In the summer of 2021, Berlin, Germany, saw a wave of strikes and protests by delivery drivers of the start-up Gorillas, a new platform that promises to deliver groceries to customers’ doorsteps only 10 minutes after they ordered via the apps on their smartphones. Gorillas, whose business model is similar to DoorDash and other platforms, was founded in 2020. It was recently valued at over € 2 billion and is thus a start-up success story. After the summer of protests by its drivers, however, its image is tarnished. Caused by the firing of one worker for being slightly late to his shift, his colleagues went on a wildcat strike and delivery workers from other warehouses soon followed. This was the prelude to a summer of unrest at Gorillas. Workers went repeatedly on strike, blockaded warehouses and managed to garner public attention and forge new alliances.
While the intensity of the conflict and some tactics such as blockading warehouses were new for Berlin’s platform economy, the problems faced by the workers at Gorillas, most of them employed with short-term contracts, were not. As with other platforms and gig economy companies, the workforce of Gorillas is composed of a large majority of migrant workers facing few alternatives in a stratified German labor market. Thus, many of them turn to platforms, where they find few barriers to entry or qualification and visa requirements. As their work days are organized by a multilingual app, one of the most important barriers, lacking command of the German language, is also no issue for the migrant gig workers in the different platforms.
For the platforms, on the other hand, it is especially the combination of algorithmic management and flexible contracts that allows them to effectively manage a heterogeneous and fluctuating group of predominantly migrant workers. Through self-employment and short-term contracts, most of the social and entrepreneurial risks are outsourced to the workers who face fluctuating income, high risk and little job security. Similar developments can be seen across Europe and beyond, where a growing number of gig economy workers (often a majority of them migrants) face this new combination of tight and often automated digital management and control with flexible and precarious employment contracts.
The platform as factory
Even if the workdays and environments of these Gorillas delivery drivers on their bikes look quite different from traditional factories, gig economy platforms might be the paradigmatic factories of contemporary capitalism. This is the argument I put forward in my forthcoming book, The Digital Factory. This book investigates several instantiations of the digital factory, ranging from Amazon warehouses to online video games, from gig economy platforms to data centers, from content moderation enterprises to social networks. They are all sites where digital technology produces labor relations sometimes curiously resembling those of Taylorist factories in the early twentieth century, even if they look completely different. The book covers sites which may not always look like factories, but where the logics of past factories are very much present, often accelerated by the increasing pervasiveness of digital technology. These areas of work are often hidden behind the supposed magic of algorithms, thought to be automated but in fact still highly dependent on human labor. Workers in German Amazon warehouses in tandem with workers on global digital labor platforms training artificial intelligence, delivery drivers in the gig economy, Chinese gaming workers, Filipino content moderators for platforms like Facebook, Google’s book scanning workers in California: these are the workers of today’s digital factory. Repetitive yet stressful, boring yet often emotionally demanding, requiring little formal qualification yet oftentimes a large degree of knowledge and skill, and inserted into algorithmic architectures not yet automatable (at least for now) – these segments of labor are a crucial part of the political economy of the present.
Digital control and contingency
Large segments of these workforces are employed in flexible and contingent arrangements. A novel characteristic of the digital factory is its ability to combine the tight organization of the labor process with contractual flexibility and forms of contingent labor. In fact, the example of gig economy platforms shows how the means of algorithmic management and digital control allow the management of flexible and scalable workforces. These workforces, in turn, become ever more heterogeneous. Throughout the different instantiations of the digital factory, we can observe the multiple ways in which the standardization of the labor process can drive, participate in, or profit from the heterogeneity of living labor.
This multiplication of labor becomes visible across many sites. In Amazon’s warehouses, to take another example, the various technologies of standardization and algorithmic management reduce training times and increase control possibilities, thereby allowing flexible and short-term solutions in the recruitment of labor to satisfy the contingencies of supply chains for business peaks such as the weeks before Christmas when the workforce in many warehouses doubles. Seasonal labor, short-term contracts, and outsourced labor are important components of the labor regime in Amazon’s distribution centers and proliferating beyond Amazon across different sectors and locations.
Furthermore, networked devices, sensors, and apps allow new forms of control at-a-distance and have moved Taylor’s time and motion studies outside the enclosed spaces of factories and distribution centers and into the urban space. Gorillas workers or Uber drivers, for example, are increasingly tightly managed and overseen by software. Taylorism is hence no longer bound to the disciplinary architecture of the factory.
Unrest in the Digital Factory
The example of Gorillas also shows that in spite of these new digital possibilities of control, the digital factory does not work without friction and resistance. The ongoing strikes of the workers seem to have caused panicked reactions in the management of “Europe’s fastest growing start-up” including the attempt by two managers dressed-up incognito as riders to undermine the strikes by breaking through pickets claiming “they want to work”. After the strikes and protest continued to go on, Gorillas finally tried to fire over 300 workers involved in the strikes. This move was met by further protest and will be challenged legally.
At the moment, the outcome of this conflict seems to be completely open. This example makes clear, however, how the digital factory is crossed by conflicts and new forms of control and casualization are met by inventive forms of resistance.
Moritz Altenried is a postdoctoral researcher at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany.
To read more, see: Moritz Altenried. The Digital Factory. The Human Labor of Automation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022).
Image: FAU Berlin via Wikimedia Commons [CC by 4.0]