COVID-19 and the Emergence of Collective Identity among Platform Workers in India
by Swati Chintala
The COVID-19 pandemic had devastating effects on workers around the world. With no employment-based protections and uncertain access to social security measures, many platform workers were among the worst affected (Howson et al., 2020). As offices shut down and white-collar work transitioned to work-from-home, ride-hail drivers suffered immediate loss of income. Social distancing norms had a similar effect on platform workers providing services at customers’ homes. At the same time, other sectors of the platform economy were booming – chief amongst these were grocery and food delivery. As critical, last-mile links in supply chains, platform workers (together with many other categories of low-wage, precarious workers) came to be recognized as essential workers without whom lockdowns could not possibly be sustained (Friedland & Balkin, 2023). However, despite this new-found importance, platform workers’ precarity progressively worsened during the pandemic. Other workers who lost their jobs began to join delivery platforms in large numbers, attracted by low barriers to entry, flexibility, and the potential to start earning immediately (Hasegawa et al., 2022; Ravenelle et al., 2021). As the available pool of workers increased, incomes fell – often below subsistence levels.
As part of my dissertation project, I examine how the conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic influenced platform workers’ sense of collective identity. Using 60 in-depth interviews with delivery workers, drivers, government officials, and managerial staff from delivery companies in India, I found that
the COVID-19 pandemic was a key precipitating factor that exacerbated worker dissatisfaction and led to the crystallization of a collective identity. Platform workers’ experiences with platform companies and the state during the pandemic shaped their self-perception – as employees, and as frontline workers – in ways that will continue to impact the platform economy and platform workers’ movements.
In the rest of this short piece, I first outline the barriers to collective action faced by platform workers. Following this, I elaborate on how the conditions created by the pandemic pushed workers to formulate and articulate a collective identity. I will then conclude with a discussion of what this could mean for platform workers’ movements in the future.
Can Platform Workers Organize Collectively?
There is much skepticism about the possibility of collective action in platform work, for several reasons. First, the organization of work in the platform economy has been theorized to be isolating and atomizing, separating workers from one another and from a place of work where they might come together to articulate common material interests (Collier, Dubal, and Carter 2017).
Second, due to the deskilled and homogenous nature of platform work, with its low entry barriers requiring little by way of education or skill, platform companies find their workers to be fungible. Most companies are able to sustain the loss of workers due to large reserve armies of the un- and under-employed (Irani & Silberman, 2013), as lack of well-paid jobs in local labor markets (Gray & Suri, 2019) and absence of support from the welfare state (Anwar & Graham, 2020) further contribute to the desirability of platform work.
Finally, platform companies’ framing of platform workers as self-employed entrepreneurs effaces the employment relationship long considered as the basis of the antagonism between labor and capital (Wright, 2000), further discouraging collective action. The feeling of being an entrepreneur is enhanced by algorithmic management, making it so workers and managers rarely (if ever) share the same physical space (Cant, 2019). Additionally, the gamification of tasks pushes workers to pack as many orders or rides as possible into each day (Mason, 2018), leaving little time to build connections.
Given these barriers, platform workers ought not to be able to carry out collective action. However, recent scholarly work has shown that platform workers have begun making collective demands through strikes, mass logoffs, online protests, and legal actions against platform companies with increasing frequency and around the world (Trappmann et al., 2020). So what enables workers to come together to make these demands?
To answer this question, I analyzed a subset of 60 interviews in a larger sample of 135 in-depth interviews conducted over a period of 3 years (2018-2021) in the city of Hyderabad in southern India. I interviewed 29 delivery workers, 25 drivers, 2 government officials, and 4 managerial staff from delivery companies. I sampled for range (Weiss 1995), ensuring that I included workers in food and grocery delivery and hybrid services (food, groceries, and package delivery, bike rides for customers, tasks such as shopping), and in different types of driving jobs that workers could potentially hold. This sampling strategy allowed me to identify the similarities between different platform models and how they led to shared material conditions among workers.
The delivery workers interviewed worked for the biggest food delivery (Zomato, Swiggy), grocery delivery (Big Basket, Grofers), and hybrid service (Dunzo, Rapido) companies in India. In addition to working for the two ride-hailing companies Uber and Ola, the drivers I interviewed had also worked as drivers in private households, contract workers at IT companies, and freelancers for travel companies.
How the Pandemic Precipitated the Formation of Collective Identity
Around the world, the main impetus for collective action by platform workers appears to be falling pay rates and deteriorating working conditions (Trappmann et al., 2020). I find that the COVID-19 pandemic greatly accelerated this downward spiral. It deepened workers’ sense of being exploited and enabled the articulation of shared grievances. Workers subjectively interpreted their circumstances as being unjust – a necessary step that allowed them to take action when the pandemic provided them the opportunity to do so.
Livelihoods on the brink
As lockdowns caused rides and jobs to dry up, the costs of being a platform worker – monthly installments on vehicle loans, fuel costs, road and other taxes, vehicle maintenance – became too much to bear. Many drivers lost their cars, having failed to make their loan payments. Workers’ resentment over falling rates was further fueled by companies continuing to take commissions on the few rides or deliveries they did get, thereby lowering income even more.
“They take 25 to 30%… and the bookings have gone down, too… Whatever bookings they give, they always take this percentage,” said Raju , a driver for Ola. “They were taking the same commission four years ago, and even now, in times of COVID, they are still taking the same commission.”
The pandemic accentuated platform workers’ precarity but also brought them new visibility. They were thrust onto the frontlines of food and transportation infrastructure, as platforms were used by several state governments to deliver supplies to locked down urban populations (Surie, 2020). Social media analyses have shown that customers’ concern for and gratitude towards platform workers grew significantly during lockdowns (Agrawal et al., 2022)
Through media narratives and widespread customer support, workers came to see themselves as an indispensable part of society’s response to the pandemic. If they were unwilling to bear the burden of risk, people would not have been able to isolate themselves in their homes, and health workers and patients would have been unable to reach hospitals and clinics. Delivery workers who often related the mistreatment they suffered at restaurants became instrumental in keeping the restaurant industry going through the pandemic (Rani & Dhir, 2020).
Falling through the cracks
Despite being labeled essential, platform workers fell through the cracks of social welfare systems during COVID. Platform workers are not recognized as employees in most jurisdictions around the world, and often do not meet the requirements of being small business owners (Apouey et al., 2020).
Workers might also consider themselves ineligible for government assistance. A Transportation Department official told me that even during COVID lockdowns, Uber and Ola drivers did not make many appeals to the Department because, he claimed, they knew it was “not the right forum for them to bring these issues.” He further observed that drivers’ issues would not be under the purview of the Labor Department either, since drivers owned the cars they drove and hence could not be considered employees. As such, they could not claim the protection of labor laws.
Despite not knowing who to approach for help, the workers I spoke to were clear about holding not only the platform company responsible, but also the state. The most proximate reason for this is that platform workers are required to pay taxes, which they did not as informal workers before joining platforms. To continue to receive rides and orders on platforms, they need to upload evidence of having paid their taxes or else risk being deregistered by the platforms.
An Uber driver, Rakesh, told me, “We are also paying 4500 Rs every 3 months in tax, right? So, the government should care for us, right? We still have to pay that… Only if we pay all that will Uber let us work. If we don’t pay that, then Uber will disconnect us. So, if taxi drivers are correctly paying the government, how come the government is not caring for us even 1%?”
Salman, a driver who organized food aid for drivers’ families through the pandemic told me, “These workers have seen such bad days, they are still seeing such bad days. They [the government] are paying attention to every sector – if someone is at home for two months, then the government says give them 2 months’ salary, private factory workers… The government has said we need to give them something for them to make ends meet. But where were we, nobody knew? Perforce you have to work even during COVID times, you won’t get gloves, or sanitizer, or masks…”
The few policies that the state and platform companies announced to support them also allowed them to develop a group identity. Federally mandated moratoria on some forms of tax and on loan repayments, and vaccination drives by companies made workers feel visible and valued for their contribution. On the flip side, one year into the pandemic, the state started rolling back the moratoria on loan repayments and taxation. Workers then had to pay for missed payments alongside current dues – an impossible feat given falling rides and orders.
With little assistance from the state or platform companies, workers turned to each other for support. The pandemic thus increased platform workers’ sense of themselves as a cohesive group with common interests – one that has suffered like other groups, such as migrant workers, but which did not receive similar state assistance.
“Every state government and many NGOs have supported migrant workers. But for us, for drivers… we have a car worth 10 lakhs [Rs. 1,000,000]… so it looks like this guy has a 10 lakhs car, but no one understands that it has become a problem for us to have that car,” said Faheem. The perception of workers as entrepreneurs with assets came up against the reality of unpaid loans and repossessed vehicles.
Employees, not Entrepreneurs
Platform company strategies pass on to the worker a sense of responsibility for their own income and well-being. With all the flexibility and autonomy they want, workers have only themselves to blame if they fail to make enough money or do not take advantage of the many bonus offers with which they are bombarded.
Rahim felt that the hazardous conditions they faced while delivering food during lockdown seemed to have had no impact on company policies: “We even took the risk of delivering to COVID patients, at least one or two each day… When the lockdown ended, they [the company] didn’t even think that all of us were good workers for Zomato, that we had been with the company for a long time. They cut the rates before and after the lockdown.”
Rather than conforming to the expectation that they would internalize the risk, workers began to question the structures that imposed such risk on them. They held platform companies responsible for their health and well-being, and felt abandoned.
Ashok, an Uber driver, told me, “The biggest thing is that since last April, we haven’t received any help from the company… no assurance, no help. We have struggled so much… even for food and water… but the companies did not help. What security do we have, you tell me?“
Years of work seemed to amount to nothing as companies remained out of contact through the most critical and uncertain parts of the pandemic. The sense of betrayal was accentuated when companies opportunistically started reaching out to workers to come back to work when the worst of the pandemic had passed.
Most platform workers had few illusions about who benefitted from their labor, despite the opacity of algorithmic management and platform company rhetoric calling them partners. The idea that companies owe their success to workers’ hard work was widely shared.
Movement restrictions brought on by the pandemic also influenced workers’ ideas of the nature of their employment. During the first nation-wide lockdown in March 2020, many delivery workers were arrested for breaking curfew despite having permission from the local government to make deliveries. When workers came together and spoke out against these arrests, platform companies backed them up, requesting state officials to ensure the safety of their “partners” (Barik, 2021a).
Companies urged workers never to venture out without company insignia or lockdown exemption permits issued to companies by state authorities. These measures increased workers’ sense of being employed by companies, since they were able to move about freely in the city only on account of being associated with the companies.
The pandemic also highlighted the necessity of employment-based protections such as health insurance and sick pay.
Although they still identified flexibility and the absence of a boss as factors that drew them to platform work, workers reflecting on their work through the pandemic referred to themselves as employees working for a specific company.
As Rudra, an Ola driver reflected, “They don’t even seem to remember that there are drivers working for their company.”
As companies sought to reassure customers and governments about the safety of their operations, they imposed several restrictions on workers, such as mandatory temperature checks and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), that made it harder to deny the existence of an employment relationship. Workers were penalized or even deregistered if they failed to upload pictures of themselves wearing PPE.
By late 2020, all major platform companies in India announced COVID-specific policies and funds for workers, asking for donations from customers and their own employees and executives. Lack of transparency in disbursing these funds to workers led to discontentment and further aggravated workers who felt that companies were using the pandemic to benefit themselves (Bhalla, 2020).
One delivery worker I spoke to analyzed each company’s claim against what they eventually handed out to workers. He found that companies either gave negligibly small grants to a minority of their workforce, or worse still, disbursed small amounts as loans that were then deducted from meager earnings post-lockdown. Some workers were given a one-time payment of 1000 Rs (~$12) before being told they would not be needed for the next few months.
Other relief measures adopted by companies were also seen as ineffective and purposefully inaccessible. Insurance, reimbursement, and sick pay measures all came attached with conditions that were often difficult to fulfill (Lalvani & Seetharaman, 2020). For instance, one company offered to reimburse the costs of food and groceries up to a certain maximum, but workers had to provide receipts for these purchases. Most workers live in neighborhoods that only had small corner shops or street vendors – neither of which conventionally provide receipts. Workers survived during these lean times by resorting to daily wage labor, migrating to their hometowns, or taking loans from friends and family in other lines of trade.
Those who had worked with platform companies for years perceived the lack of help from them as a breach of trust, making the relationship unequal and unfair. Workers deployed injustice frames in describing their relationship with the platform company and communicating with each other, building solidarity around shared suffering (Atzeni, 2009).
Faheem, a driver, said, “We have earned so much money for the company. If any driver has worked for Ola for 3 or 4 years, then if you look at their data then they would have done about 10,000 bookings. Even with that many bookings… even after having done so much, what are we getting in return? Nothing. We are getting nothing in return.”
While the specific socio-economic conditions created by the pandemic are dissipating, there are three changes that could continue to generate leverage for platform workers.
First, the creation of a shared identity could sustain platform workers’ movements for years to come. Over 1 in 4 workers I interviewed had participated in some form of collective action against platform companies. All of these workers had participated in multiple actions against platform companies, usually locally (i.e., within the areas of the city where they were assigned to work.).
Emerging platform workers’ unions have tried to capitalize on greater worker consciousness and positive public sentiment by highlighting the fact that delivery workers and drivers have been hailed as essential workers only to suffer poor remuneration and hazardous working conditions. Such discursive power (Schmalz et al., 2018) has been seen in other platform worker campaigns, a necessity given their lack of institutional power (Vandaele, 2022).
Second, the pandemic has laid bare not only the precarity, but also the indispensability of platform work. It underscored the fact that platform workers are not entirely without structural power.
Before the pandemic (and since the lifting of restrictions), drivers possessed a degree of workplace bargaining power by virtue of being an important part of the urban infrastructure that keeps the middle-class mobile. During the pandemic, delivery workers gained significant workplace bargaining power. For all the algorithmic management, it is only workers who can produce and move goods and services (Moody, 2021).
Finally, there seems to be little chance of going back to the days of framing platforms as marketplaces that are harbingers of flexibility and worker autonomy, rather than employers seeking to avoid the costs of protecting their workforce. The pandemic forced platforms to provide employment protections such as sick leave and health insurance to workers, making it difficult to resort to the argument that they are nothing more than intermediaries (Howson et al., 2022; Katta et al., 2020). These protections can now be deployed as basic minimums in the fight for platform workers’ rights as employees.
1 – All interviewees are referred to by pseudonyms.
Agrawal, S., Schuster, A. M., Britt, N., Liberman, J., & Cotten, S. R. (2022). Expendable to essential? Changing perceptions of gig workers on Twitter in the onset of COVID-19. Information, Communication & Society, 25(5), 634–653.
Anwar, M. A., & Graham, M. (2020). Hidden transcripts of the gig economy: Labour agency and the new art of resistance among African gig workers. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 52(7), 1269–1291.
Apouey, B., Roulet, A., Solal, I., & Stabile, M. (2020). Gig Workers during the COVID-19 Crisis in France: Financial Precarity and Mental Well-Being. Journal of Urban Health, 97(6), 776–795.
Atzeni, M. (2009). Searching for injustice and finding solidarity? A contribution to the mobilisation theory debate. Industrial Relations Journal, 40(1), 5–16.
Barik, S. (2021a, May 22). Zomato, Swiggy delivery executives face police wrath as Telangana tightens lockdown norms. Entrackr. https://entrackr.com/2021/05/zomato-swiggy-delivery-executives-face-police-wrath-as-telangana-tightens-lockdown-norms/
Bhalla, K. (2020, April 18). Where’s The Relief Fund, Beleaguered Cab Drivers Ask Ola, Uber. Inc42 Media. https://inc42.com/buzz/where-is-the-relief-fund-beleaguered-cab-drivers-ask-ola-uber/
Cant, C. (2019). Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy | Wiley.
Collier, R.B., Dubal, V. B., & Carter, C. (2017). Labor Platforms and Gig Work: The Failure to Regulate. SSRN Scholarly Paper. ID 3039742. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network.
Friedland, J., & Balkin, D. B. (2023). When gig workers become essential: Leveraging customer moral self-awareness beyond COVID-19. Business Horizons, 66(2), 181–190.
Gray, M. L., & Suri, S. (2019). Ghost work: How to stop Silicon Valley from building a new global underclass.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Hasegawa, Y., Ido, K., Kawai, S., & Kuroda, S. (2022). Who took gig jobs during the COVID-19 recession? Evidence from Uber Eats in Japan. Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, 13, 100543.
Howson, K., Ustek-Spilda, F., Bertolini, A., Heeks, R., Ferrari, F., Katta, S., Cole, M., Aguera Reneses, P., Salem, N., Sutcliffe, D., Steward, S., & Graham, M. (2022). Stripping back the mask: Working conditions on digital labour platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Labour Review, 161(3), 413–440.
Howson, K., Ustek-Spilda, F., Grohmann, R., Salem, N., Carelli, R., Abs, D., Salvagni, J., Graham, M., Balbornoz, M. B., Chavez, H., Arriagada, A., & Bonhomme, M. (2020). ‘Just because you don’t see your boss, doesn’t mean you don’t have a boss’: Covid-19 and Gig Worker Strikes across Latin America. International Union Rights, 27(3), 20–28.
Irani, L. C., & Silberman, M. (2013). Turkopticon: Interrupting worker invisibility in amazon mechanical turk. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 611–620.
Katta, S., Badger, A., Graham, M., Howson, K., Ustek-Spilda, F., & Bertolini, A. (2020). (Dis)embeddedness and (de)commodification: COVID-19, Uber, and the unravelling logics of the gig economy. Dialogues in Human Geography, 10(2), 203–207.
Lalvani, S., & Seetharaman, B. (2020, December 4). The Personal and Social Risks That India’s Food Delivery Workers Are Taking During COVID-19. The Wire. https://thewire.in/business/covid-19-food-delivery-workers
Mason, S. (2018, November 20). High score, low pay: Why the gig economy loves gamification. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/business/2018/nov/20/high-score-low-pay-gamification-lyft-uber-drivers-ride-hailing-gig-economy
Moody, K. (2021, December 8). At a Time of Crisis in the Supply Chain, Workers Have Enormous Power. Jacobin. https://jacobin.com/2021/12/shortages-logistics-transportation-just-in-time-labor
Rani, U., & Dhir, R. K. (2020). Platform Work and the COVID-19 Pandemic. The Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 63(1), 163–171.
Ravenelle, A. J., Kowalski, K. C., & Janko, E. (2021). The Side Hustle Safety Net: Precarious rWorkers and Gig Work during COVID-19. Sociological Perspectives, 64(5), 898–919.
Schmalz, S., Ludwig, C., & Webster, E. (2018). The Power Resources Approach: Developments and Challenges. Global Labour Journal, 9(2), Article 2.
Surie, A. (2020). Seeing like a state – what is the platform? Evidence from on-demand platforms in urban India during the COVID19 pandemic lockdown. Data and Society – Against Platform Determinism Workshop.
Trappmann, V., Bessa, I., Joyce, S., Neumann, D., Stuart, M., & Umney, C. (2020). Global Labour Unrest on Platforms: The case of food delivery workers. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
Vandaele, K. (2022). Will trade unions survive in the platform economy? . ETUI, The European Trade Union Institute.
Weiss, R. S. (1995). Learning From Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. Simon and Schuster.
Wright, E. O. (2000). Working-Class Power, Capitalist-Class Interests, and Class Compromise. American Journal of Sociology, 105(4), 957–1002.