This post was written by Davide Beraldo, Letizia Chiappini and Giovanni Rossetti as part of the GDC-funded project “Global boss, local workers? How context influences food delivery riders’ relation to platforms (GLOBLOW)“
The surreal staticity of semi-deserted streets interrupted by bicycles sporting a universally recognizable brand. In the context of lockdown and curfew measures, this has become a familiar picture in cities across the globe. Food delivery riders have received increasing attention during the pandemic, arguably becoming the most visible segment of the so-called ‘gig economy’, and gaining the badge of ‘essential workers’ in media narratives.
While the food delivery market hosts a number of local players, a handful of corporations maintain a global presence — with UberEats occupying the front seat, operating in over 6,000 cities in 45 different countries. Local regulatory frameworks and techno-political cultures likely play a crucial role in shaping the (perception of) working conditions and organizing initiatives among riders. The global nature of food delivery companies is paired with a largely fragmented regulatory context, with national legislations interpreting the contractual situations of these workers in sometimes radically different ways. Moreover, the globally standardized interface of the platform’s app (the de facto non-human boss of these workers) is also interpreted through various, potentially culturally dependent associations. Across the world, we are witnessing the emergence of legislative and grassroots initiatives to improve the working conditions of this largely precarious, algorithmically-managed labour force, including interventions at the level of the politics of platforms and data.
The dynamic between the global and the local levels reflects the tendency within capitalism in general, and platform capitalism in particular, to centralize the accumulation of capital while decentralizing labour, assets and risks. In other words, profits generated by workers all over the world are concentrated in specific global areas; in the gig economy, this process is enabled by a centralized data infrastructure (i.e. algorithms, interfaces, databases) that attempts to manage and standardize decentralized processes (i.e. workers’ activities, including adaptation and resistance practices) while relocating the costs (i.e. means of transportation, mobile devices and data connections) and the risks to the workers themselves. Comparative research on the local workers (in Amsterdam, Milan, Buenos Aires) of the same global platform (UberEats) becomes an entryway to understand how diverse cultural and political variables may affect the working conditions and struggles of an emergent type of labour force, mediated by the same impersonal, non-human bosses.
The GLOBLOW project tackles the issue of platformized labour from the specific angle of how the local context (of labour) engages a global platform (of capital). In the GDC funded research project, we are interested in investigating three interrelated dimensions from a comparative perspective: How do riders represent, talk about, and imagine the algorithmic system they interact with? How do riders engage with the platform in order to game, resist and/or subvert its disciplinary goals? How do riders perceive their working conditions and how would they like to act upon them?
We hope that, by engaging with riders from different parts of the world, the project can contribute not only to the academic debate on platform capitalism, but also to public debates concerning the condition of gig economy workers in different global contexts, and the cross-national diffusion of practices and imaginaries of resistance.
Davide Beraldo is a postdoc in the DATACTIVE and ALEX projects, and lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture (UvA). Main research interests: digitally-mediated movements; algorithms; irony politics.