Sometimes jokes have a stabilising function, particularly in times of COVID-19: ‘How do you manage to do contact-free delivery if the soup has spilled into the backpack?’, asks one Berlin rider for the food delivery platform Lieferando to his colleagues. ‘I throw a drinking straw to the customer’, replies another. The joke expresses the serious situation. These two riders are not only exposed to health-related risks, they also fear for their daily income. In the current crisis, their livelihood as food couriers relies on new constellations of (im)mobility: their own ability to stay on the move and navigate a city in lockdown, while also catering for those whose mobility is constrained by COVID-19 restrictions.
The gig economy is a prime example, both for the constitutive importance of mobility for labour as well as for its reconfiguration in times of COVID-19.
While the workers fear for their safety, the crisis surrounding the global spread of the novel COVID-19 has become a big moment for digital platforms. In China, the crisis led to a boom for platforms delivering meals and other shopping items to the doors of their isolated clients. At the heights of the lockdown in some European cities like Paris and Milan, food delivery riders were often the only people still seen on otherwise empty streets. Coined as ‘corona shares’ by the financial world, the rise in value for certain stocks of the ‘stay-at-home’/‘work-from-home’ industries such as video conferencing or home deliveries is remarkable. They hint at how amply the current crisis is reshaping the spatiality and (im)mobility of labour.
Even before the crisis, in Berlin and many other cities across the globe, the majority of platform workers were migrants. For them, the current situation is particularly precarious. This is the case for Cristina, a recent newcomer to Berlin from Buenos Aires. Shortly after arriving in Berlin with a one-year visa, she started working for Helpling, a German gig economy platform for cleaning services. She had heard about the option to enrol with them in Argentina and had registered even before her arrival to Berlin. Amongst migrants from Argentina and other Latin American countries, it is common knowledge that working for Helpling is an option to make a living. Such platforms ask for very few papers, they accept people with short residence status, do not ask for language skills, and take in just about everyone who applies.
Bastián, a food courier from Chile, tells a similar story. Platforms like Helpling or Deliveroo are in his opinion ‘easy jobs to apply for when you come with a visa, because you only have one year and you don’t need many papers, and you don’t need to speak German’. Like him and Cristina, many of these young migrants have university degrees, but struggle to find other jobs. Bastián argues, ‘this is the only option that the immigrants, or people from Chile, or people from India have. So, even though the work conditions are sh**, (…), I was really happy with it. And as long as I didn’t get hit by a car, everything was going to be okay.’ His last sentence underlines the extreme precarity of platform labour. Gig workers are self-employed: there is no sick pay, insurance, or income guarantee in times of low demand.
Under the current difficult conditions, such precarious jobs demand flexibility and the readiness to move on. During the lockdown in Berlin, cleaning jobs became rarer. Cristina and her boyfriend, who is also registered with Helpling, relocated to the Western part of Germany. Here, they worked for 12 hours a day as harvest helpers in agriculture. In this job, they fill in for a different group of migrants. Seasonal workers, mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe, usually populate Germany’s fields during the summer. This year their labour mobility was curtailed due to the closure of European borders. Facing prolonged pressure from the agriculture economy, the German government finally issued special permits for tens of thousands of seasonal workers who were flown into the country with chartered flights. The death of one of these workers from Romania from COVID-19 as well as the rising number of infected workers in the meatpacking industry – another hotspot for temporary and posted workers from neighbouring European countries – now shines a spotlight on sectors of the labour market, which are maintained by migrant labour that otherwise remains invisible.
Upon her return to Berlin, Cristina hopes that customers will begin to hire platform workers to clean their flats again. Another option to raise income could be one of the many online labour platforms. Here, Cristina would join workers from across the world in another type of gig economy platforms, so-called crowdwork platforms. These, too, could become other winners of the COVID-19 crisis. Just like Deliveroo and Helpling, they function according to a logic of work-on-demand, and they outsource computer work to internet users around the globe. Compared to the mobile food couriers or taxi drivers, it is often their very immobility that has brought them to these platforms. Many of them are tied to their homes due to care responsibilities or physical limitations.
This is the situation for Eliana – a 60-year-old housewife from Romania who used to work as an electrical engineer until her company went bankrupt in 2017. She was already struggling to find a new job when she developed serious health problems that did not permit much moving around. She earns her unstable income by working from home on the platform Microworkers. Day in, day out she logs on to the platform and competes for a variety of tasks, such as data labelling or content evaluation for tech giants like Facebook, with 1.7 million other workers worldwide, who are registered on the platform. In contrast to delivery workers or harvest helpers, the livelihoods of these homeworkers do not rely on physical mobility. Yet, their labour power still moves – mostly invisibly – across digital space, something which we may think of as ‘virtual migration’.
Even before the pandemic, platform labour had a special relationship to (im)mobility, embodied both in the figure of a migrant food courier as well as a crowdworker working remotely for customers on the other side of the globe. While these workers and their precarious mobilities have been unsettled by the COVID-19 crisis, it has become clearer than ever that mobility is constitutive for labour – paradoxically, even when people are stuck in their homes.
Manuela Bojadžijev is Professor at the Institute for European Ethnology and vice-director of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
Mira Wallis is a research fellow and PhD candidate at the Centre for Digital Cultures (CDC) at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. She is also an associate member of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
Moritz Altenried is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute of Sociology and Cultural Organization (ISCO), Leuphana University of Lüneburg and the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research (BIM) at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Together with Manuela Bojadžijev and Mira Wallis he is currently researching the ‘Digitalisation of Labour and Migration’ in a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG): http://www.platform-mobilities.net/en