The Appeal and Challenges of Platform-Based Work from the Perspective of Three Migrant Workers

Niels van Doorn
Darsana Vijay

Recently, we’ve seen the publication of several news articles documenting the issues faced by migrant workers who fuel platform-based on-demand labor in Colombia, the US, China, South Africa, and France. They note that immigrant gig workers take on disproportionate risks to make a living in a new country. Getting the proper work permits and other forms of documentation can be time-consuming and, in some cases, impossible. In this situation, platform-based work offers what many welcome as a stopgap income opportunity – a way of earning some cash immediately.

In this three-part blog post, we take a look at the experiences of three migrant workers who use on-demand labor platforms to earn a living in New York, Berlin and Amsterdam. In recounting their trajectory from the moment of their migration to the present day, we show what motivated them to pursue platform-mediated labor and how this work has benefitted them, while also documenting the challenges and frustrations they face.

In this first blog post, we introduce the three workers – Mohammed, José, and Andrei – looking at the reasons why they moved away from their country, the kinds of work they were able to find, and the struggles they experienced before they took up platform-based work. In the next blog post, we will examine their different motivations for doing so and the opportunities as well as the challenges they faced in realizing their goals while working for different platforms. In light of these opportunities and challenges, the final part of this series examines their “exit strategies”, to the extent that a pending or eventual exit from platform labor was on their mind. By way of conclusion, we draw on the experiences and perspectives of the three men to suggest that progressive policy and regulatory measures should not limit themselves to the realm of platform labor alone.

Background

Mohammed

Mohammed currently works part-time as a Helpling cleaner in Berlin and also freelances as a social media marketer. He is in his thirties and from Syria, where he attended university. Mohammed left his war-torn country after he refused to join the military (which is compulsory for Syrians above the age of 18). Consequently, he had to leave the country within 24 hours and was told that he would no longer be recognized as a Syrian national. All the documents issued by the government, including his university degree, suddenly ceased to be valid. He moved to Qatar, where he found it difficult to find stable employment because the government does not issue work permits to Syrian nationals. He did several gigs, until he found a relatively stable job as a salesperson in a high-end furniture showroom.

Mohammed’s hard work and initiative was recognized by his employer, who promoted him to the role of floor manager and even paid the fine for employing Mohammed without a work permit, because he was bringing in a lot of business for the showroom. However, his employer let him go when new laws came into effect that would entail jail time for employing workers without permits. Mohammed found himself having to relocate again and had to move quickly, as his Syrian passport was set to expire in a few days. He flew to Turkey, crossed the sea to Greece, and eventually made his way to Germany on foot, along with a few Syrian friends – all of them entering Europe as refugees. This was three years ago.

In the conversation with Mohammed, he downplayed the magnitude of his struggle to get where he is today and focused more on what he had accomplished so far as well as his future plans. Even immediately after his arrival in Berlin, he did not want to depend on the German government to provide him shelter or sustenance. Within a couple of weeks, he found accommodation in a shared flat, using up what remained of his severance package for the deposit. He leveraged the knowledge and skills he acquired while working in Qatar to find work as a freelance social media marketer in Berlin. He also enrolled in German language courses right away, because he found it difficult to find stable work without knowing German. A year after his arrival, he fell in love with someone and they got married a year later. Mohammed started out with Helpling six months before our interview, to supplement his income. Extra income is always welcome for someone who has to rebuild his life from scratch, he noted, especially now that he has a family to support. He takes it upon himself to provide for all the household expenses, even though his partner also has an income. That’s just how he was raised, he clarified.

José

José currently works for Relay, a food delivery platform in New York City. Next to this, he has a part-time gig as a courier for a high-end restaurant. José was born in Mexico and attended school only until junior high, when he briefly got mixed up in gangs. At the age of 13, he dropped out and started working as a mechanic to make an independent living. Twenty years ago, at 17, he decided to move to the US. His friends who were already in the US paid for a smuggler to help him cross the desert and while José was aware of the risks involved, he – like many of his peers – desired a fresh start in the US. There, he imagined, he would work hard for three to five years, earn a decent amount of money, and build a house in Mexico. If he had stayed in Mexico, it would have taken someone with his educational qualifications at least 15 to 20 years to achieve this goal. Over the following years, however, the situation in Mexico changed considerably and the cost of living there increased tremendously. Mexicans like José, who moved to the US hoping to leave a few years later with a considerable sum of money in their pocket, find themselves having to keep working to support their families back in Mexico. The house still remains a distant dream.

José worked in a restaurant as a busboy, then a line cook, and eventually he ended up running the kitchen. He was fired, however, when he tried to initiate a strike to get better wages for him and his co-workers. After a stormy period during which he relocated to different places in the south of the US and got into a relationship with a woman with whom he had two kids, he was forced to leave Alabama as the new administration there started cracking down on undocumented immigrants. He moved back to New York and picked up where he left off, managing deliveries at the restaurant where he used to work. A delivery-related accident got him fired another time, however, after which he found work in a bagel shop that paid him an hourly minimum wage. While happy with this pay, the prospect of a third child and a number of other costly personal circumstances forced José to look for additional work. This is when he heard about Relay from the couriers picking up food at the bagel shop. Not long after, he decided to give it a try.

Andrei

Andrei is a courier for Uber Eats in Amsterdam, where he also works in an automobile service shop. He moved from Romania to Amsterdam 12 years ago, to earn money and support his family back in home. When he arrived in Amsterdam, he had just 14 euros to his name. Andrei was homeless and slept on a small open boat, under a plastic tarp, for the first eight months. As he couldn’t afford to purchase a bike, he put one together using parts from two broken bikes he found on the street. Over the following four years, he would use it daily to cycle six kilometers to the restaurant where he worked (informally) as a cleaner, sending 75% of his paycheck to his family in Romania. When his mother passed away, he decided to move back indefinitely.

Two years later, Andrei returned to Amsterdam, this time bringing with him official documents (including a school diploma) translated into Dutch, which – he hoped – would help him find formal employment in construction. He initially rented a room in his friend’s apartment, but managed to find his own place after finding a construction job and picking up his old restaurant cleaning job. He continued to work in construction for the following six years, during which he eventually switched his restaurant cleaning job for Foodora. The food delivery company hired him as an employee, back when the independent contractor model wasn’t as common in the Dutch market, and Andrei enjoyed the work – especially how it allowed him to work outdoors and bike around across the city. Yet it was also a very taxing situation for him, because he had to travel long distances between his delivery area and the construction site.

When the wait for the renewal of his contract with the construction company took longer than expected, Andrei decided to sign up for Deliveroo as a stopgap measure. This was around the time Foodora had announced its exit from the Dutch market. Intended as a temporary gig, working for Deliveroo became a more serious occupation when his construction contract wasn’t renewed. He really liked what he was doing and worked as much as he could for about a year, but when he got into an altercation in a restaurant he was suddenly kicked off the Deliveroo platform. Luckily, Andrei was able to quickly switch to Uber Eats, so he could continue to pay his bills. These days, he claims to work over 100 hours a week, dividing his time between Uber Eats and an automobile repair shop. On top of this he also does some odd jobs in construction every month, which brings in good money. By working around the clock, he is able to rent an expensive apartment in the city center, pay all his bills and taxes, and send money to his family back in Romania. He also manages to save some money for a rainy day.

Mohammed, José and Andrei all turned to platform-based gig work to make more money to support their families. They each faced difficulties in finding work, especially work that granted some flexibility so that they could schedule it around their existing jobs. The differences in their background, such as documentation status, level of education, linguistic proficiency and number of dependents impact the extent to which they are dependent on platform-based work – and for how long. This is something we will elaborate on in part II of our series, where we address the opportunities and challenges the three men faced while working for these platforms.