Karl from International Socialist Forward, Taiwan
With the popularization of the Internet and the development of technology, a new economic model of “gig economy” sprung up, led by online food delivery platforms such as UberEats and Foodpanda. In 2020, the pandemic hit the world, and these platforms developed rapidly. Delivery workers can be seen all over the streets of Taiwan. Gig economy claims to create a win-win situation for consumers and delivery workers, where consumers gain the convenience of delivery services and delivery workers are not bound by fixed working hours.
Some workers who entered the gig economy were dissatisfied with fixed low-income wages and desired to escape the restriction of traditional employment. The pursuit of a life that is not controlled by fixed working hours should be a legitimate and progressive development. However, under the logic of capitalism, the development of the gig economy has brought more intensification and less job security. The big data and algorithms controlled by large corporations have enabled a new level of ruthless control and exploitation over labor.
“Gig economy” is defined by the International Labor Organization as the use of digital platforms to “allocate work to individuals in a specific geographical area, typically to perform local, service-oriented tasks”. Workers in the gig economy are different from contract-based labor relations in the past. In addition to not receiving the standard protections of full-time employees, gig workers also suffer from additional problems.
Gig platforms attracted workers into the food delivery platform with the lure of “freedom” and “flexibility”. Delivery platforms claim that the relationship between the platform and the delivery workers is a commission by contract. However, in October 2019, the Ministry of Labor of Taiwan ruled that UberEats, Foodpanda and their delivery workers are in an employment relationship. The food delivery platforms are actually employing workers under the guise of commission to avoid the legal responsibilities as employers, such as the minimum wage stipulation in the Labor Law, occupational insurance, health insurance, severance payments, etc., passing those costs on to the workers themselves.
In addition, delivery platforms are designed with mechanisms such as gamified reward, penalties for refusing orders and continuously decreasing rewards, forcing workers to accept orders with the threat of reduced compensations or even suspension. As a result, we see that the so-called “freedom” and “flexibility” are just gimmicks used by corporations to lure in workers.
According to statistics from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the Ministry of Labor in Taiwan, the number of delivery workers in the country reached 145,000 in 2022. The Taiwan Labor Front conducted a survey with telephone interviews among platform workers in 2020, which showed that 24% of the respondents worked more than 50 hours a week, with 79% of them having worked more than the daily working hours (8 hours) suggested in the Labor Standards Act. 3% of delivery workers even reported maximum daily working hours of more than 20 hours!
Delivery workers work long hours in exchange for income. However, in recent years, delivery platforms have successively lowered compensations of delivery workers. Starting from March 2021, the two major food delivery platforms, Foodpanda and UberEats, have adjusted the compensation calculation in tandem. Foodpanda lowered the minimum price per order from the original 57 NTD to 44 NTD (roughly 1.36 USD), and the accumulated rewards also changed to reset every three days instead of fifteen; Uber Eats adopted differential rates during/off peak hours, significantly reducing off-peak compensation. Changes to the calculation by the two big platforms have punished delivery workers who work sporadically, completely contradicting the “freedom” and “flexibility” that they claimed.
In February 2023, the National Delivery Industry Union held a press conference and criticized UberEats for unilaterally cutting wages. Delivery orders within two kilometers were reduced from the original 60 NTD per order to 40 NTD (roughly 1.24 USD), a reduction of up to 20%. In addition, some workers reported traveling 3.8 kilometers, to only receive 40 NTD. These are only some examples. Compensations also fluctuate based on the geolocation, time and distance. However, the formula for compensation calculation of the platform remains opaque. Workers can’t accurately estimate their income before taking an order, and sometimes they finish an order only to find out the compensation is far from reasonable.
According to the annual Labor Inspection Report, the occupational accident rate per thousand workers in the transportation and warehousing industry in 2022 was 4.374%, significantly higher than the national average of 2.269%. Even in traditional employment, risks in the transportation and warehousing industry are already relatively high. According to a US survey report, the risk of occupational accidents for contract workers is further 36%-72% higher than that of traditional full-time employees.
Marx wrote in the Capital
“Given piece-wage, it is naturally the personal interest of the labourer to strain his labour-power as intensely as possible; this enables the capitalist to raise more easily the normal degree of intensity of labour.”
Piece-wages encourage delivery workers to complete each order as quickly as possible. The successive “innovations” have resulted in reduced income for delivery workers, forcing them to work more intensively over longer hours to maintain the same income. This undoubtedly increases the risk of occupational injuries.
In the gig economy, workers are reduced to atomized individuals. Unlike workers in offices or factories, delivery workers are unable to establish stable connections with other workers, and it is even more difficult to organize collective action to resist the platforms. Delivery workers have no way but to fight against the power of the platform alone. As a result, workers have no say in compensation and working conditions. Every time the delivery platform adjusts the compensation calculation, it is done unilaterally by the platform without any input from the workers.
However, delivery workers in Taiwan are not willing to let themselves be manipulated by the platform. Repeated cuts have triggered protests among delivery workers. In January 2020, Foodpanda adjusted the delivery fee for each order from the original 70 NTD to 55-60 NTD. The workers went on strike to protest against this unilateral change, calling on workers to collectively refuse to take orders. They also gathered in Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung to protest, with a total of 200 people protesting.
During this year’s (2023) May Day parade, the National Delivery Industry Union called on delivery workers, restaurants and consumers to boycott the delivery platforms on that day and made several demands to fight for the rights of delivery workers, including minimum wages, an open and transparent compensation formula, insurance paid for by the platforms and, most importantly, to fix the lack of legal protections for delivery workers.
In October 2023, delivery workers across Taiwan gathered together outside the Legislative Yuan (the legislature of Taiwan) in a press conference, calling for legal protections (i.e., the draft Delivery Platform Regulation and Workers Rights Protection Act) to be passed. They also voiced their dissatisfaction with union busting by the two major platforms.
It is worth noting that all major political parties sent representatives to participate in the press conference. However, although the New Power Party and the People’s Party proposed their own versions of the law, the future for the law is still unclear. The Legislative Yuan, which is controlled by KMT and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, does not take it seriously. If the current Legislative fails to pass it for the third time, then under the current bylaw, the proposal will be dead. On the other hand, some scholars have pointed out that there are still loopholes in the current draft. For example, the People’s Party’s version does not clearly define the contracting/employment relationship, which will require delivery workers to still file time-consuming lawsuits, not offering adequate protections.
Although the delivery workers’ struggle in Taiwan has not yet made significant progress, the above cases demonstrate how workers in the gig economy can organize and fight for labor rights. Workers in the gig economy should organize to fight for their rights and challenge the status quo of digital platforms that pursue profits at the expense of workers.
However, it is clear from the process of formulating the above-mentioned protection laws that the bourgeois-controlled Legislative does not have the will to pass it. Thus, the battle to protect the rights of delivery workers needs to be in the streets. Only by organizing and building a strong movement can we fight for the rights and interests of delivery workers.
The current situation of Taiwan’s delivery workers is just the tip of the iceberg of capitalism’s exploitation of labor by new technologies. Today, as employment in general becomes increasingly precarious, every person could be forced to become part of the gig economy, in one way or another. Supporting the struggle of delivery workers is not only about their rights. It inspires other workers in the gig economy or other forms of non-standard employment to take up the struggle.
We at International Socialism Forward call on the working class to organize a new worker’s party. Such a party should be based on broad mass participation and should be composed of the working class and grassroots, students and progressives. We must not rely on the KMT, the DPP, or other petit-bourgeois parties, and oppose the agents of the super rich. We, the working class, can only fight and speak for ourselves through a party of our own.