Anyone who has ever visited Amsterdam must have noticed that the bike lanes seem to operate on an “Enjoy at your own risk!” principle. Although they are internationally admired for genius urban planning and their efficiency at reducing car usage and carbon emissions, the iconic red tarmac can be a feared battleground for tourists and unseasoned cyclists alike. Even those who commute by bike on a regular basis can most likely tell many stories of close calls in dodging pedestrians or nearly getting run over by a Thuisbezorgd rider or two. It is no longer cars that rule the roads of Amsterdam; the orange lightning brigade has taken over, powered by nothing but e-bikes and precarity. Yet, the same cyclists that clutch their hearts dramatically when a delivery rider overtakes them in ways that are most likely illegal, are often also the ones longingly staring out of the window with the Thuisbezorgd app opened, complaining that their midnight kapsalon menu met friet was supposed to arrive two minutes ago. What many customers do not realize about platform work is that riders for companies such as Uber Eats, Thuisbezorgd, Gorillas, or Flink are highly monitored and exposed to dangerous working conditions without a security net in sight. It might become more apparent if one keeps an eye out on the streets: the raggedy bags falling off riders’ shoulders, cracks in their phone screens, missing lights at night. If those are not obvious pointers to underlying issues, the many stickers posted on traffic lights might be. Usually glued at a biker’s eye level, at busy red-light crossings, they are an effective way to bring attention to the issue.
Investigating the Riders Rise Up sticker led me to a website of a “young, independent, grassroots union” specifically for delivery riders in the Netherlands. Their blog tells many firsthand stories by delivery riders, repeating the same complaints over and over again: malfunctioning equipment, failing brakes, wage penalties upon accidents, inhumane treatment. Especially concerning were the multiple reports about managers deleting concerns and comments about working conditions on their platforms of exchange, and monitoring rider’s engagement in unions. Rider Ömür Sönmez even reports getting fired due to sharing his story online and communicating his experience with fellow riders. It opens many questions and concerns about privacy, freedom of speech, and rights to unionize in platform work. But not all platform work is created equal – and not all platform workers are in equal positions of resistance and negotiation towards their income provider.
In this context, platforms are understood as multisided markets, made up of “data infrastructures that facilitate, aggregate, monetize, and govern interactions between end-users and content and service providers” according to Poell, Nieborg and Duffy. Platform laborers can be categorized by their locality, which divides them into either online platform workers, such as online freelancers or content creators, or locally based platform workers, such as couriers or care workers. Each category comes with their own challenges in the labor market, and workers in the categories employ vastly different strategies in approaching resistance towards those challenges.
I wish to draw attention to the asymmetries in how different platform workers deal with precarious circumstances and highlight possible modes of resistance, with specific focus on the Netherlands. After attending the 2023 conference on Global Perspectives on Platforms, Labor & Social Reproduction, as well as a related workshop in the same thematic scope in which articles were presented and discussed, I was confronted with countless research projects highlighting precarious labor situations. (Almost) everyone is precarious in this platform economy, from YouTubers and influencers across the globe, over remote and local (health)care providers to courier drivers and gamers. The precarities differ from situation to situation, but patterns can be discovered. Locally based platform workers may struggle with unjust working conditions, dependance on the platform systems such as rating systems, and the pressure of being replaceable. Online platform workers are often at the mercy of the platforms algorithm, have to work around censorship and avoid demonetization, and deal with opacity of payment and exposure systems. One key similarity is the atomized nature of these laborers. Both in locally based and online platform labor systems, communication primarily takes place between the worker, the client, and the platform. Platform workers are exposed to all kinds of uncertainties, but how do they deal with them, not just on an individual level, but collectively? While there are many stories of and research on individual cases, as well as collective actions platform workers have taken to go around certain issues, I want to pay specific attention to collective actions of resistance that address the platform provider itself. This article will focus primarily on the platform economy in the Netherlands as I am currently located there, allowing for a closer examination. I experienced the Covid-19 pandemic in the Netherlands, which caused a spike in both localized and online platform labor, but also exposed insecurities caused by it.
Collective Action – A Hopeless Case?
The global post-pandemic economy is plagued with high inflation rates and cost of living or housing crises, all while corporations boast about increasing profits. It is nothing new that employers have seen the (monetary) benefits of shorter contracts and low-commitment employment, but it seems that the pandemic has demonstrated that workers are able to do even more for even less. Laborers of many industries take to strikes and unionization, the SAG-AFTRA strike of 2023 as just one notable example, and although this strategy of collective action does not always guarantee a successful improvement of working conditions for workers, it is one of the more effective ways to achieve change. It injures employers and companies where it hurts the most: profit and image. But union building relies heavily on communication, specifically communication that bypasses the employer in its the early stages. This is difficult to realize when it comes to platform labor, which is heavily atomized and individual. Without a coffee room or the smoker’s backyard, how do workers communicate unjust working conditions and how do they collectively organize?
Inspired by the Riders Rise Up stickers across town, as well as the persistence of the SAG-AFTRA union members, I want to ask how this kind of organization comes to life in a Dutch context, and how effective it can be. How did the Thuisbezorg union start out, how do they organize, and to what extent does resistance reach employers? What about online platform workers that are located in the Netherlands? Is it possible to achieve an impact similar to that of physical protesting masses on the streets, in front of offices, in front of lawmakers?
The answer to that question is a preliminary, careful yes. In the case of locally based platform work, and as the example of Radical Riders earlier demonstrated, one can find that resistance is indeed present. It is effective enough that it does reach employers, which is proven by their active combatting of union building and communication between workers. Of course, some creativity is necessary when dealing with isolated workers. Even if they do not directly interact in a shared workplace, working in the same area, or having connected social circles, tactics such as placing stickers strategically around Amsterdam are certainly effective options. It is successful too. So far, the rider’s union Radical Riders was able to negotiate for individual cases, such as rider Mustapha who crashed and injured himself due to a damaged bike. Important to note here is that the Radical Riders only received attention and compromise after they physically confronted the company at their office, walking in and demanding a conversation. This points toward the necessity of physical contact between employer and employee, and while this is possible due to the nature of locally based platform work, it translates differently to online platform work. Disconnected through individualized work as well as geographic location, collective action as the one mentioned above is made more difficult for them. Even preceding the action itself, building a union or establishing communication between the various individuals has its challenges. The following section will discuss actions online platform workers may take to collectivize in the face of unjust working conditions.
What about the Online?
Following the “adpocalypse” of YouTube in 2017, in which advertisements were algorithmically allocated to inappropriate videos, content creators took action quickly and founded the YouTubers Union (YTU) in response, marking one of the first acts of resistance across individualized and geographically removed online platform workers. While it successfully established the union and even reached YouTube, it made apparent that the atomized nature of online platform labor as well as the circumstances around it complicate workers’ ability to collectivize. Firstly, as the union was initially largely supported by content creators with a big reach, it resulted in a sort of dependency on their popularity. Furthermore, an online platform or communication tool is necessary to organize the workers that are strewn across the country, or even the globe. But as their main in- and output of information are usually the same platforms they use to promote their content, they run into the risk of “being discovered” and shut down by the platform’s moderation. Although platforms are usually denying this to be true, so called shadow-banning is a tool that is brought up often by content creators in the context of platform self-governance. It entails that creators experience a significant drop in engagement, sometimes as a consequence of posting something that is controversial but not outright banned by the platform. Especially minority groups have accused platforms of this practice, but it is not unlikely that the same tool is utilized to do damage control on possible union and community building, as well as image protection.
There are also legal challenges, as content creators are not directly employed by a platform like YouTube, and are not contractually obligated to produce content. This also means that the platform has no obligation towards the content producers regarding sick pay, paid time off, and other securities a traditional employment contract entail. What category of laborer platform workers fall under, legally depends on locality, but they are often categorized as entrepreneurs or self-employed, which complicates union building fundamentally and questions their legitimacy on a legal level. Optional ways to work around this are the combining of unions, like German industrial union IG Metall unexpectedly opening their union to influencers and platform workers.
Nevertheless, it is significantly more difficult to impact companies such as YouTube or other social media giants remotely than it is to target the office of a company providing locally based platform labor opportunities like delivery service Thuisbezorgd face-to-face. This is especially the case due to the overall lack of transparency about algorithmic structures, filter systems, ad allocation, and more. As companies are not required to share every update about their inner workings and have no obligation to the content creators they host, there is a constant chance that creator’s livelihood can be overturned. Accounts can be banned, systems to achieve high engagement rates rendered useless, and the threat of shadow banning looms over most creators. Still, they persevere. Companies are not entirely invulnerable. While direct striking might not be effective for online platform workers, threatening the image and perpetuating negative publicity has certainly shown to be a viable tactic. Additionally, influencers in the US for example are joining in with the SAG-AFTRA union, supporting the strikes in not reporting on or advertising any new media productions. It comes at the cost of uncertainty though, as even established creator Markiplier is not entirely sure what he is allowed and not allowed to do as a self-employed content creator. It seems that conversations and organization among platform workers are and will be necessary to continue resistance towards platforms and their unjust labor conditions.
Opposing to the actions of online platform workers in Germany, the US, or Italy, there has been a lack of unionizing in the Netherlands. There may be multiple reasons for this. Amongst other things, unions have consistently reduced in size in the Netherlands, and are looking at less and less young members. Many young adults seem to not consider unions as an effective option, or fear that joining one may impact their work environment or employment status. If that is the average attitude toward unions, one may suggest that the atomized and individualized nature of online platform work paired with this lack of enthusiasm for union building may be a reason for the still missing union or mobilization of online platform workers in the Netherlands.
Discussing collective action and its opportunities for platform workers, both locally based and online, have implications beyond the individual situations. It is necessary to perpetuate the knowledge that union building and striking are still options in an increasingly fragmented and individualized economy. Across industries, companies are cutting away at the security nets in place for workers, doing whatever it takes to keep their voices quiet in order to continue with exploitation. Situations differ naturally, but the core problem remains the same: whether it is broken brakes or broken recommender systems, the worker is left to deal with the consequences. That is why it is crucial to build a collective movement among workers with communal identification and their perception of themselves as a collective that can exercise power, one that allows them to face the representatives of the platform head on, physically or virtually.
Ultimately, one needs to acknowledge that theory and practice are not always symmetric, especially in this case. I, and anyone who has ever worked before, am hyper aware that navigating precarious labor conditions and resisting injustice in workplaces is never as easily done as it is said. There are many reasons platforms who provide options of monetarization or act as employers are able to keep welcoming a steady stream of new laborers into their force despite the often well-known issues that come with working for them. But although there are countless obstacles when it comes to platform labor and unionizing, this relatively new and constantly evolving system also bears many opportunities to counter injustice and precarity in revolutionary ways. With changing conditions come new risks, but there is hope, too. Resistance is not dead, at least not yet. It has persisted through manipulation, exploitation, and strategic destruction of worker’s unions, and continues to find its (grass)roots. As long as workers are aware that they are the main contributor to a company’s profits, as long as they know that there is a limit to how disposable laborers are in the eye of an employer, as long as they seek out community among their colleagues, or even just keep their eyes and ears open around them, resistance can continue to be effective. It requires creativity, persistence, and a common goal, and although the fragmented platform economy complicates this, not all hope is lost. The Riders Rise Up movement and the successful SAG-AFTRA strike are just two examples of utilizing a communal identity and persistence in achieving improved working conditions. So while companies are actively working towards higher and higher profits, while simultaneously reducing responsibilities towards their employees to the legal minimum, one simply needs to remember that although corporations may seem impenetrable, they can be vulnerable to instabilities on the inside.