The gig staff preventing again in opposition to the algorithms

Within the Bendungan Hilir neighborhood, only a stone’s throw from Jakarta’s glitzy central enterprise district, a protracted row of makeshift picket stalls crammed onto the sidewalk serves noodle soup, fried rice, and cigarettes to locals.

One place stands out specifically, buzzing with bike drivers clad in inexperienced. It’s a casual “base camp,” or assembly level, for drivers with Gojek, Indonesia’s largest ride-hailing agency—a part of the spine of a rising motion of resistance in opposition to the dispatch algorithms that dominate their lives.

Gojek affords motorcycle taxis along with automobiles. You’ll be able to see its trademark inexperienced jackets and helmets all over the place as its motorcycle drivers take passengers on their again seats, and ship meals and parcels. In between gigs, drivers must recharge their telephones, eat meals, and wash up. Because the firm doesn’t provide many resting amenities, the neighborhood created its personal areas like this one in Bendungan Hilir, colloquially often known as Benhil.

Regulars of this location desire it for its proximity to most of the eating places well-liked with Gojek’s meals supply clients. They’ll relaxation whereas staying “on-bid,” the native time period for being accessible to take incoming orders—which is essential as a result of they have to keep that standing for hours.

Drivers congregate at base camps like this roadside stall in Benhil, Jakarta to seize a chunk, cost their telephones, and commerce suggestions for staying secure on the street.

Base camps grew out of a practice that existed earlier than algorithmic ride-hailing providers got here to Indonesia. Bike drivers used to supply rides to folks informally, and they’d collect at road corners and meals stalls to commerce information and gossip or share suggestions for staying secure on the street. As soon as Gojek and different apps arrived, the behavior carried over, says Rida Qadri, an MIT computational social scientist who research Jakarta’s ride-hailing driver communities. Base camps turned the community via which drivers across the metropolis stayed in tight communication.

This sense of neighborhood is now on the coronary heart of what distinguishes Jakarta’s drivers from different gig staff world wide. Whereas such staff all over the place have felt more and more squeezed and exploited by unforgiving algorithms, most have struggled to arrange and impact concrete adjustments within the platforms that management their work or the federal government insurance policies that allow their mistreatment.

A part of that is because of the direct problem that algorithmic administration poses to labor organizers: it pits staff in opposition to each other and scatters them throughout an unlimited geographical space, says Jason Jackson, a political economic system and concrete planning professor at MIT who suggested Qadri’s analysis. By default, it weakens staff’ talents to attach in individual and construct the rapport wanted to mobilize a motion.

This impact will be seen within the US particularly, the place Uber drivers haven’t been capable of achieve an viewers with firm management, not to mention generate the momentum to struggle in opposition to the corporate’s subtle anti-regulation methods, says Veena Dubal, a legislation professor on the College of California Hastings School of the Regulation, who research and advocates on behalf of US gig staff. “The digital formation of neighborhood simply isn’t the identical,” she says.

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However in Jakarta, issues have performed out in another way. By means of base camps, drivers don’t simply hold one another knowledgeable; they assist each other and band collectively to bend Gojek’s system a bit extra towards their will. It’s opened up new channels of communication with the corporate and laid the groundwork for lasting coverage change.

Over time, as increasingly more staff have fallen below the gaze of algorithms, a rising refrain of consultants have famous how platform firms have paralleled the practices of colonial empires in utilizing administration instruments to surveil and exploit a broad base of low cost labor. However the expertise of Jakarta’s drivers may reveal a brand new playbook for resistance: a approach for staff to construct collective energy, obtain a measure of safety, and deal with each other when seemingly nobody else will.

The higher Jakarta space is residence to greater than 30 million folks. It’s an unlimited city agglomeration that started growing at hyper velocity within the 1970s and ’80s. Its essential streets are lined with high-rises, malls, and five-star inns. However a block away, tiny tin-roofed homes type cramped neighborhoods and winding alleys too slender for automobiles.

Navigating this metropolis has at all times been a problem. Jakarta solely opened its first trendy metro line in 2019. Each day commutes include hours-long rides in automobiles and buses via gridlocked site visitors or old school trains that pack passengers like sardines.

gojek driver on the street in Jakarta


It was this sheer impossibility of getting round, particularly throughout rush hour, that gave rise to a casual bike taxi economic system lengthy earlier than the appearance of apps like Gojek. On this unregulated market, drivers (largely males) with ojeks, the Indonesian phrase for motorcycle taxis, waited on road corners throughout the town and provided folks a elevate after they’d run out of choices.

For purchasers, the expertise might be irritating. Drivers organized in teams round totally different territories, largely primarily based on their very own neighborhoods, and typically declined to drive lengthy distances. In a crowded commuter space like a prepare station, it might be worrying to wade via the crush of ojek drivers waving and shouting to get your consideration, and to haggle for a worth. 

It was on this chaos that Gojek founder Nadiem Makarim noticed a enterprise alternative. In 2010, Makarim, who’d grown up in a comparatively privileged Indonesian household, established a name heart to match passengers with trusted bike drivers. For the primary time, ojeks have been being organized and dispatched by a 3rd social gathering. A yr later, he expanded the concept when he joined the e-commerce startup Zalora, letting the corporate’s last-mile bike supply fleet ferry people round of their downtime.

Then Uber, with its novel algorithmic matchmaking system, entered Indonesia in August 2014. Gojek adopted with its personal cell app just a few months later, centralizing its current fleet and consolidating the fractured neighborhood mannequin below a unified set of algorithms.

Ordering ojeks through app, for a predetermined worth, was a success amongst passengers. It was catnip for buyers as properly, says Hian Goh, a associate at Singapore-based Openspace Ventures, considered one of Gojek’s earliest funders. Not solely was Uber’s enterprise mannequin rising like loopy—a testomony to Gojek’s explosive potential—however Makarim had the right founder profile for worldwide buyers in Indonesia’s underdeveloped tech scene. After years of elite education in Jakarta, he’d gone to an Ivy League school and Harvard Enterprise Faculty earlier than taking a job on the top-tier administration consulting agency McKinsey.

As extra investor cash poured in, there was little concern that Gojek would face any of the labor points starting to confront Uber. Within the US, Uber had turned taxi driving from a salaried job with advantages into piecemeal gig labor. However in Indonesia, Gojek was turning casual transportation into an orderly, semi-formal trade. Within the context of the remainder of Indonesia’s largely casual economic system, which encompassed all the things from pop-up meals stalls to unlicensed enterprises providing laundry or residence cleansing, the federal government noticed the change as an excellent factor.

Gojek headquarters at Blok M, Jakarta, Indonesia.


At first, drivers did too. Those that signed up with the intention of driving half time have been quickly quitting their jobs and changing to Gojek full time. Ojek drivers who held onto previous types of group have been squeezed out as the corporate purchased out their colleagues with hefty bonuses and guarantees of earnings as a lot as triple their current revenue.

However in alternate for the early positive factors, staff misplaced a big quantity of their company. The place ojek drivers beforehand had a say of their pay and dealing circumstances, there was now solely obedience to the platform’s insurance policies and its all-seeing algorithm.

Quickly Gojek’s newly minted fleet started to really feel the influence of this actuality. As the corporate onboarded increasingly more drivers, jobs dwindled and costs dropped with extreme provide. Then because it entered into relentless worth wars with its Singaporean competitor Seize, it decreased drivers’ bonuses, forcing them to work longer hours for a similar cash.

“Once I interview representatives of the driving force neighborhood, they are saying that their life in Gojek is sort of a drug habit,” says Suci Lestari Yuana, a PhD candidate at Utrecht College, who research the conflicts and controversies surrounding the platform economic system in Indonesia. They watch their revenue shrink, however “they don’t produce other choices to get out anymore,” Yuana says. “They perceive that they’re very depending on the corporate.”

“Our driver companions are the core of our enterprise, and their welfare will at all times be our prime precedence,” says Tanah Sullivan, head of sustainability at GoTo Group, Gojek’s guardian firm. “With the bulk driving part-time, the pliability Gojek affords permits drivers to reinforce their revenue with different incomes alternatives… Primarily based on our personal knowledge, each two-wheel and four-wheel drivers’ general satisfaction has continued to enhance significantly in relation to earnings on our platform.”

Kejo, in his 30s and father to 2 younger women, pulls as much as the Benhil base camp on his Honda scooter round 7 p.m. Like many drivers, he sports activities the emblem of his driver neighborhood, Gojek on Twit, or GoT, a casual collective he helped type in 2017 that stays related via base camps and on-line teams.

At present his work day, which often begins within the early afternoon, ended with an surprising long-distance trip. It was tiring, however now he’s glad that he hit his day by day goal. He virtually at all times hits his goal, he says with a smile as he digs right into a plate of fried rice. He admits he’s among the many fortunate ones. His account is taken into account gacor—a time period that means it’s inexplicably blessed with a gentle stream of recent orders.

Kejo (who, like many Indonesians, has just one title) joined Gojek in 2015, proper when the app exploded in reputation. Although three-quarters of Indonesia’s employed carry out casual work, in line with the OECD, he hadn’t been amongst them; as a automotive salesman and a financial institution teller, he’d held steady jobs with advantages. However when Uber, Seize, after which Gojek got here onto the scene, ride-hailing had a sure attract. It promised higher freedom than an workplace job—and, crucially, extra money.

Kejo on bike
Kejo left a steady job to affix Gojek in 2015 as a result of it promised higher freedom—and crucially, extra money.

Certainly, he may earn 700,000 to 800,000 Indonesian rupiah (roughly $48 to $56) per day via 2016, when Gojek rewarded essentially the most energetic “driver-partners” with beneficiant bonuses. That might translate into an revenue that was considerably larger than the minimal wage in Jakarta, which is 4.6 million IDR, or $320, monthly.

Today he as an alternative makes 300,000 IDR ($21) at most, if he works from 2 p.m. to 7 or 8. Over time, Gojek phased out its bonuses as its driver community elevated and it confronted rising competitors.

Kejo shrugs. He doesn’t let this trouble him, however that doesn’t imply it’s been simple. Small incidents like delivering a package deal to the fallacious door can lead a driver’s account to be frozen or closed, if the driving force isn’t proactive in explaining what occurred or fixing the issue. The algorithm additionally penalizes staff for being inactive, even when they’re sick with covid. This demotes their account standing and prices them entry to extra common jobs.

“It actually offers staff no choice aside from to maintain working,” says Amalinda Savirani, an affiliate professor at Gadjah Mada College, who research social actions among the many city poor in Indonesia. “The expertise has turn into an instrument for this labor exploitation.”

“We’ve quite a few measures in place that instantly enhance working circumstances and supply alternatives for development of drivers, together with schooling and coaching, medical insurance, sick pay, and wellbeing initiatives,” Sullivan says. “These are along with complete packages launched to assist driver companions throughout our ecosystem amid the challenges caused by the pandemic.”

Kejo finds assist in GoT. It advanced organically round a handful of individuals like him, who’d joined ride-hailing early and wrote about their experiences on social media.

Kejo’s specialty is figuring out scams and warning drivers about them. Some drivers, new to utilizing smartphones, could make simple targets: for instance, typically fraudsters name, pretending to be Gojek staff, and steal login particulars and private info. He makes use of his community to trace new scams and their prevalence, and broadcasts them on his private Twitter account, which has over 17,000 followers.

Any Gojek driver with a social media account can select to take part, says Liam, one other early GoT member. If one individual shares a tip or a priority, it rapidly travels via a free community of WhatsApp and Telegram teams and throughout social media.

GoT additionally assists with “on a regular basis issues on the street,” says Budi Prakoso, who related with the group as an everyday on the Benhil base camp. As soon as when his motorcycle broke down, he instantly broadcast it to the group, and a close-by member arrived to assist him out.

Liam turned a Gojek driver in 2015.

Qadri says there are tons of of driver communities like GoT which have emerged from the bottom camps in Jakarta. Drivers will test in with one another day by day for all the things from recommendation on the perfect routes for a supply to methods for bettering their earnings. Throughout the pandemic, they distributed funds and meals bins to one another’s households, serving to them climate in any other case devastating revenue disruptions from momentary ride-hailing bans and strict lockdowns.

For feminine drivers, who’re a minority on the platforms, casual communities are additionally a strategy to keep secure. Rita Sari, who drives for Gojek’s four-wheel service GoCar, broadcasts her dwell location to GoT every time she takes a trip to an unfamiliar neighborhood, particularly at night time. It doesn’t matter that GoT’s members are largely drivers for Gojek’s motorbike-based providers. Their solidarity extends past that peer group and even to drivers from rival companies like Seize.

Assist comes from the broader neighborhood as properly. Base camps type and maintain themselves via relationships between drivers and the neighborhood: enterprise house owners present areas, native authorities approve their use for normal gatherings, meals stalls and mosques double up as makeshift shelters for younger males with out native household or housing who’ve moved to Jakarta to extend their Gojek earnings.

On this approach, the various layers of social connections are essential to serving to drivers survive, Qadri says. And it was atop this basis that the resistance first began.

It started with drivers converging on little hacks to make their day by day work a bit simpler. As increasingly more friends confronted the identical frustrations, they unfold their tips via the networks like some other piece of knowledge. Over time, these tips matured into what Savirani describes as “on a regular basis resistance”—techniques that helped drivers, absent any institutional assist, to regain management in tiny, cumulative methods.

Kejo prefers a technique often known as “account remedy,” a strategy to coax Gojek’s algorithm when it isn’t supplying sufficient of the specified orders. He used to have an account that gave him largely meals deliveries however discovered it too tough to maintain up through the wet season. Having noticed that the Gojek app learns drivers’ preferences by holding observe of which jobs they settle for, he started repeatedly rejecting meals orders and accepting solely passenger rides. After he continued via per week of days with none work, the system lastly “received it,” he says.

Different drivers who’re expert in deciphering the mysteries of the algorithm provide paid “remedy providers” to those that are struggling. A therapist will take over a consumer’s telephone for per week and slowly coax the account again to well being earlier than returning it to its proprietor.


Then there are extra subtle hacks. The extra tech-savvy within the driver communities have developed a complete ecosystem of unauthorized apps that assist drivers tweak and tune their accounts, Qadri says. Some are comparatively trivial, constructed merely to eradicate a reliance on Gojek’s engineering group: they enlarge the textual content on the app’s consumer interface to enhance its readability, or assist drivers settle for jobs routinely, a characteristic Gojek has by now included.

However the most well-liked, with greater than half one million downloads, spoof a telephone’s GPS. They can provide the phantasm {that a} driver who’s resting continues to be working. This could keep away from penalties for sick time or assist rapidly graduate an account to larger ranges with extra incomes potential. Such apps may give drivers entry to locations with excessive buyer demand with out requiring them to muscle into crowded areas.

All of those apps are often known as tuyul, after a mythological creature in Indonesian folklore that steals cash on behalf of its proprietor (although typically at an awesome worth). If Gojek catches a driver utilizing a tuyul, it suspends the account. This has led to an app battle, Savirani says: builders construct more and more complicated options to cover from Gojek’s detection methods as Gojek develops more and more complicated trackers to seek out them.

As driver networks have grown and amassed political capital, they’ve additionally sought to agitate for broader reforms. They use social media to protest undesirable app updates or push for characteristic requests. Gojek now sends representatives to base camps to hunt suggestions and buy-in from drivers about forthcoming adjustments.

Only recently, GoT pushed via what Budi considers a breakthrough. Drivers usually should pay parking charges out of their very own pocket in the event that they decide up a meals order. However after they campaigned in opposition to the coverage, Gojek is now passing the payment on to clients at choose mall and workplace areas. It’s additionally added an inside reporting mechanism that lets drivers earn a bit additional revenue for sending updates about which malls cost parking charges and the way a lot, Budi says. 

“Drivers really feel way more empowered, via their neighborhood construction, to succeed in out to administration and negotiate with them in a approach that I haven’t seen amongst Uber and Lyft drivers within the US,” Qadri says.

It’s not simply administration however regulators as properly. When Jakarta was making ready to host the Asian Video games in 2018, Garda, one other motorcycle taxi drivers’ affiliation, threatened a strike that may have disrupted the stream of transportation to and from the sporting occasions. The prospect of such humiliation for Indonesia on the world stage was strain sufficient to get the Ministry of Transportation to fulfill with the drivers.

Consequently, the ministry lastly acknowledged motorcycle taxis, which had beforehand lacked authorized standing. That may pave the best way for regulation to enhance their working circumstances, Yuana says.

Online motorcycle taxi drivers chat while waiting for orders at the roadside stall in Jakarta.


Dubal says these successes provide an vital lesson to labor rights advocates exterior of Indonesia: {that a} sturdy social infrastructure could be a highly effective antidote to technical fragmentation. “You don’t get the type of laws you need with out employee energy, and also you don’t have employee energy with out employee neighborhood,” she says.

That doesn’t imply the struggle is over. Removed from it: motorcycle drivers, and app-based transportation providers as an entire, are nonetheless largely unprotected by the legislation in Indonesia, says Taha Syarafil, the chairman of the drivers’ affiliation Asosiasi Driver On-line. And counting on on a regular basis resistance and mutual support to enhance circumstances with out correct authorized rights gained’t be tenable endlessly.

Day-to-day, Gojek has tightened its controls on unauthorized apps and extra severely cracked down on infractions. The corporate has additionally begun to purchase the allegiance of some leaders in driver communities via techniques resembling giving them early entry to new options and awarding them facet jobs.

However emboldened by their preliminary wins, drivers—particularly these a part of formal organizations like Asosiasi Driver On-line—at the moment are planning to push for extra regulatory adjustments. This consists of passing a legislation to acknowledge gig work on the highest degree of presidency, which might allow the Ministries of Transportation and Labor to implement minimal requirements for ride-hailing firms’ therapy of drivers.

Even when that occurs, although, casual communities will proceed to play a job in easing no matter challenges include the job—distributing meals support, serving to with flat tires, elevating cash for a hospitalized good friend. “The solidarity is robust,” Liam says. “Very, very sturdy.”

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