Working Together We Can Make a Change: Reflections on the International Platform Workers Forum

Niels van Doorn
Published on: 2020-12-04

A few weeks ago, Platform Labor co-organized and sponsored the Platform Workers Forum; a virtual conference that convened (gig) worker organizations, policymakers, and other stakeholders from around the world to exchange perspectives on organizing and policy initiatives that seek to empower platform-based workers. The event, which took place on November 12-13, 2020 and was digitally hosted by the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s ILR School (and co-organized with the Fairwork Foundation), was an ambitious endeavor insofar as we tried to create a truly global forum where gig workers from different continents could share experiences and strategies. I must admit I was a bit nervous about the whole thing, given the challenges of translating not just between different languages but also between regulatory and institutional contexts. Could app-based workers from India find much common ground with workers from Norway or Nigeria? And, given that we included different types of place-based platform work (i.e. ride-hailing, delivery and domestic work), could we generate (policy) discussions that resonated across industries? Compared to the small-scale Courier Consultation Forum I previously co-organized with the Worker Institute, this certainly was an event of a different magnitude.

Ultimately, however, I was really happy with the outcome of both days, which featured a great number of stimulating conversations and critical insights. In this blog post, the first of two parts, I offer a (necessarily subjective and limited) recap of day 1 of the Forum, which focused on organizing strategies and collective representation models for gig workers. I had wanted to write a reflection on this event right after it took place, but because our son Arlo was born on October 31st and I’ve been immersed in (first-time) parenting, this plan obviously didn’t pan out. Now that life is slowly settling into a new routine, I’ve managed to find some time to return to my notes and begin recounting what transpired on November 12th. Hopefully, I will soon be able to write part two of my account. For now, I’d like to thank Maria Figueroa, Kim Cook, Virginia Doellgast, and the entire Cornell team for their tireless work to ensure the Forum was a success. Many thanks also to Alessio Bertolini and the Fairwork Foundation for their invaluable support. Finally, I am very thankful for all the help and input from our research assistant Darsana Vijay.

Day 1’s opening plenary featured a stellar panel: Vanessa Bain (Gig Workers Collective, US); Orry Mittenmayer (NGG Union, Germany); Shaik Salauddin (Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers, India); Ayoade Ibrahim (National Union of Professional App-Based Workers, Nigeria); Saúl Gomes Piña (#NiUnRepartidorMenos, México); and moderator Cathy Feingold, (AFL-CIO & International Trade Union Confederation, US). The main thing I took away from this agenda-setting discussion was how, notwithstanding various national differences in the organization and regulation of platform-based work, there are still plenty of shared problems and experiences that unite gig workers in a common struggle. As the panelists pointed out, one major problem is how platform companies around the world continue to exploit regulatory loopholes and evade pertinent legal frameworks. Like other low-road employers, these firms also thrive in institutionally weak environments that lack such frameworks, where public officials will be more prone to condone or even embrace “innovation”. Moreover, as Orry noted, platform companies likewise prey on the weakest groups in society, primarily immigrants and other racial/ethnic minorities.

In response, some panelists made an emphatic call for app-based workers around the world to come together under one umbrella and start organizing on a shared transnational platform. Since platform companies operate globally with locally specific impacts, gig workers should also scale up their activities and cultivate border-crossing solidarities. While this will evidently be a daunting undertaking, I was struck by the abundance of ambition and buoyancy expressed by all panelists in spite of the major hurdles that will need to be cleared: the ultimate goal should be to build both local and international worker power. Things always get off the ground locally, when yet another pay cut (Ayoade) or a sudden reduction in customer tips (Vanessa) incites anger among gig workers, who then decide that enough is enough. One common strategy is to leverage social media and apps like Signal for organizing purposes, as Ayoade’s and Shaik’s contributions illustrated. This offers a measure of escape from the constant surveillance of workers by platform companies, which inhibits expressions of solidarity. Besides surveillance, another commonly experienced problem is that Uber and other companies also spread misinformation about how they operate and what workers may expect from them. Countering such misinformation is a crucial aspect of grassroots online and offline efforts to push back against company policies.

Another crucial aspect, as Shaik explained, is building institutional visibility by creating awareness among policymakers and society at large, through public protests that attract media attention. His organization has focused on gig worker empowerment by raising their voices and generating a shared knowledge base. One generally experienced obstacle to such efforts, aside from governments’ lack of acknowledgment, are the notoriously high rates of worker turnover on gig platform. As Orry mentioned, gig workers frequently leave the platform by the time their peers are getting organized. This is especially true among migrant gig workers (particularly exchange students and other short-stay migrants), which is one of the reasons why platform companies prefer to hire this group of marginalized labor market participants. High worker turnover tends to corrode solidarity efforts and movement building, by inducing what I would call “institutional amnesia” among different cohorts of gig workers: newly “onboarded” workers often have little idea about what pay rates and working conditions were considered normal among their predecessors. This lack of a shared normative framework makes it harder for labor advocates to organize their base, which has in turn made it easier for platform companies to ignore their demands – especially where public officials remain unresponsive. One key goal of recent worker-led campaigns is thus to highlight that the conditions on many gig platforms are neither normal nor acceptable (which again brings up the importance of fighting corporate misinformation).

When the discussion turned to the Covid pandemic, panelists agreed that it has put into sharp relief the struggles that gig workers – and low-wage workers more generally – have been experiencing for years. Across the board, these struggles have been intensified by the global spread of the Coronavirus, which has disproportionally impacted already marginalized and dispossessed populations. In terms of grassroots organizing, Vanessa noticed a shift away from a focus on pay/wages toward a more urgent push for better social insurances. Now more than ever, gig workers are experiencing the dire consequences of having no proper safety net and lacking adequate rights with respect to occupational health and safety. For Orry, the pandemic also forms an opportunity to “make a new class mind”, as he called it, and to generate a new understanding of solidarity. This is desperately needed at a moment when the pandemic is shoring up the move toward monopolization and the establishment of de facto oligopolies. Particularly in the food delivery industry we’ve seen huge market growth and major shifts in market share in the wake of the pandemic, with Just Eats Takeaway being the only player on the German market and a spade of substantial acquisitions in the US (e.g. Just Eats Takeaway buying Grubhub; DoorDash acquiring Caviar; and most recently Uber taking over Postmates).

During the pandemic, certain forms of platform labor – most conspicuously food delivery – have also been classified as “essential” work, which provides economic protections for platform companies rather than gig workers by shoring up the exceptional status platform companies have been seeking all along. As these companies initiate new corporate partnerships that expand their business ecosystems, workers are quite literally left out in the cold, having to fend for themselves while frequently lacking adequate PPE (personal protective equipment). According to Ayoade, the Covid pandemic has been terrible for gig workers in Nigeria, where Uber drivers are barely surviving – even as Uber continues to make money – and have to support each other financially. Yet Covid has not only intensified the struggle to survive, it has also amplified the will to organize and force new forms of collective representation and bargaining. His organization has already been involved in the organization of 200 protests and 15 strikes, which has brought the plight of Uber drivers under the attention of an increasingly international audience.

It is my hope that our Forum has modestly contributed to raising the profile of Ayoade’s organization and those of the other panelists, by showcasing their vital efforts. At the very least, I think that this opening panel encouraged a transnational dialogue about the current opportunities and challenges of organizing gig workers around the world, setting the agenda for further discussions about how best to move forward. Some of these urgently necessary discussions already took shape during the remainder of the Forum, as I will detail in part II of my recap.