Mapping protest in platform work: Introducing the new Leeds Index of Platform Worker Protest

19 January 2023

As the platform economy has developed and grown in recent years, protests against platform companies have also increased.

Some have questioned the extent to which worker resistance or collective organisation would be possible in the platform economy, and certainly, the challenges facing traditional trade unions have been well elaborated. Yet, as platform work has developed there has been a significant increase in resistance, collective organisation and even to some extent international coordination.

Well-known legal cases against platforms like Uber and Deliveroo in the UK and US, where workers have challenged their status as ‘bogus self-employed’, have grabbed the headlines.  However, we still lack a broader understanding of what platform work protest looks like across the globe, and the different forms it can take.  Our work in developing the Leeds Index of Platform Worker Protest attempts to address these gaps and provides valuable insight for policy makers, platform workers, unions and others into the nature and extent of protest. The Leeds Index is at an early stages but our dataset has already gained huge interest from key bodies such as the European Trade Union Institute, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the International Labour Organisation.

The Leeds Index tracks where protests takes place, against which companies and over what grievances.  This is drawn from 2 sources: GDELT which monitors worldwide news reports, with real-time translation of online news articles in over 100 languages—and the China Labour Bulletin, to specifically identify protests in China.

We have focused on 4 sectors where there has been the most protest: ride-hailing, food delivery, courier services and grocery delivery. Our data collection allows us to identify different types of actions:  strikes and log-offs, demonstrations, legal action and institutionalization. Institutionalization is an attempt to capture the formalization of worker protest, such as the formation of works councils, the founding of unions or the signing of agreements between workers and platform.

We are also able to distinguish between protests involving established trade unions, grassroot unions, workers’ collectives (which were non-unionized), and ad hoc self-organized groups of workers.

How much platform labour protest is there and against which platforms?

Currently, we have a database with 1,271 protest events covering Jan 2017 – Aug 2020.  Protests involve 60 platforms across 57 countries.

Overall, protest against platforms has risen since 2017. Most protests are addressed against Uber (204), followed by Deliveroo (154), Meituan, the Chinese food delivery company (58), Didi, a Chinese ride hailing company and Glovo, a Spanish courier and grocery delivery (each 54).

Where does protest occur and over what issues?

Most protests occur in the USA, UK, India, China, and Argentina. These are usually small scale, but 14% of the protests involve more than 1000 workers. The majority of protests last less than a day. They are often motivated by multiple issues. But, interestingly, especially against the dominant debate on platforms around algorithmic management and control, most grievances are around pay.

Other areas of concern for protesting workers include: employment status, so questions around misclassification as self-employed; working conditions; and, health and safety .

The regional picture reveals some interesting differences, with health and safety being much more salient in Latin America and Africa, and employment status more a concern in Europe, North America and Australia/New Zealand. This may be because there is more to lose in terms of employment protection  if workers are self-employed rather than employed, in those countries.

The types of action also vary across the globe with legal action being the dominant form of protest in North America, and Australia. This probably comes as no surprise given the high profile legal cases in the US, with Uber as the exemplar case.

The data also reveals differences in the forms of action directly initiated  by workers, compared with action coordinated by traditional trade unions.  Workers are more likely to focus on strikes and demonstrations, while traditional unions are more likely to focus on institutionalisation and demonstrations, but less likely to instigate strikes. Grassroots unions are more likely to organize demonstrations and workers’ collectives are most likely seeking institutionalisation, often being nascent forms of unions.

These insights into labour protest against platforms inform a better understanding of platform work. For further research, it will be good to understand what effect the protests have, if working conditions and pay levels are improved, and more generally what the outcomes of the disputes were.

However, these results are also interesting in the context of an explosion of protests during the pandemic where different occupations and professions took their discontent to the streets at a much higher number than usual. Looking at the current wave of protests and strikes in the UK alone, it will be interesting to see if the rising dissatisfaction of workers will enable a divisive turn in the future of work in the near future.

The Leeds Index of Platform Labour Protest is a team effort involving Digit researchers Vera Trappmann, Mark Stuart, Simon Joyce, Charles Umney, Ioulia Bessa and Denis Neumann, along with extensive team of postdoctoral researchers who have helped with creating a database of Online Labour Protest. Special thanks to Lydia Suleh, Carlos Montano Garcia, Mattia Dessi, Raveekarn Raveekarn Aiemwongnukul, Chinelo Nwachuku, Chavwe Akoroda, Sarah Spence, John Musanto, Karen Tejedor Bowen, Daniel Perez Ruiz and Muhammad Soomro, Kiril Pasevin, Ne Ma, and Jack Daly.

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