In mid-March 2020, the Ontario government declared ‘a state of emergency’ in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Delivery gig workers had been suddenly reclassified as essential workers, delivering food to people’s front doors during lockdown, while risking exposure to the virus. The demand for food delivery services had increased to a level never seen before. And Foodora, one of the main food delivery platforms, abruptly decided to exit the country.

Gig platforms have tried hard to create the image of gig workers as side-hustlers, part-timers, or those who use the work as a hobby to make extra money and who are thus free to hop from one platform to another whenever they want. If gig workers are deemed to be so autonomous and independent, what happens to them when a global platform leaves?

Despite the platform’s clear desire to be a neutral mediator, I found in my recent study that Foodora was not able to depart without leaving a trace. Many of the local workers who depended for their livelihood on Foodora spoke of the significant impact of its exit. Their stories directly challenge the claims of  platforms that they are not a part of the local economy or of workers’ lives.

Capital mobility and the platform economy

I approach Foodora’s exit as an emerging case of capital mobility that takes place in the expanding platform economy. Foodora is owned by Delivery Hero, a German-based multinational platform that offers delivery services in over 500 cities worldwide. After Fodoora’s courier workers organized and set a historical precedent by mounting a legal battle challenging the ‘independent contractor’ status claimed by platforms, Foodora’s decision to leave the Canadian market was enough to fuel the suspicion of union-busting. Plant shutdowns or threats to workers that they could lose their jobs owing to union activity have been a well-documented tactic of employers to control workers. The tendency has been apparent not only in the manufacturing sector but also increasingly in the service sector—and now we see it happening in the gig economy.

When sociologists have studied capital mobility, the common image of capital is of manufacturing sites where physical work takes place, such as factories, and of employers and managers in a local market. Digital platforms may not seem to fit the image because of their virtual presence and a ‘quasi-employer’ status that does not assume employers’ social and legal responsibilities and declines to establish or honor employment relations between platform owners and gig workers. Food delivery platforms claim that they only mediate restaurant owners, couriers and customers, while receiving commissions from both customers and restaurant owners and subcontracting labour at a significantly lower cost. These characteristics–alongside other features of gig work such as short-term and task-based contracts, the absence of binding spatial and temporal dimensions in the workplace, and algorithmic management–provide favorable conditions for platforms to move freely out of the local market. Accordingly, platforms are currently emerging as a new site of capital mobility.

When Foodora left, what happened to the workers?

The 35 former Foodora workers I interviewed expressed a range of emotions about Foodora’s exist—shock, worry, anger, sadness, betrayal, frustration and regret. Foodora’s exit was a shock and sad news for many of its couriers. However, the meanings behind and implications of the shock and sadness differed according to the economic dependence of the workers.

I spoke to former Foodora couriers whose identity was in line with the dominant ideology that platforms promote, notably in their advertisements: these workers saw themselves as side-hustlers who enjoy supplemental incomes and flexible schedules. From the perspective of platforms, these workers may be easier to convince to apply and easier to let go, since they carry little weight and gig work is interpreted as a hobby or part-time job. For these workers, while they expressed shock and sadness, Foodora’s exit meant the loss of a hobby or a lucrative sideline. They did not rely on this work for their livelihood for various reasons. Many had full-time employment that was stable and with work-related benefits, freelance work associated with their identity, or multiple other sources of income.

However, I also met many workers who could not simply forget and move on. In my study, I refer to them as dependent gig workers, who worked for platforms full-time or combined gig work with full-time employment under precarious work conditions. Because Foodora accounted for a significant portion of their earnings, its exit triggered an economic emergency. Many amongst this group were people of color and immigrants who had recently arrived in Canada but were unable to find equivalent jobs in the labour market. By contrast, among the part-time and hobby couriers, almost all were Canadian citizens.

These dependent gig workers’ stories challenge the public impression generated by platforms that gig workers can find jobs with them as quickly and easily as they want. After Foodora announced its exit, these workers tried to find other gigs to replace their lost income. However, it was neither easy nor immediate. In large cities such as Toronto, where many platforms operate in the same area, there is already an excess of couriers over the demand. When these interviewees signed up for other platforms such as DoorDash or SkipTheDishes, they were placed on a waitlist and told to stand by until they were contacted. Jamal worked for four delivery platforms, including Foodora, to support himself and his wife, who was only allowed to work limited hours because of her immigrant status. His solution to the problem was to send a desperate email to the platforms, in which he told a very personal and moving story about his hardships as a newcomer in Canada. He believes that it was this that enabled him to start working again earlier than he expected.

Although there are few barriers to entry and the skills required for this work are low, these jobs exist only ‘at the whim of the market’, as one of the interviewees put it. Such jobs depend heavily on market conditions, corporate policy, and competition. The platforms even control the number of couriers but are rarely transparent about their practices. Workers’ work conditions and earnings fluctuate depending on the platforms’ decisions and economic and social conditions such as the pandemic.

After Foodora’s exit, most of the less dependent gig workers had stopped working for platforms, since they had no significant need to continue. However, dependent workers still worked for platforms, including food delivery services such as UberEats and SkipTheDishes, grocery delivery platforms like Instacart and Cornershop, parcel delivery services and in an Amazon warehouse—in many cases, with worse (and ever-worsening) work conditions, lowered earnings, and longer work hours.

Gig work, real work

Platforms usually present the gig worker as someone who is free and autonomous and does not economically depend on platforms. Since Foodora’s exit, other gig workers have been erased from platforms’ business discourse or advertisements—these are the people for whom gig work is real work that they depend upon to live. Their presence challenges the myth that multinational platforms can depart without leaving a trace.

Indeed, these workers who cannot simply move on and who may harbor feelings of bitterness are still organizing to challenge such dominant images of gig workers.

Youngrong Lee is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at University of Toronto.

To read more, see: Youngrong Lee, “After a Global Platform Leaves: Understanding the Heterogeneity of Gig Workers through Capital Mobility” in Critical Sociology 2021.

Image: Tiia Monto via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)