forged many such alliances with city elites, local and national political parties, and social organizations—from nativist, Hindu-majoritarian organizations to broad work-based alliances—to continue to gain power. Strikes or protests against their working conditions are only undertaken in partnership with these parties and power brokers. Indeed, even as worker unions and driver associations have cropped up in every major Indian city in recent years, they remain deeply involved in ongoing struggles over who belongs to the city and who can exercise power within it.
Not all platform workers in these cities organize, either formally or informally. In Jakarta, many drivers choose not to be part of communities, becoming instead what are locally referred to as “single fighters.” Membership in communities comes with high expectations, such as being present in the basecamp and being active on the WhatsApp groups. Drivers have reported feeling pressured to miss orders to hang out with the community, or generally being unable to afford volunteering their time for mutual aid activities. While such expectations are not formally enforced, there is an informal code of reciprocity; if drivers become “inactive,” they will eventually be asked to leave the community or will not feel entitled to ask for community support. Often it is the workers who are most vulnerable—due to gender, class, or ethnic positions—who are unable to forgo time and income for the sake of the community.
Similarly, in Bengaluru, the handful of female food delivery workers cannot enjoy or bank on support from the mostly male app workers’ “brotherhood” networks. The same dynamic plays out in Mumbai. Female workers have a starkly different relationship with cities across South Asia from those of their male counterparts. A lack of clean public toilets, unsafe neighborhoods after dark, and rampant casual harassment on the streets make it harder to work profitably. This is compounded by the fact that app-based demand for food and services rises at the most inconvenient and dangerous hours of the day and night. Relying on male workers’ help also means risking overfamiliarity and the possibility of unwanted attention. Other workers in these cities don’t fit into the identities along which unions and other formal worker associations are organized, or don’t feel a need to organize formally because they already feel embedded in informal networks of kinship.
Many drivers in Jakarta and Bengaluru often do not want to actively agitate for better conditions because they believe that gig work is the best job they are ever likely to have and fear losing it. Other drivers consider gig work as a temporary stepping stone to other jobs, education, or enterprise—becoming street vendors, for example, or opening their own cornershop. Whether and how these workers choose to resist their working conditions is thus shaped by an awareness of their alternatives, or a lack thereof. (The sociologists Rina Agarwala and Jennifer Jihye Chun have shown how the specific circumstances of informal work shape labor organization opportunities.) For many workers in South Asia, these alternatives are not unionized or formalized employment, but more subcontracted, informal labor, such as domestic or construction work, or jobs in small informal businesses where accountability is diluted by brokers between the final “employer” and the workers with few formal contracts.
A Continuum of Strategies
For many people in the Global South, work has long been isolating and uncertain by design. As “low-tech” workers such as platform drivers build community and collective power, they are able to draw on different local histories of resistance, and different methods for negotiating the social and political tensions in their cities.
Often, in the analysis of gig worker power by academics and observers in the Global North, an absence of unionization is thought to indicate an absence of worker power. Unions in the Global South, though, are not seen as the only or best way to collectivize in these labor regimes. This is not to argue that workers in the Global South do not unionize or that unions are unhelpful. Rather, they exist on a continuum of strategies to reshape work conditions, build collective worker identity and engage in mutual aid. (The political economists Arianna Tassinari, Matteo Rizzo, and Maurizio Atzeni, among other scholars, have examined in depth the role of unions in precarious work conditions.)
Recognizing why alternate modes of organizing exist, and who uses them tactically, may be key to keeping tech labor movements around the world inclusive and responsive to the needs, vulnerabilities, and politics of those who do not have the privilege of participating in visible direct action. To achieve solidarity, and to succeed, the movement must engage with the informality, power asymmetries, and inequities of class and caste that shape the conditions of work around the world.