economy shrunk by over 2.07 percent in 2020, national e-commerce transactions have jumped by 52 percent. That leap was propagated by the mainstreaming of online-based consumption as people relied on digital platforms to fulfill their needs. The trend has been particularly prevalent among the Indonesian middle class, whose recreational purchases — think decorative plants and cycling hobbies — have dominated their spending during 2020’s final economic quarter.s the COVID-19 pandemic keeps causing shockwaves across the global economy, one particular sector seems to have emerged stronger than ever: digital companies. In Indonesia, where the
Digital companies have since been boasting about their immense contribution to the national GDP. But their shiny numbers were made possible only by the blood and sweat of rank-and-file soldiers — drivers, couriers, and warehouse workers — who have ended up with the short end of the stick when it comes to income and overall wellbeing.
The tech publication Rest of World’s recent survey of over 4,900 gig workers across 15 countries revealed that respondents from Indonesia are being paid far below minimum wage, with drivers and delivery workers earning roughly half the standard amount; only drivers in Ukraine and delivery workers in Turkey fared worse in comparison. Moreover, some 72 percent of Indonesian workers do not plan on keeping their current gig job within the next year, with 32 percent planning to leave within the next month — signifying immense dissatisfaction over their work’s long-term prospects.
But it’s not like they have much of a choice. From February to April 2020 alone, or when the pandemic began, the average income of online couriers in three Indonesian provinces diminished by over 67 percent. The pandemic has also led to a decade-high unemployment crisis in Indonesia, with up to 9.2 percent of the country’s entire workforce jobless by end-2020. This massive reserve army of labor provides leverage for platform companies, as drivers and other workers can be easily replaced. Meanwhile, the ones who opt to stay are forced to accept arbitrarily imposed pay tweaks and reduced incentives to maintain a livelihood.
At the core of the gig workers’ problems is the digital platforms’ designation of their laborers as “partners” instead of employees. “Partners” are not employed by the company. They are individuals who use the company’s platform to connect with consumers who need their services; all the company does is charge a middleman fee.
The way that the global gig economy is structured, however, could mean that these already exploitative relations might worsen in the near future.
Platform logic and resistance
The May 2021 merger between Gojek and Tokopedia, Indonesia’s two largest startups, to form the $18-billion GoTo Group reveals a certain logic underlying the gig economy. Both Tokopedia and Gojek, as well as their regional archrival, Grab, are investees of the Japanese investment firm SoftBank, which has also funded platforms such as Uber, Didi, and Ola in other countries.
The merger ultimately means that two of Softbank’s portfolio companies are vying for dominance in the Southeast Asian market. Although this might seem like an odd model (the initial proposal was to actually combine Gojek and Grab), Softbank’s own gargantuan US$100-billion investment pool has allowed them to play the long game and finance different enterprises — including rivaling ones — as it means that they should carve out a profit regardless of which company prevails in the end.
The GoTo merger’s aim is deemed not so much to immediately expand the number of users as to “deepen its relationship with existing ones,” using extracted user data from both companies to enhance its services. It is the first step toward establishing a holistic digital ecosystem that will cater to every customer need — from ride-hailing services and purchasing movie tickets to delivering groceries and paying health insurance — and assume quasi-monopoly in the region, presumably in the form of an all-encompassing superapp.
But this presents an obvious threat to the welfare of gig workers in Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia. Not only would assuming near-complete control of a regional market entail a far lesser need to provide fair pay for laborers, it also means fewer incentives and discounts to attract customers, ultimately putting the burden of making profits by cutting income on gig workers.
This may already be happening. In 2018, drivers in Singapore and the Philippines reported a dip in their earnings when Grab acquired Uber’s Southeast Asia operations and became the sole dominant player in both countries. It wasn’t until Gojek entered Singapore in 2019 that incentives for drivers there eventually began showing up again.
This year, just one month after GoTo was established, Indonesian Gojek express delivery drivers under its GoKilat service decided to log off their apps en masse after facing a massive incentive cut. Previously, GoKilat drivers in the greater Jakarta area received a bonus of IDR 10,000 (70 U.S. cents) after five deliveries, and a further IDR 30,000 (US$2.10) once completing eight trips. Today the total bonus for eight deliveries is IDR 8,000 (56 U.S. cents). Said the drivers’ press release: “We apologize to the consumers. We’re conducting a strike because GoTo had failed to treat us as human beings.”
Policy researcher Arif Novianto has described four different strikes commenced by couriers of Gojek, Grab, and Lalamove throughout June 2021 as “wildcat strikes” — protests that are considered formally unlawful as they are unattributed to any state or company-acknowledged unions. Indeed, the formal status of drivers as “partners” has contributed to dispelling the idea of a legitimate union among gig workers, as companies do not necessarily pay them in the first place, and thus are not covered by conventional labor laws surrounding minimum wage, overtime, and sick leaves.
Without a union, there is also no top-down hierarchy telling gig workers when and how to strike. Novianto notes that the protests happened in a leaderless and spontaneous manner; in GoKilat’s case, a call to strike would be posted on a Facebook page and subsequently make its way to smaller WhatsApp groups. Drivers would then propose their own ideas and collectively vote on them — from mobilizing a mass motorcycle convoy, printing and distributing brochures, to picketing storefronts that subscribe to GoKilat’s service in order to halt “scabs,” or individuals who keep working in spite of an ongoing strike — and invite more drivers into their ranks.
Seeds of organizing
Yet despite up to 80 percent of active GoKilat couriers in Greater Jakarta logging off their apps for three days on June 8 to 10, Gojek remained adamant about lowering its drivers’ incentive rates. The drivers would strike again three weeks later — this time from June 29 to 30 — but still nothing changed.
There is another story to this, though. When Gojek started making a name for itself in Indonesia seven years ago, researchers were initially wary of the company’s power to dismantle the social fabric of urban communities by absorbing individuals into an atomized system that nulls the possibility of collective dissent. Not only was every courier essentially competing against other drivers for customers, but each also had to do the work of carrying customers all by himself or herself while being dictated by the platform’s algorithm by the minute. Without a physical space such as an office or factory floor, organizing, at least in its traditional sense, was supposed to be arduous.
In the early days, app-based drivers were under the constant threat of violence from indigenous drivers who were enraged by the influx of riders in green jackets who snatched away their potential customers. In response, Gojek and other companies actively approached the “conflict-ridden zones” and coaxed local drivers to sign up with them, providing incentives such as help in obtaining a driver’s license and vehicle documents. Through such tactics, companies were not only able to quell ground-level conflicts, but also increased their armada over time.
But this aggressive expansion contains its own internal contradiction: as platform companies seek to integrate as many individuals as possible to cater to customer needs, they have also enabled drivers to build a sense of collective identity. No longer focused on fending off their indigenous counterparts, app-based drivers began expanding their repertoire of internal solidarity, from setting up on-the-clock Rapid Response Teams to help fellow drivers caught in accidents, establishing local driver communities with a monthly membership fee, to combining several communities into a larger Drivers’ Association, which has now involved itself in decision-making with the Ministry of Transportation.
In other words, the process in which platform companies seek to create an equilibrium for their labor problems — by absorbing huge amounts of workers to help expand operations, then suppressing wage levels once the enterprise has taken off — has compelled drivers and other gig workers to organize. Although these primary modes of organizing take the simple form of mutual aid within small communities, they have also been the building blocks enabling larger forms of protest and collective action to take place.
After the failure of recent strikes, GoKilat drivers have begun discussing organizing a recognized legal union for themselves. The organization would not be as much of a workers’ union as it requires the approval of Gojek as its parent company (the drivers sought to keep themselves independent). Nonetheless, it would be a legitimate social organization retaining the same function. A similar unionizing process, Novianto writes, is happening with the drivers of logistics company Lalamove under the banner “Lalamove Partners Gathering Forum.”
No one can tell if unionizing would equal success: if anything, forming a top-down organization might make it easier to capture and steer an entire group in one fell swoop, such as by reinstating a leadership change. Yet as the threat of a monopoly grows closer, gig workers need to form reliable fronts to advocate their demands. It has always been a long, arduous road for gig workers, but any mustering of collective strength will prove essential for the movement. ●
Eduard Lazarus is a Jakarta-based journalist and editor writing on media and social movements.