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OP-ED: Free workers are not 'free'

  • Published at 08:27 pm December 28th, 2020
workers protest rmg
Readymade garment factory workers demonstrate by blocking the road, Dhaka DHAKA TRIBUNE

How can workers escape the inequality, misery, and exploitation they endure?

A few days back, on December 17, 2020, Foodpanda workers demonstrated in Baily Road and Gulshan. They protested a decrease in workers’ commission per delivery from Tk40-50 to Tk22-30. The change is part of Foodpanda’s overall benefit package for workers, where in addition to this fixed rate, they would receive Tk2 for every kilometre travelled to complete a delivery.

Workers’ protests for salary and other benefits are common in Bangladesh. Garment workers’ protests are the most common scene. Thousands of garment workers demonstrated in Gazipur on December 25, demanding payment of their arrears and allowances. Recently, we have seen workers of the government-run jute and sugar mills protesting against foreclosure of factories and unpaid benefits. We also saw protests of tea garden workers demanding an increase in daily wage. Likewise, Uber and Pathao workers also protested for compensation-related issues.

Workers’ protests are not always welcomed. Once the news of the Foodpanda workers’ protest spread, one comment on social media caught my attention -- a person said, “Foodpanda is not forcing anyone. If you are not happy with the payment, you may leave the platform. Why do you protest?” The argument is apparently logical and rational but anything except the truth.

Who are the free workers?

The comment quoted above stands for the irony of our economic system. It has the pretense of allowing individual freedom to work. Capitalists globally claim this same logic in favour of competitiveness and efficiency. It is believed that supply and demand will always enable fair transactions. Nonetheless, this veils structural limitations that deprive the masses from means of livelihood and force them to work for one or the other capitalists -- which is then treated as an exercise of their free will to work.

Broadly, workers under capitalism are free in a dual sense -- they are free from access to means of production or resources and do not have any capital except labour to sell. They are making a free choice per se, but they do not have any alternative either.

This predicament is historically created. For instance, after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, trade liberalization and privatization policies had a significant impact on employment and the earnings of the poor. Overall, these processes contributed to extreme economic and social polarizations.

The means of production became concentrated in the hands of the rich, and peasants were turned into wage labourers either to survive or to complement their income -- the emergence of apparently free workers in Bangladesh. Hence, a booming garment industry followed, where thousands of workers are denied a living wage. In the recent past, many workers even died in “accidents” such as the ones at Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions. 

The changed world of work

The world of work -- with the introduction of digital platforms like Foodpanda, Uber, Pathao, and others -- has become further disadvantageous for the workers. The digital platforms serve as a medium of contract between consumers and those able and willing to work freelance. Platform companies enable the continuous hiring of workers to perform tasks as “independent contractors” -- with services requested on their digital platform. The availability of the platforms has reduced the need for full-time employees. Workers are paid for completing every task rather than a fixed salary, like employees on payrolls.

In theory, it performs well for the workers and consumers. In lieu of coming to work every weekday and following orders, workers (delivery persons/drivers) enjoy flexibility and predictable pay, and customers/passengers can request food/parcel/rides without having to maintain a full-time worker/driver or vehicle. As more workers and customers sign up, the platforms become an efficient medium for exchange.

This business model allows companies to run as intermediaries in a two-sided market of workers and jobs. Workers in these platforms are independent contractors rather than employees. Thus, the employment and labour laws do not apply to them.

One unique ingenuity of the platform economy is that the “employees” (the drivers/delivery persons, for instance) hardly receive any on-the-job training and must invest in the tools (smartphone and internet access) and equipment (vehicles). Platform employers do not supply or protect any such investment. This is an important aspect because the investment risks have shifted to the individual from the organization. 

Smaller investment in the infrastructure allows the platform companies to switch “on and off” their businesses abruptly, at will. Recently, UberEats announced cessation of operations in Bangladesh, jeopardizing many of its workers’ future income. 

Workers’ experiences break the myth of on-demand service platforms about increasing efficiency and democratizing the sector, leading to a new “world of work.” Rather, they function in an alternate form of the traditional world of work in a way that puts workers at risk and strips them of their right to social protection as employees. 

More work less freedom

Workers do not enjoy “freedom” as much as conventionally portrayed in modern economic theories. Many of us know, industrial workers are subject to forced overtime and strict supervision. During my research, many RMG workers told me that an 8-hour working day with a maximum of two hours of overtime ironically intensified pressure on the workers to increase their production rate.

Oftentimes, supervisors became stricter and workers got fewer breaks during the workday. Many workers mentioned that they drank “minimum” water to reduce “toilet breaks,” which would lose some production time and might lead to unpaid overtime.

Overall, workers in capitalism are pseudo-slaves. This claim is not an exaggeration. During the Covid-19 pandemic, workers’ welfare has been jeopardized. Despite the threats of  the coronavirus, many factories reopened while the country was still under lockdown. Thousands of workers returned to Dhaka on their bare feet under threats of dismissal and loss of due wages. 

Amid the pandemic, the rush for keeping the market share of apparel products, such as Personal Protective Equipment, led to the workers’ treatment as “disposable bodies.” Here, we found an extraordinary similarity with the infamous Rana Plaza calamity. Back in 2013, many factory managers forced workers to continue production in an unsafe building under threats of sacking and withholding salary. Largely, industrialists could force a tight work schedule because poor labourers have hardly any alternative income opportuniti,s as reflected by the high unemployment rate.

In such a situation, platform work opportunities are thought of as a better alternative, where workers are supposedly free from coercions that “traditional” industries are plagued with. Digital platforms allegedly operate with a more democratic form of labour process, but are no less authoritarian.

Digital platforms (ride-hailing and parcel or food delivery) do not limit the work hours of a worker. To gain popularity and edge over competing companies, platforms give incentives and persuade drivers and delivery personnel to work for longer hours. With provisions of benefits for increased numbers of services provided within a period, the platforms coercively engage workers for long hours. Thus, there is a possibility of fatigue and an increasing risk of accidents. 

This tactic results in the absolute increase of surplus labour time for the digital platforms. The more a platform is used, the more profit is generated for the platform owners. For instance: ride-hailing platforms (now) earn a 25% share or commission of the total fare of any ride and delivery persons (this has increased from 15% gradually over the past two years).

The online platforms present a tripartite relationship: The platform, the workers (delivery persons/drivers), and the requester of the work or service (delivery recipients, passengers). There are many forms of control that the platform can have on workers, but the most pervasive is the process of price or wage setting. Here, in the form of several service-oriented targets, a platform controls the amount of time these workers must work/drive. However, the labour process stays less visible, compared to the market-based economy.

Structural inequalities ensued by a neoliberal capitalist approach to the economy appear normal in the business model of the platform economies.

Time-space compression and capitalistic imperialism

Time-space compression is an essential feature of capitalism, as argued by David Harvey (1990) in The Condition of Postmodernity. Capitalism as a process of production and distribution needs continuous expansion, he writes. This requirement alters the qualities of and relationship between space and time -- for recruiting more labour and setting up more markets.

A search for profit has led to dispersions of production to locations with untapped human resources producing surplus values which can be extracted and transferred to another location -- the capitalist centres. In other words, search for profit eventually disperses production into parts of the world where working conditions can remain “exploitative.” David Harvey has termed this process as “capitalistic imperialism.”

Technological advancement has enabled an extreme form of economic growth and capitalist circle -- an epitome of capitalism’s time-space compression. The technological innovation has elided spatial and temporal distances. For instance, Uber, registered in the Netherlands, operates around the world without the heavy infrastructural investment that other transportation companies have required. In its contemporary form, the digital platform exists not materially, but digitally via programming. This signifies a global trend of financialization. 

Hi-tech progression has allowed a capitalistic form that makes the entire world its market. The platform economy has overcome spatial barriers, opened up new markets, sped up production cycles, and reduced turnover time of capital. Nonetheless, the reality of a “mad” search for profit directs the capitalists from one country or approach to another, and fierce competition between companies ensues a race to the bottom. 

An op-ed by Garrett Brown in 2018 argued that Africa offers many competitive advantages with much lower minimum wage as there are near-zero mandatory compliance regulations to follow. 

Therefore, as in the early 1980s when global apparel retailers chose Bangladesh as a production base; at present, East Africa has appeared as the “new promised land” for global garment production. 

To facilitate an escape from inequality, misery, and exploitation that workers endure, we need Universal Basic Income for all so that no employer can coerce people to work under unfavourable conditions.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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