The California ballot measures were incredibly depressing in 2020, as corporate campaigns convinced Californians that corporate domination over their lives was a good idea. That Prop 22 passed is a sign of the work we need to do to bring more politics into people’s lives and convince them that an overtly anti-unregulated capitalist politics is absolutely necessary. Moreover, what California voters have chosen is to make its workforce look more like contemporary Asia than the union workforces of the mid-20th century.
In total, platform companies spent more than $200 million to convince Californians to accept working conditions that are more common to developing countries. One of their tactics was to place gig worker statements in media and social media outlets claiming that they benefit from their supposed “flexibility” and “independence.”
I wish Proposition 22 supporters could meet some of the platform workers I’ve met and interviewed in other countries. In many countries, workers have always had “flexibility” and “independence.” They call it informal work. And now that the apps have entered their economies, they are actually losing their autonomy in frightening ways. Here are two stories of how apps changed platform workers’ lives, but not in the ways they had imagined.
In Cambodia, a country where the minimum wage is just a few dollars a day, motorcycle rickshaws (tuk tuks) have been common for many years. In the past, drivers would negotiate fares directly with passengers. On a good day, a driver in the country’s capital city might net $10 or so. They had “flexibility” and “independence.”
They also have had very few other options for better, more stable, higher-paying jobs. It wasn’t a great life — but today, it’s even worse. Drivers I met last year told me you can no longer get a passenger without an app. Drivers no longer have freedom to haggle over fares or even know what fare will be paid before they accept a ride. Take “Vuthy,” who told me he can no longer refuse a ride even if the fare isn’t profitable. If he doesn’t accept rides at whatever fare is set by the platform, he risks being “deactivated” or removed from the platform. And this could mean losing his livelihood.
Another story comes from India. Jude had been a successful entrepreneur prior to the apps entering the market. He owned a half dozen cars, employed a few other drivers and provided private hire car services for clients in Chennai, a major Indian city. When Uber entered the market, it promised it was looking for “partnership” with independent contractors like him. Jude thought this seemed promising. After all, his business experienced the normal friction of getting the word out to clients, and the apps seemed like an easy way to enhance his client base.