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Managing while invisible: how the gig economy shapes us and our cities



The gig economy is full of disruptive technological darlings. Uber revolutionised how we used taxis, AirBnB changed the hospitality market forever, while Deliveroo has a substantial impact on how cities develop and change and how we use our city space. Their impact, we argue, is a consequence of one of their most important inventions: how to look like they’re invisible. It is by making themselves invisible that they redefine social responsibilities. This is their basic modus operandi (MO), which they put forward and apply again, and again, most recently, to deny employee rights to their workers. This MO is based on their effortful attempt to act and manage invisibly, which is a political act. We look at Uber for evidence of such invisible management.

We draw these conclusions from our analysis of two UK court cases, one in the High Court of Justice in 2015, and the following major Uber case in the UK that took place in the Central London Employment Tribunal in 2016. These cases are interesting because they reveal how the judges have to navigate the law to rule on concepts that weren’t thought of when the laws were written. Quite a challenge indeed!

The first court case was a ruling from the High Court of Justice in October 2015. The judge had to consider whether Uber was a taxi service, and hence, a transport service and not a technology company. The key object in that issue was whether the app could be considered a taximeter or not. What is a taximeter? It is defined as a calculative device that “must be for the calculation of the fare”. Yes, clients exchange money with drivers to take them from one point to another and this is displayed on the clients’ and drivers’ apps. The calculation, however, happens in Uber’s servers and not in the apps, and so the smartphones are not taximeters, and thus Uber is not a taxi service. Its non-presence in the drivers’ car allows it to remain a technology company and not a transport service. Uber, then, was just a technological infrastructure that matched people together.

If Uber is not there in the car for calculating fares, its presence is felt in other ways as the second case will show. In the Central London Employment Tribunal in 2016, the judge’s ruling centres this time on the changing nature of Uber and its position as an intermediary. Uber presents itself as an invisible infrastructure that connects two people and proposes a fare and travel option. An infrastructure is a great analogy for Uber: you don’t think about the roads you walk in when you walk them, their purpose or why they are there. You don’t wonder where the water pipes that give you water come from or go to: it’s there and it’s as if it’s always been there. It’s hard to imagine London without its roads.

So when questions arise whether drivers should be considered as employees and what is Uber’s involvement with them, the invisible infrastructure is a great analogy for them because it rationalises their usefulness without them being conspicuously involved; even their fare calculations are unseen. As an infrastructure company, Uber is like a road connecting people together. Their involvement is invisible, you don’t question the road you walk on when you go meet someone, do you? However, a series of documents presented to the judge by both the claimants and defendants make the judge unpack the invisible aspect of the infrastructure.

Indeed, Uber imposes upon the drivers the path to take (with ensuing punishment if the drivers fail to take it), monitors the behaviour of drivers (through a rating system), or screens the drivers and their cars at recruitment (black cars are preferred). Many of these conditions and monitoring happens through and by the algorithm. Invisible, yet organising work, Uber’s algorithm was deemed to manage people just as a supervisor would.

The law here is a key player in the definition of Uber itself and technology. Before the Central London Employment Tribunal’s ruling, Uber was a digital platform, exemplar among the technology companies as a match-maker infrastructure having as much right to be part of our cities as the streets have; an invisible actor connecting people together and drawing up the public space for us. After the ruling, Uber became an infrastructure with responsibilities. These can be listed: Uber made sense of the city, mapped it, decided what cars should roam where, what roads to take, what price to pay. Uber did not only match people together, it also became seen as an agent responsible for defining the roles of the people it connected. Through its driver ratings, Uber, for example, would define what a good driver was. The app rating system had an answer, Uber could define the notion of driver from their interactions with the app. Ironically, it is these questions that pushed the two claimants to present their case against Uber: they resisted the app’s control over their own understanding of what drivers are, where they should be, and who should judge them.

Uber is an infrastructure different to the roads, the ports, and the pipes in our cities. It is a thinking infrastructure that manages people through our very use. It is important, in our mind, to think beyond digital infrastructures cast as platforms without responsibilities, without agencies. They make people perform certain roles and act in certain and specific ways which may be obscured, obfuscated, or plainly unclear. We have to think about infrastructures beyond just a foundation upon which other things are built, but as infrastructures that create relations and create roles. From this perspective, defining infrastructure becomes a political act. Beyond the promise of efficient matchmaking, what sort of society are such platforms trying to configure? Perhaps, we should also ask ourselves: what sort of society are we willing to see?



  • This blog post expresses the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image by, under a CC-BY-2.0 licence
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Daniel Curto-Millet is a Marie Curie research fellow at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), studying the sustainability of open source beyond technical environments. His is interested in the intersection between organisation, technology, and society. He has conducted research on openness as an organisational principle and open source software development. Daniel holds a PhD in Information systems from LSE. Twitter @curtomil.

Roser Pujadas is a research fellow in information systems at LSE, undertaking research on the organisational, managerial and social implications of digital interfaces, as part of the EPSRC-funded project Interface Reasoning for Interacting Systems (IRIS). She is broadly interested in the social and organisational implications of digital innovation. She has conducted research on the sharing economy, considering the variety of models of economic organisation that digital platforms support, and the ways gig workers navigate and support each other in the sharing economy landscape. Roser holds a PhD in information systems (LSE). Twitter @roserpujadas1.


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Amazon looks for gig workers to pick up and deliver orders at Whole Foods




Photo (c) Andrei Stanescu – Getty Images

With the gig economy continuing to grow but the COVID-19 pandemic cutting into wages, gig workers looking for work might want to pay Whole Foods a visit. Amazon is now recruiting contract workers to both shop for and deliver groceries for Whole Foods Market customers who order their groceries online.

According to a Bloomberg report, drivers can easily sign up for the Shop and Deliver program by simply reviewing an online tutorial about how Whole Foods products are picked, packed, and handled, as well as scoring a passing grade on a quiz.

Until now, Whole Foods relied on its own employees to assemble online orders, but the program model is akin to Amazon Flex, an initiative the company rolled out several years ago that relies on independent contractors to deliver packages. 

Inherent issues

From its catbird seat, various grocery industry watchers raised questions about Amazon’s move. 

“By entrusting gig workers to put orders together for Whole Foods customers, Amazon is potentially increasing the risk that items could be damaged, spoiled or delivered late that is inherent in grocery e-commerce,” GroceryDive’s Sam Silverstein wrote.

Another question raised was that while delivery service is an easy thing to learn, in-store tasks like picking aren’t.

“Delivery from A to B is a beautiful on-demand task because it’s very straightforward, very repeatable and you don’t need a lot of training, [but] tasks in stores are often much more complicated,” Jordan Berke, a former Walmart executive and e-commerce expert who runs Tomorrow Retail Consulting, told GroceryDive.

“A person that comes to your store once a day or once every two days to pick two orders is always learning, while a person that picks 50 orders five days a week” has a better opportunity to become familiar with the lay of the land inside a grocery store, and is more likely to know where items are located and how they should be handled.

Potential good news for consumers

Online grocery shopping is growing in leaps and bounds. The segment is expected to grow from about $38 million in 2018 to nearly $60 billion by 2023. Amazon and Walmart are in a pretty secure place for the moment — and keep upping the ante — but more and more companies are trying to elbow their way in like Uber and DoorDash. The upside for consumers is that companies are constantly trying to find ways to keep prices as low as possible. 

“They’re always going to look for ways to keep their cost of service as low as possible, and always look for ways to be super responsive in fulfilling customer demand,” Tom Furphy, former Amazon vice president of consumables and Amazon Fresh, told GroceryDive. 

“Those are three constants that will always exist as long as Amazon’s around, and they will absolutely look to deliver on that in the grocery environment.

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Iberdrola and GIG in 3.3GW offshore wind push in Japan




Iberdrola has acquired local developer Acacia Renewables and entered into a joint venture with Macquarie’s Green Investment Group (GIG) to develop its 3.3GW offshore wind portfolio.

Prior to the acquisition, Acacia was Macquarie Capital’s Japanese renewable energy platform, according to its website.

Acacia’s portfolio includes two projects with a combined capacity of 1.2GW at a more advanced stage, and a further four with a combined capacity of 2.1GW.

Spanish energy giant Iberdrola and the GIG aim to enter the first 1.2GW batch of wind farms – located off the south-west coast of Japan – in upcoming auctions announced by the Japanese government.

These first two projects could be commissioned by 2028, Iberdrola claimed.

The company said it has set its sights on Japan as a “new growth platform” in renewables, and offshore wind in particularly.

Iberdrola has stakes in operational offshore wind farms worldwide with a combined capacity of just over 1GW, while GIG has backed operational offshore wind projects with a combined capacity of just under 1.3GW, according to Windpower Intelligence, the research and data division of Windpower Monthly

The two companies will both take charge of developing Acacia’s projects.

Acacia had issued public notices of Environmental Impact Assessments for the six sites. These are wind farms called Satsuma, Nanao Shika, Fukui Konpira, Shiroishi Kosugo, Fukui Konpira and Tono.

There is currently just over 40MW of operational wind power capacity installed in Japanese waters, according to Windpower Intelligence.

However, a growing number of developers are targeting the nascent market ahead of offshore wind tenders, which are expected to be opened shortly.

Last week, Equinor, Jera and J-Power joined a long list of partnerships targeting the Japanese offshore wind market, despite the nation’s apparent slow uptake of the technology.

In 2019, the Japan Wind Power Association said that the lengthy process for environmental impact assessment was having an impact on the development of offshore wind.

One of the main obstacles for wind developers in Japan comes from opposition from local fishing communities.

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In Season Of Strikes For Gig Workers, Now Swiggy Delivery Execs In Noida Rebel




After strikes in Chennai and Hyderabad in the last 30 days, Swiggy’s delivery executives in Noida have gone on strike to protest against low wages

The delivery workers are demanding a minimum payout of INR 35 per order and restoration of monthly incentives, among other demands

Similar demands were also raised by Swiggy’s delivery partners in Hyderabad, who went on an indefinite strike last week

With similar demands as their counterparts in Chennai and Hyderabad, delivery executives with Indian foodtech unicorn Swiggy in Noida, on Thursday (September 17), went on a strike to protest against low wages. 

The strike comes just days after Swiggy’s delivery partners went on an indefinite strike in Hyderabad to protest against the low wages and to press their demands. 

In Noida, the protesting delivery workers are demanding a minimum payout per order of INR 35, a minimum payout of INR 20 per batched order (when the driver has to make more than one delivery in a single trip), and a payout at the rate of INR 10 per km after the worker has travelled more than 5 km for making a delivery, among other things.

The delivery partners in Noida, affiliated with the All India Gig Workers Union (AIGWU), have also demanded the reinstatement of monthly incentives of up to INR 3,000 for full-time work and INR 2,000 for part-time work. 

Further, the delivery partners are also demanding extra wages for deliveries made while it rains, or in nights, as also, compensation for waiting time at restaurants, while the order is being prepared. 

“Swiggy delivery workers are taking extraordinary risks by delivering food and essentials to people during this pandemic. The company cannot reward us by cutting our payouts and incentives. Our demands should be met at the earliest,” reads the letter stating the demands of AIGWU for Swiggy’s delivery workers, addressed to Swiggy’s CEO Sriharsha Majety. 

The demands of the delivery workers in Noida are similar to the demands of the workers in Hyderabad, who, earlier this week, launched an indefinite strike to protest against Swiggy paying low wages to the delivery workers. 

The workers in Hyderabad have alleged that during the lockdown, their minimum payout per order reduced from INR 35 to INR 15, while the company also removed monthly incentives to the tune of INR 5,000. 

When asked about the protest of delivery workers in Hyderabad earlier this week, a Swiggy spokesperson told Inc42, “Most delivery partners in Hyderabad make over INR 45 per order, with the highest performing partners making over INR 75 per order. This INR 15 is only one of the many components of the service fee.”

“Naturally, no active delivery partners in Hyderabad have made only INR 15 per order in the last four weeks. It is important to note that the service fee per order is based on multiple factors to adequately compensate our partners including distance travelled, waiting time, customer experience, shift completion and incentives. Regular competitive benchmarking shows that these are at par, if not higher than the industry standards,” Spokesperson added.

In what has been a season of strikes for gig workers, last month, Swiggy’s delivery executives in Chennai had gone on strike to press for their demands. A few days after the strike in Chennai, Swiggy told NDTV that the company had had a positive dialogue with the protesting delivery partners and was back to serving the entire city of Chennai with its fleet of workers.

Meanwhile, the Indian government’s new draft social security code is said to have recognised gig workers, and will mandate gig economy companies to contribute to a social security fund for gig and platform workers, reported Business Standard. Approved by the Union Cabinet last week, the code, which will have several other benefits outlined for gig workers, will come up in the Parliament’s ongoing monsoon session.

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