Companies like Uber and iFood claim they are “platforms” rather than employers and shouldn’t be subject to labor law. That’s nonsense: platforms are just digital machines. And like many other machines corporations use in the workplace, they’re hurting workers.

Uber Eats takeaway delivery cycle courier on August 15, 2023 in London, United Kingdom. (Mike Kemp / In Pictures via Getty Images)

Must we continue to be obliged to think of scorched and scalded human beings whenever we sit on the back platform of an observation car and watch the steel rails rolling out behind us?

William Hard, “Making Steel and Killing Men”

In a recent move that captured the news cycle in Brazil but barely registered in the United States, President Joe Biden and Brazilian president Lula da Silva signed a “US-Brazil Partnership on Work.” This anodyne-sounding agreement seeks to raise global standards with respect to the transition to clean energy, the role of technologies, and supply chain accountability.

But accomplishing these goals will require a fundamental reconsideration of digital platforms in the future of work, and attention to the health and well-being of workers with respect to the introduction of new technologies and occupational risks. In both Brazil and the United States — two of the largest global markets for delivery and rideshare companies — employers are campaigning aggressively to pass legislation that threaten the partnership’s goals and the health and safety of tens of millions current and future workers.

In Brazil, where Lula campaigned to end the “bogus self-employment” that delivery and rideshare employers rely on, different pieces of legislation to legitimize substandard conditions for “gig workers” have recently been circulating, all of which would deprive these workers of the hard-won employment rights that protect all other workers.

Similarly, in the United States, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and Grubhub, among others, have proclaimed that they are not employers but “platforms.” To reflect this, they have sponsored laws across several states, including California, New York, and Massachusetts, to dismantle basic work protections. In Massachusetts alone, where Uber and Lyft face a lawsuit from the attorney general alleging misclassification of their workforces, the companies recently filed an unprecedented nine different ballot measure initiatives to lower labor standards and allow for unfettered technological management of workers.

The last ten years of violence inflicted on workers through such platforms hold many lessons for the US-Brazil Partnership on Work. They speak to the urgent need to reject the firms’ false narratives and embrace (and expand) health and safety workplace protections on a global scale.

Platforms are Machines, Not Firms

The platform mythology, which is gaining traction all over the world, is that these companies are merely technological intermediaries that connect suppliers (self-employed workers or entrepreneurs) to customers. According to this narrative, the “platforms” — e.g., Uber, Rappi, DoorDash, iFood — have reconfigured the relationship between agents, creating a new economic sector and new work relations. But as recent judicial decisions in Brazil and the United States (as well as the UK, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Uruguay, New Zealand, and many other countries) have concluded, nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather than reimagine economic relations, these companies in fact entrench existing power inequalities between employers and employees, displacing risk onto vulnerable workers. Crucially, platforms are not firms, and these companies are not creating a new sector (whether we call it the “gig,” “sharing,” or “platform” economy). The platform — like the cotton gin or conveyor belt — must be understood as a means of production, which when employed by a corporation is a tool of capital: a (digital) machine or technological device used by firms for business and labor management.

Platforms are used to manage workers, who in turn use other means of production (car, bikes, and so on) to increase labor productivity and decrease firm costs, offsetting those costs onto individual workers and precaritizing entire sectors of what was once secure (even unionized) employment. Like factory machines that routinize labor but with much more technical sophistication, platforms are useful to firms because they can be programmed to process highly personalized data and accordingly hire, control, pay, threaten, promise, induce, punish, and dismiss.

Precisely because corporations and platforms are often confounded or thought about as interchangeable, the extraordinary dangers of work managed through platforms are frequently overlooked or misunderstood. The consequences have been deadly. Failing to regulate platforms as machines and mistaking them for firms has left labor management to the arbitrary will of corporations, permitting them to design and operate platforms in ways that increase risks to the bodies and minds of millions of workers around the world.

The Platform Edge

Yuri, a twenty-four-year-old motorcycle courier in Salvador, Brazil, worked through the pandemic, risking his own health and that of his family to get food to people in lockdown. Though “a hero” to those who momentarily recognized the importance of his sacrifices as an “essential worker,” when he was injured in 2021, his boss — iFood — refused to provide assistance. Shot by a stray bullet while making a food delivery, Yuri’s arm was badly injured, and he lost livelihood.

Just a few months later, Mandy, a Chinese immigrant and longtime Uber driver in Los Angeles, was hit by an oncoming car while driving university students to dinner. She was badly injured — both physically and psychologically — and hasn’t been able to work since. Uber disclaims responsibility and has refused to help with her lost wages and medical debt.

Yuri and Mandy’s tragic experiences as app-deployed workers are far from unique. In Brazil, a recent app company–sponsored survey found that 25 percent of app-deployed couriers had suffered accidents, 18 percent had experienced racism or gender-based violence, and 8 percent had been robbed in the prior three months during the workday. Among drivers, 15 percent had suffered an accident, 14 percent had been victims of racism or gender-based violence, and 9 percent had been robbed in the same period.

Findings from another report published just last month by FUNDACENTRO, a worker health and safety program run by Brazil’s labor ministry, reflect even more dangerous working conditions: 58.9 percent of the drivers and couriers interviewed suffered a traffic accident, illness, robbery, assault (including sexual and racial), or shooting while working through platforms.

In the United States, which is home to more delivery apps than any nation in the world, new research suggests the same: drivers and couriers who are deployed by platforms are frequently injured in on-the-job accidents and disproportionately face violence at work — including sexual and racial violence. One US study found that of the dozens of drivers and couriers murdered on the job, 63 percent were workers of color. Women disproportionately reported unsafe encounters at work.

Regulating Machines, Regulating Platforms

To date, the discussion of how to regulate labor managed via platforms has been framed through the lens of “old work” versus “new work.” But the future of work has much to learn from historic efforts to regulate physical machines.

During the Industrial Revolution, the introduction of machinery — and of quotas for workers using the machinery — led to high injury and death rates. In the iron and steel industry, for example, the overall fatality rate in the United States at the turn of the century was 220 worker deaths per one hundred thousand full-time workers. Workers asphyxiated on noxious gases, were electrocuted by high-voltage wires and pulverized in explosions, and lost limbs to unsafe machines.

Widespread worker agitation and collective organizing around health and safety led to the introduction of employment laws that incentivized safer work environments. The legal conviction that corporations had the responsibility to build safe workplaces replaced the assumption that the onus was on individual workers to fend for themselves. A century later, this approach has reduced the rate of on-the-job injuries by almost 90 percent.

Today, the mythology that platforms are firms — and not labor management machines — has led to dangerous ideological backsliding. Workers managed through platforms are overwhelmingly misclassified as independent contractors. Doing this allows corporations to displace responsibility for workers’ well-being and safety back onto individual workers, who are being managed by digital machines that are systematically designed and deployed to promote conflicts between economic survival and physical safety.

We do not have to wait decades to reflect on how digital machines should be safe or lament how they should have been made safe sooner. Though its exact shape is not clear, the new US-Brazil Partnership on Work is one central vehicle through which global leaders and lawmakers can act quickly to save lives and livelihoods.

Once we recognize that companies are not platforms, it becomes clear (1) that these corporations must be treated as employers, no matter which means of production they utilize; and (2) that the platforms themselves must be regulated, like any other machine or means of production, to be safer for those who interact with them. If Ford must make its assembly line machines safe, if DuPont must prevent accidents on its pipelines, why shouldn’t Uber be compelled to make its platform safe for all workers who interact with it?

The question regarding platforms is not only how workers should be legally classified, which has been the primary focus of the companies, but also what rules should govern the design and operation of platforms in order to protect workers’ minds and bodies. If millions of people working with platforms are getting harassed, killed, maimed, and psychologically injured while working with these machines, their owners must be compelled to make them safer.

Doing this does not require complicated or novel methods: new workplace health and safety laws should be crafted, and new and old laws enforced, to ensure that platforms are programmed to limit work journeys, end algorithmic gamification (and gamblification), protect workers from environmental risks, reduce job insecurity and the ability of employers to hire and fire workers on a whim, and so on. To achieve these goals, the platform operations must also guarantee living wages and paid leaves, open information on how platforms are programmed, and ensure stable and democratic criteria for programming.

In the absence of such laws and their enforcement, platforms create the conditions for suffering and death. They coerce an intensified work pace, pressure workers to labor for long hours without rest, incentivize labor in bad weather and in dangerous places, and force workers to endure any number of other risks.

As legislators across the world debate the future of “platform work,” we call on them to do so with these lessons in mind. Machines have been breaking bodies since the beginnings of the first Industrial Revolution. The introduction and proliferation of new labor management technologies do not change the basic lessons of that history.

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