The rapid growth of the platform economy, accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis, exposed its poor working conditions and placed its precariousness on the public agenda across different countries.
The novelty of platform work has not only been its growing speed, but the exposure of workers to precarious conditions across countries with very different labour markets. In this context, platform workers have organised themselves to take collective action, and there are daily instances of worker contestation in some parts of the world. What do these protests have in common? What makes them different?
On one hand, the same global platform companies are spread around the world, often using the same managerial practices and exposing workers to similar forms of precariousness; on the other hand, those practices are combined locally with different economic contexts, unions´ traditions and institutional frames.
The Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest shows that the type of protests taking place varies more substantially among regions than among industries, with particularly high activity in South America.
Interestingly, the country with the 5th highest number of events reported, behind the USA, China, India and the United Kingdom, is Argentina, accounting for 9% of events captured in the dataset until mid-2020. Locally, the first strikes against delivery platforms in July 2018 and the creation of new unions a few months later generated renewed optimism.. Although high unemployment and high turnover of workers on the platforms tended to discourage mobilisation, platform workers quickly became key actors in the local conflict.
The arrival of the platforms and the upsurge of protest
A few years ago, in a context of rising unemployment and regulatory changes that facilitated capital outflows, delivery platforms burst onto the urban scene in Argentina, as they have in some other countries. In 2017, PedidosYa, a company that was already in the country, but only as a marketplace, started offering home delivery services. In 2018, three international companies began to operate offering the same service: Rappi, Glovo and Ubereats.
It was just six months after the arrival of some of the major international companies, that the first riders’ strike took place. In July 2018, a group of riders gathered in a central square in Buenos Aires to accept and then refuse orders at the most requested hours. They were complaining against changes on the way the algorithm assigned the orders in Rappi. A few months later, they created a union for digital app workers. After a meeting with company representatives, the workers leading the new union were blocked in the app.
In 2020, during the lockdown, delivery was considered one of the few essential activities allowed. It became an alternative source of income for those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, putting more riders on the street, and more clients on the apps. However, due to low fees per ride and no provision of masks and alcohol, protest re-emerged and local organizations joined different international strikes.
By the end of 2020, Glovo and UberEats left the country, and today PedidosYa and Rappi concentrate the delivery market in Argentina.
What are they fighting for? Health and safety as main grievances
The main grievances of delivery workers in Argentina are similar to riders in other countries: better pay, greater transparency in order assignment and evaluation criteria, and recognition of the employment relationship as well as the rights associated with it. However, the Leeds Index shows that in South America “health and safety” is one of the main demands, something that is less observable in other regions.
What kind of demands are related to health and safety? Due to the pandemic, one basic demand is the provision for healthcare related to COVID. Based on a government inspection carried out in July-August 2020, 58% of riders report that the company did not have a health and safety protocol during the pandemic; and 68% of riders had to provide masks and alcohol themselves.
Another important demand concerns insurance coverage and health insurance. As platform companies do not recognize riders as employees, they do not guarantee them these basic rights. Some riders take out their own coverage, but just 1 in 4 have accident insurance.
The main concern that riders mention when asked about their working conditions is the risk of being robbed or having a traffic accident. Platforms accentuate these risks: they extend the delivery zones, orders are accepted without revealing the order destination, and the platforms do not provide answers when an episode of violence or theft is reported.
In the case of minor episodes, the consequence is being unable to work for several days without paid leave, either because of the lack of the stolen items or because of physical injury. But riders also express a greater fear: suffering a very serious accident or even losing their lives.
A final key demand in protests is around pay. The annual inflation rate in Argentina in 2021 was 51%, which implies a huge loss of purchasing power for those workers who were not covered by collective agreements. Therefore, increasing the pay per ride has been the main demand in many demonstrations. However, each episode of a fatal accident -and unfortunately there have been more than 20 reported death of riders just in 2020 during the lockdown- led to a local demonstration. This explains why the demand for “health and safety” boosts labour unrest.
A global perspective such as the one provided by Leeds Index makes it possible to determine which aspects of the protest are shared worldwide and which ones are specific of particular places. In the case of Argentina, the local perception that the level of conflict is particularly high is confirmed. Likewise, the data reveals that the demand for higher pay is global, while the demands related to health and safety are specific to the Latin American region.
Thus, the opening question—what drives the mobilisation of workers in an activity with high turnover and unfavourable organisational conditions?—seems to have a clear answer. Ultimately, these workers are fighting for a reasonable income and working conditions that guarantee not losing their lives at work.