The frontline of the class struggle in platform capitalism now lies in São Paulo. More precisely, it is to be found at the exact point where the Estaiada bridge crosses the Pinheiros river, which divides the south-west of the city. It was there, on 1 July 2020, that thousands of the city’s motoboys set up a blockade as part of the biggest food platform strike in history.
São Paulo is a sprawling megacity of over 12 million people, and the largest in the western hemisphere. In 2013, it had ten resident billionaires – but for the rest of the city’s population, life looks very different. For the many residents of São Paulo’s favelas (informal settlements) and corticos (tenantment-style rented accommodation) a combination of poverty, overcrowding and collapsing social welfare provision is intensifying the impacts of the pandemic. As the unemployment rate in the city rises to 12%, more and more people have been pushed out of employment and into a ballooning urban surplus population.
It is from exactly this surplus that platforms recruit the bulk of their workforce. Thousands of the newly-unemployed have become motoboys – the Brazilian term for moped couriers. Often subject to racial prejudice in the labour market and living in slum-like conditions on the edges of the city, this peripheral workforce travels into the centre every day to work for food delivery platforms such as iFood, Uber Eats, Loggi, Rappi and 99 Food on dangerous roads for less than $2 per hour.
The surge in the number of people working for the platform has meant that more workers are competing for the same number of deliveries. With the dominant platforms paying wages based on the number of drops completed – rather than the number of hours worked – the increased competition among workers has meant a massive wage cut. It is a story which has been repeated over and over again in platform capitalism, and as always, conflict soon followed.
The July strike was ignited by a very contemporary form of agitation: a selfie video, forwarded from worker to worker via WhatsApp. A motoboy known as Galo filmed himself expressing the problems facing the motoboys. He had recently been deactivated by one of the food delivery platforms he worked for, and he wanted to fight back. The viral clip spread across the networks of group chats that crisscross workforces like this, and before long a wildcat strike targeting all the food delivery platforms operating in the city was in the offing. Its central demands were to be: wage increases, an end to unfair account deactivations, and support from the various delivery platforms for workers who contracted coronavirus.
In São Paulo, Vice reported that a historic 5,000 food platform couriers took part. The strikers came together in huge convoys and blockaded bridges and shopping malls to shut down the circulation of goods and people across the city. News of the upcoming strike had also spread to other motoboys working for the same platforms across the continent, with work stoppages on 1 July also being reported in Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador.
This is a story with profound similarities to the struggles within platform capitalism that have taken place in Europe. There is a certain narrative arc which recurs again and again: a change in wages or working conditions leads to some workers deciding they’ve had enough. They begin to catalyse a wider process of mobilisation. Rapid self-organisation through the mechanism of encrypted group chats follows, and a decision is made to take direct action against the platform, usually by going on strike.
The informal nature of this action means that transitional unions and parties are largely sidestepped when the underground struggle breaks into the open, and the political expressions that emerge from the strike vary in tone from the revolutionary to the reactionary. Because of the transnational scope of the platforms they work for and the profoundly similar conditions across national boundaries, these self-organised workers often end up making transnational connections to workers in other cities. Their group chats expand from intra-metropolitan to intra-continental.
The strikes themselves are characterised by blockades and disruptive direct action in the streets of the city, and the demands expressed through them hinge on the demand for both the flexibility of the independent contractor and the security of the employee. And, sadly, just as soon as these instances of militancy emerge, they begin to decay as the processes of self-organisation that produced them break down and fail to find a durable form. This is exactly what happened in São Paulo, with an attempted strike on 25 July seeing significantly lower levels of participation.
There are, of course, contextual differences. Platform employment in the global south looks less like the end product of a rapid collapse in the formal employment relationship, and more like a further expansion of an already expanding sphere of informal work. But the fundamental dimensions of the struggle are remarkably similar across vastly different national contexts. There exists a shared transitional experience of work and struggle between motoboys in Brazil and moped couriers on the streets of London, Bristol and Manchester. As ever, the challenge facing the platform workers movement is how to turn these struggles from one-off incidents into a consistent campaign.
The future of work will be defined by this problem: how to turn insurrections against platform power into a workers’ movement directed squarely at the mode of production itself.
Back in the UK, the platform workers’ movement has declined in size from its peak in 2018. But struggles continue: throughout September, Deliveroo workers organised with the IWGB in York have held rolling pickets of the burger restaurant Five Guys to protest against excessive waiting times. Now Deliveroo has announced its intention to “hire” 15,000 more workers in the UK alone – meaning the number of Deliveroo workers will have doubled in 2020 alone, from 25,000 to 50,000. We can expect that segment of our new pandemic surplus – the hospitality and retail workers expelled from the city centres – will find themselves hoovered up by the expanding circuit of platform capital. But for platforms, as the motoboys of have São Paulo shown, recruitment is not a risk-free process.
As the proportion of the working class put to work for platforms continues to expand, the patterns of mobilisation in this once marginal sector continue to grow in significance. But the impermanence of the organic structures developed by food platform workers during strikes and conflict is a significant barrier to them playing a central role in a wider revival of the workers’ movement.
- The Future of Work focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).
Callum Cant is the author of Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy.