Putting the Practice into Platform Labor

I didn’t come to the Netherlands to work as an on-demand delivery courier; I came because I had enrolled in a Master’s program in Human Geography at Radboud University, Nijmegen. Still, in the summer of 2018, strapped for cash and with time to spare before the start of fall classes, I decided to sign up with Deliveroo. What began as a way to shore up my bank account eventually converged with my academic interests. By October, I had decided to make on-demand delivery platforms the subject of my Master’s thesis, using own experience with Deliveroo as part of my research.

What originally attracted me to the topic of delivery platforms was the seeming disconnect between the techno-utopian boosterism which touted platforms as the future of work and what I saw as a plainly exploitative labor arrangement. I knew that while Deliveroo was raking in millions of dollars in venture capital, it was also facing protests and strikes organized by workers in cities all across Europe. A lot of what I read about platforms focused on this conflict, with special attention to how companies like Deliveroo used technology to command and control the legions of atomized and precarious workers they relied on. I wanted to know more: Does he who controls the algorithm really have the power? How do you bargain with an algorithm? How do you organize when your boss is an app?

As it turns out, you pretty much don’t—at least not in Nijmegen, the small Dutch city where I made deliveries. While the algorithmic management discussed by so many authors was undoubtedly present in my work, the dramatic strikes and street protests were not. In fact, when a Volkskrant reporter came to interview local Riders about a January court decision declaring us employees subject to collective bargaining agreements, I was the only Rider to speak in favor of unionization. With this experience in mind, I had to reorient my research. The question was no longer, “how does Deliveroo exploit its workers?” or, “how do Riders protest Deliveroo?” Instead, the question was closer to “why aren’t there more protests?” Essentially, I had to investigate how on-demand delivery workers managed to make on-demand delivery work.

With this in mind, I interviewed Riders about how they approached, executed, and made sense of their job, first in Nijmegen, and then in Berlin as an intern on the Platform Labor project. What I found was that there is no unitary experience of on-demand labor, and instead Riders employ a variety of practices in order to make the job meet their needs. While many of these practices are widespread, some are more unique, and all are influenced by a number of contingent, contextually specific factors. To illustrate this, I want to briefly draw attention to three broad categories or tendencies, which can be described as anticipating, collaborating, and supplementing.

  1. As Deliveroo is what Nick Srnicek dubs a “lean” platform, it does not provide Riders much in terms of material support. This is especially relevant as the very active job keeps workers moving all around the city, where they may encounter any number of unexpected obstacles. To compensate, many Riders cultivate a habit of anticipating, where they individually predict and prepare for any challenges they may encounter. In the short term this means small actions like habitually checking the weather before heading out or carrying a whole toolkit of equipment in case something goes wrong on the road. Additionally, Riders also try to anticipate long-term problems, taking steps to keep their bodies in good shape for potentially years of physical work and taking responsibility for arranging savings and insurance in case of a catastrophic accident. In this way, through anticipation, Riders take on additional responsibilities which would previously be handled by their employer.
  2. While there is a lot of talk about how atomizing or isolating gig work can be, an on-demand delivery job can also be quite a social experience. Even in Nijmegen, where there is no formal labor organizing, there is still a great deal of collaborating. For one, it’s common for Riders to gather together in public squares as they wait for the ding of delivery notifications. But more than idle chat, Riders also share important information and tips with each other, especially through Whatsapp groups. Riders comment on which restaurants are busy, where police are checking for lights, and even tricks on how to game the algorithm. These small acts sometimes even accumulate into collective actions—in Nijmegen, persistent complains about one restaurant in the group chat resulted in an unofficial boycott. So while it is possible to do on-demand delivery work in complete isolation, most Riders have found it beneficial to work together. Whether these collaborations could be the basis of an incipient gig worker labor movement is still unclear.
  3. When I ask fellow Riders what would make their job better, a typical response is something like “well, more money would be nice.” It’s unsurprising then, that many Riders find ways of supplementing the income they can usually expect from making on-demand deliveries for Deliveroo. The strategies Riders develop to do this are diverse, and often rely on their individual circumstances. One Rider with accounting skills offers to help others with their taxes and other paperwork for a fee; another talks to (non-Deliveroo) delivery workers to find which restaurants need occasional workers; yet another operates two Deliveroo accounts simultaneously to increase his take-home pay. While some of these techniques complement Deliveroo’s business model—helping fellow Riders make tax deductions can help take some of the pressure off the company to do the same—others can point toward alternatives to the current on-demand model. For instance, a group of Riders in Berlin have supplemented their income by forming their own cargo delivery collective. If it takes off, they plan to leave Deliveroo all together.

Obviously, these are just three examples of practices which constitute how on-demand work actually happens on the ground. This list is definitely far from definitive or exhaustive and there is plenty of work to be done investigating how these practices come together, who they benefit and who they exclude, and what larger scale repercussions they may have. As both the Platform Labor project and my thesis work continue, I hope this research can help provide a more nuanced understanding of how platform labor impacts workers, but also how workers can also shape and impact platform labor.