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The Dark side of the Digital Economy-Plight of the Platform Worker - The independent contractor lie

Contractor experience gone wrong through authoritarian algorithmic digital management in this absurd neoliberal world

If you're unaware of some of the business models of current delivery or lift apps, and how these companies make their money: Bolt business model: offers franchising services, e-scooter and car rentals, app subscription fees, and franchising charges. The Uber business model known as a multisided platform business model, as it connects passengers (demand) with drivers (offer/supply), in order to offer cheaper transportation and an additional source of income. The third, Mr Delivery business model, connects restaurants with customers and drivers to offer cheap food delivery.

Well, that's a mouth full...and it sounds great on paper...(or screen), but in reality these business model exploit the workers in unimaginable ways.

As a non-driving customer, and having worked as an independent contractor, and business owner, I am looking at this issue from these three lenses. (Just stating my bias) I have not interviewed customers who fall on the side of restaurant owners or food makers so bear in mind, they aren't included in this information. And info is purely from customers who receive the final products as well as the delivery workers.

As a customer of these brands, I initially used to advocate for many of these delivery and lift apps of the world. I used to think that a platform business was the way to go. Now, I don't believe this to be true any longer. Not in it's current form.

The good side of platforms: Some of the people I've interviewed those who have anxiety issues, visual impairments or mobility issues have also stated how much they love innovations like food delivery services via app. I would agree these were great innovations, had it not been for learning more about their drivers struggles. For the customer, yes, they're doing something right. But for those behind the scenes, those providing the delivery services, the workers, some things definitely need to change.

If Customer Experience (CX) is great but Employee / Contractor Experience (ECX) sucks, your brand is not winning. Sorry, but maybe this business model needs reevaluating. You need to rethink how you treat the people who work with you and for you.

Did you know that the people who ultimately provide the customer facing part of the service, the delivery drivers, are treated as if they aren't human? Whoever wrote up the contracts for this business model, took all the worst parts of the independent contractor agreement instead of adding them as suppliers or partners and treating them more like business owners where they could share in the profits, they rather took the typical slave approach- to exploit those who do the work. Typical black hat marketing, unethical business mentality.

Based on experience, the independent contractor contract is only useful for short term contracts. And you have to be very careful to make sure it's fair for both the business and and the service provider. Most independent contractor agreements suck. (except mine, I worked with a lawyer to make mine ethical-even better than the generic version). Contractors love working with me. If you read most companies contracts carefully you'll see it's nothing more than legal slavery. Skewed in favour of the business alone. An Independent contract in particular doesn't work for platform workers in the business of logistics. As it stands, it's skewed more for the advantage of profit alone for the company/business. But completely disregards those who actually do the work. Disregards their wellbeing and safety. You need to respect the work being done, the time and effort to execute.

Remember back in the day, when ships came and stole people from Indonesia and India brought them this side and decided, "hey, let's take all the people we don't consider real humans, group them and classify them (grade them and exploit them) and turn them into "cheap labour". Even the mining from back in the day when we had the colour bar and people were graded and excluded from decent work. And all the dangerous work was given to people who were considered "less than" ensuring no opportunity for wealth generation and put at the highest risk of disease and death due to the poor working conditions and the dangerous work they were made to do. This was to ensure that certain groups could accumulate wealth by ensuring some groups were kept as "unskilled" not allowed to gain training or up-skilling, and excluded from participating or excluded from having access to good jobs, safe working conditions and ethical treatment. How is what's happening today with the drivers any different from how people were treated in the past?

It's as if the architects of apartheid were reincarnated and are now designing the new platforms. (When I say architects of apartheid, I mean this is not in terms of race, I just mean the situation is the same of humans designing systems to exploit other humans while skewing it to the benefit of a few)-Do you know so little about history that you'd choose to repeat it? Even you who's ancestors were previously enslaved, you think it's cool to repeat what was done to your ancestors, and do this to others? Really? This business model is literally a mirror of world systems theory-- having those on the periphery being exploited, while those part of the "core" are living lavish. Those who have the "authority" to change their business models don't change it and instead repeat the mistakes of the past, just in a digital format. Who's making the decisions here anyway?

Issues Drivers have with current system

  • Drivers have one of the most dangerous jobs: Dealing with a hostile working environment - bullying from taxi drivers who see Bolt/uber as a threat - why does this happen? Increasing xenophobia and lack of understanding or care of people who are working, while others are unemployed.

  • Drivers, victims of hit and run incidents. It's one of the most dangerous jobs there is, a job most won't do, and yet, those who do it, are facing further backlash by those who won't do that work? How does this even make any sense?

  • Drivers are at risk of hijacking.. even the food delivery drivers have been victims of hijackings, which leaves them destitute and indebted, especially if they're renting the bikes.

  • Dealing with the risk of being on a motor bike in Joburg -- on these crazy roads, that's an insane risk. Would you let your children ride a motorbike in this city? And on top of that they don't even have decent cover. Let's not even go into how those who aren't SA drivers are treated. They have it twice as bad.

  • Pricing structure- every driver I've spoken to believes that uber deducts too much from them. Especially considering they have to pay for their own petrol and maintain their own cars/bikes. (others who drive on behalf of others, would only get a fraction of their money, as the owner of the vehicle would also be taking a cut of their pay).

  • Most join these companies thinking they're going to make a certain amount per month, not realising the operating costs which will fall on them.

  • They have to pay for their own cars/bikes

  • They have to pay for their own petrol

  • The driver can no longer decline areas he doesn't feel safe in. (this is wrong on so many levels--how can you hide the destination from the driver, and not allow him the choice to decline if he doesn't feel safe driving there? You are literally putting his life at risk.

  • They don't get any kind of medical insurance or cover for workmans compensation (and those who do have to be in hospital for longer than 48 hours to access this insurance)-- From discussions, this seems to be more an issue with the non-SA residents. (and we all know how horribly our Home Affairs and Hospitals treats foreigners)

Issues customers in outskirt townships have with current system

  • you can't actually have access to a lot of the services as drivers just wont come to those areas. or not enough demand for people to come to your side.

  • Whats up with the recording functionality which has shown up now on uber.. that's a bit weird. I spoke to one of the drivers who had this feature available, and it's more due to his safety, which is a good thing. It allows drivers to start recording when they feel unsafe due to an abusive passenger. But what if he abuses it? How will you know as a passenger if you are recorded for no reason, how do we know from passenger side?

And some companies want to create platforms like this to grade and dehumanise more professions. Pfft, I can just imagine that future. You know what, maybe I should create a platform that will grade business and marketing, automate their jobs and kick them out of the process, treat them like slaves and see if they like it... ;)

This marketplace business model needs rethinking. You can see which cliques were in the room as decision makers and which groups were excluded from the process...once again those who don't put themselves at risk or do the actual work are the ones who decide the fate of others. So they feel nothing about putting the lives of others at risk. They are just numbers on a dashboard after all--'not real people" to them. This is what happens when people don't do their research or speak to real people.

One day, I'd like to see that the people who actually make decisions are the ones who actually get on the bikes and do the delivery themselves, so they can understand the implications of the decisions they make.

So what do we do?

If we boycott these brands, we'll be putting these workers out of work. The core is to raise awareness about workers rights. So that hopefully these brands will learn to treat their workers better. But if we keep quiet, nothing changes. Even if this doesn't help motivate these businesses to reevaluate how they treat their drivers, maybe you as someone thinking of creating a new business can change what you're currently doing. Redesign your system to make sure it looks after everyone it affects. Design a system which cares for the needs of everyone. Design inclusive growth models. Why design to only benefit a few?

Possible solutions

  • Protection for whistleblowers

  • Revised ethical employment contracts

  • Revised ethical partnership contracts

  • Equal treatment and benefits for both south african and non-south african citizens.

  • Ethical audit of existing platforms

  • Ethical audit of existing platform business models

Ethical Framework (Step 6/20)

Questions to ask yourself when reviewing the digital product you've created:


Capability approach (when we design something, or interact with the people we are ultimately modifying the users capability... capability modifications should allow the user to do and be what they have reason to value)

What types of modification

  • Granting

  • Enabling

  • Limiting

  • Removing

Stakeholder map

Every design decision builds the future for the people interacting with the that design. By modifying their capability in some way. --what each user needs (what future are we building for them?)

We need to ask ourselves:

  • "who the primary modification apply to?"

  • Who is the primary stakeholder?

  • Secondary/tertiary?

  • --with each it's less intense, but it still affects each segment --each capability can have many effects. We need to figure out who's affected and how. (and think of all ripple effects)

Equity and the common good

  • Is this equitable?

  • Is this accessible to eveyone who could have access to them.

  • Are the effects equitable? affect everyone equitable? impact everyone equally?

  • Do these capabilities improve the common good?--does it give you reason to do and be what you have reason to value?

  • What are challenges/opportunities/risks and rewards?

Dystopian approach

What are the worst things that could happen from this capability?- What bad things could happen? --screenplay for a dystopian tv show---think about how businesses and governments might use information against people and organisations they disagree with.

Consequential thinking - (the outcomes for everyone affected)--

does it positively affect everyone?--mapping consequences by specific capabilities, designs or design decisions.--immediate, short term and long term consequences.. then for each consequences- each group , each stakeholder and their circles of influences.(positive, negative, far fetched-- all consequences doesn't matter what.. just map as much as possible) --does it increase or decrease common good? --the people we ignore are the ones who are generally ignored and marginalised.--who are those who do not benefit from our creations? how can we fix this?

This is just the tip of the iceberg of questions to ask yourself in auditing your own products. Sometimes, speed to market doesn't necessarily mean it's better. It just means that you've rushed to be a market leader at the expense of those you serve. Which ultimately destroys your business in the long run. Sometimes the most important question is should I even be building this in the first place? Every moment spent on the wrong product is opportunity cost on the right one.

Ask yourself, could I use my time on something even better?

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