Demonstrating clear discontent over their work conditions, the latest research on Thai gig workers paints a nuanced picture about their most urgent concerns, and the form of actions workers are willing to take.
Mainstream narratives on platform-based work tend to overemphasize flexibility, exaggerating workers’ freedom of choosing when and where to work. Nevertheless, a series of research conducted by Just Economy and Labor Institute with platform workers in Thailand show that, with a high degree of control from platforms and their excessive power, flexibility is simply a euphemism for extreme precarity in income and working hours for gig workers.
While gig work is not new, a combination of time-honored piece-rate system and innovative lean platforms helps disguise the exploitative characters of platform-based gig work. Traditionally, we characterize gig work by its contingency: non-permanent, non-standard, and casual. For example, domestic and massage work is often temporary and precarious, with workers unable to see contracts and agree to formal terms of work. Traditional gig workers such as domestic workers have long depended on intermediaries such as placement agencies to find jobs. However, with the advent of digital platforms, app-based workers rely instead on non-physical mediators such as digital and online platforms, making it hard for us to understand their similarities with the old scheme.
Just Economy and Labor Institute’s research with platform-based care workers in 2022 reveals that as on-demand platforms make services visible and readily accessible to customers more widely, flexibility means irregular working hours and less predictability for women care workers. Women workers also spent more time searching and standing by for gigs online.1
In collaboration with right-based organizations and grassroots labor groups across the nation,2 Just Economy and Labor Institute (JELI) surveyed the working situations, challenges, and needs of platform-based gig workers in 4 sectors: couriers (e.g. food delivery, transport, and logistics), domestic work, massage therapy, and the sex-tourism 3.
The survey is conducted in June and July 2022 with 550 platform workers. Most of the respondents (67%) are between younger than 35 years of age, with almost half (49%) between 25 and 34 years of age. The majority (77%) identify themselves as men, a minority (21%) as women, and a small number (2%) as others (i.e. LGBTQ).
The survey identifies their most pressing issues: power differentials between platforms and workers; and dangerous occupational health and safety. This finding echoes the aforesaid worrying trends in safety and health concerns among platform workers in Thailand.
Based on the insights gained from our past research, we structure the survey into four main sections: platform usage and dependency, worker perspectives on working conditions, the urgency of challenges and proposed solutions, and attitude toward collective actions. 4
Evolving platform-workers relationships and increasing dependency
When asked about major platforms being used to access opportunities, respondents identify well-known labor platforms, social media platforms (e.g. Facebook, Twitter), and porn work subscription platforms such as Onlyfans. The most popular platforms among the respondents are logistics platforms Lineman, Grab, and ShopeeFood, followed by Foodpanda, Lalamove, and Robinhood. Care workers, and sex-tourism workers also form a minority of respondents. Therefore, workers identify less known platforms such as Seekster, Beneat, Or’Ease, MyTHERAS, Easy Day, and Onlyfans.
The one-on-one relationship between employer and employee recognized by law has increasingly become obsolete. One-third of the respondents (34%) use multiple platforms in their undertaking, whereas two-thirds (66%) report using only one platform. It is worth noting that more than half of the respondents report using two dominant platforms Lineman (38%) and Grab (24%). These two labor platforms are self-proclaimed “lifestyle platforms,” which offer a wide range of services on a single platform.
Along this line, our survey found that seven out of ten workers, or most of the respondents, say that they rely entirely on digital platforms to generate their income. In a sense, workers engaged with this type of platform have a high degree of platform dependency. The proportion becomes much higher, becoming almost nine out of ten workers when we consider all the respondents who depend on the platforms for more than half of their income opportunities.
By contrast, platform-based care workers feel obliged to register with multiple platforms to access as many gigs as possible. Despite such pressure, our previous research suggests that one strategy care workers use to manage flows of income is by registering themselves with several platforms. In other words, they increased their economic opportunities by intentionally being on multiple platforms. Although on-demand and digital platforms create precarious conditions for workers, many workers use those very same conditions to work for their situations.
(Dis)contentment with aspects of the platform-mediated work
The survey looks at respondents’ contentment/discontent with seven main aspects of work, namely, pay/remuneration, safety at work, commuting safety and concerns, rating system and penalty, modification in terms of work, fringe benefits (e.g. insurance), and costs of service (e.g. fuel, transportation, time, uniform, equipment). In most aspects except for the areas of rating system and penalty, and modification in terms of work, the number of respondents who are dissatisfied with the conditions is greater than those indifferent and satisfied with the conditions combined. 5 It is worth pointing out that, with the area of the rating system and penalty, the percentage of respondents who are indifferent is the highest. Moreover, the only area in which the number of satisfied respondents is higher than dissatisfied respondents is the modification in the terms of work. These are the areas with ambivalent findings which require further examination.
The workers’ growing discontent with the lack of transparency and power imbalance in pay
“We’re mobilized to show Grab that riders and partners are impacted by the [fee cut] policy. We understand that the company must survive; the company needs to let us survive, too. The thing is, since yesterday, 4 Nov. , the delivery fee is [cut down to] around 30 baht. We can’t survive like this. … Also, I met customers and learned that now Grab increased the customer charges from 1 to 10 baht, reducing the orders for the whole Korat Province. When customers put in fewer orders, it worsens our situations.” 6
(A food delivery worker with Grab, local news)
Starting from November 2019, we began to see news of major platforms in Thailand reducing delivery fees and incentives, a trend seen previously in places such as China. As a consequence, on-demand couriers led by food delivery riders mobilized and organized protests in many provinces, including Bangkok, Khon Kaen, Korat, Udon Thani, and the special district of Pattaya. Since then we have observed a general trend that platforms modify the fees without consulting the riders, usually giving one-day notices. As a result of the changes, riders not only report income reduction and longer working hours but struggle with greater distances of work and risks of accidents.
Over the past two years, protests of on-demand couriers with platforms Grab and Lineman have become increasingly noticeable. The discontent seems to only grow with a higher degree of frequency and dispersion of protests, alongside the extending reach and influence of the platform economy. In February 2022, hundreds of food delivery workers with Lineman in the Southern province of Songkhla and the Northeastern province of Korat (the same place where riders with Grab protested in 2019) gathered in public to oppose cuts in delivery fees and other changes. In May, riders with the same platform in the central province of Angthong reportedly gathered to voice their opposition to the new allocation system. In the past, labor disputes of sorts were almost unheard of coming from such provinces.
Like counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries, as governments fail to curb the rising inflation, platform workers see their income increasingly falling short of expenses along with the constant downward pressure on delivery fees. Given that commissions constantly rising, the delivery fee has become one of the points of contention for couriers in the post-pandemic Thai economy.
To holistically understand the issue, we asked respondents about their contentment with the delivery fees by breaking down features of delivery fees into five dimensions: regularity, sufficiency, workers’ participation in its determination, reception of notification for any changes, and, finally, a chance to give consent in case of changes. We find that the respondents’ overall contentment is low, with more than half of workers being dissatisfied (including those being dissatisfied and highly dissatisfied) with three aspects. The respondents are most discontented with two dimensions equally: their inability to participate in the fee determination and a lack of opportunity to give consent to the fee changes, followed by the no-notification of any changes.
To complement our survey on the delivery fees, we also asked respondents about their satisfaction with commissions or agency fees deducted by the platforms. Similarly, we approach the appropriateness of agency fees by covering four aspects: moderation of the fees being charged, workers’ ability to negotiate the fees, availability of alternatives, and balance between the fees and resulting benefits. Compared with the delivery fees, although a larger proportion of respondents appear to be ‘neutral’ with the issues of agency fees, more than half of respondents felt discontent with all the aspects.
Most importantly, the respondents are most discontented with their inability to negotiate agency fees and lack of available alternatives, with over six out of ten respondents being dissatisfied. Taken together, the two findings on agency and delivery fees suggest a positive trend that platform workers focus less on the fees and shift their attention to issues of transparency and power differentials between platforms and workers.
Along with the income precarity and heightened control, come the higher senses of insecurity and risks
One of the most important findings in this survey is perhaps concerned with the perception of workers on the urgency of challenges. It is worth noting that, although respondents appear to be discontent the most with the areas of pay, costs of services, and welfare, the workers say that the most urgent issues to be addressed are rather occupational health and safety, emergency assistance, and lack of transparency (e.g. absence of contracts and arbitrary changes of rules).
As explained earlier, a key challenge associated with the issues of pay is fee cuts. It is worth pointing out that labor platforms only provide workers with conditional and limited insurance coverage, even though an accident could jeopardize their livelihood or even their life. Due to the nature of gig work akin to outsourcing, platform workers are usually the main responsible party for uncontrollable factors, such as climate and traffic conditions, and market conditions (i.e. competition and fluctuating orders). Our previous and current research supports the findings that, given the downward trend in pay deductions, occupational health and safety have become the most pressing issue, especially when considering the absence of fringe benefits and lack of social protection.
Occupational health and safety issues cover safety at work, commuting safety, mental stress, and physical strains. As platform-mediated gigs are piece-rate work, couriers have to race with time and work longer hours. For food-delivery workers, the intensity of work has a direct impact on their use of speed and work fatigue, which is also associated with accidents outside of work—an issue largely neglected by official reports of industrial accidents. Couriers occasionally told us about their members who had died in a road accident while driving home after work.
In fact, road and commuting safety is a critical issue not only for couriers who use motorcycles as both a mode of transport and means of providing services. Conditioned similarly by the piece-rate and on-demand work, women care workers are found to constantly rush from one place to another as well. For example, we found in our previous project with platform-based care workers that more than one-third of on-demand massage therapists (37%) say that they are constantly worried about accidents while traveling to and from designated locations.
According to the workers, platforms only allow 1-2 hours of travel time, pressuring them to ride a motorcycle to save time during rush hours. Since care work usually takes place after working hours, many women workers do not finish the working day until after 10 pm or midnight. In addition, to save expenses, women workers usually take public transportation on return legs, but they feel unsafe traveling alone during such late hours.
On top of that, women workers often feel unsafe owing to sexual harassment threats and abuses when entering private homes to perform services. It is often platforms themselves that expose women workers to greater risks of gender-based violence, particularly sexual harassment. Such risks are due to common platform policies that prioritize customers, and customer-centric review systems. Risks are also exacerbated by the failure of companies to establish effective grievance mechanisms.
Building on past research insights, this survey is designed to understand workers’ perceptions of challenges and senses of what solutions look like. The survey examines workers’ levels of agreement/disagreement with four specific areas: priority of safety at work, concerns over their safety, coverage of platform policy on safety, the urgency of redress by platforms, and urgency of correction by government regulation.
The findings are clear-cut. Although around one-fourth of respondents (27%) feel indifferent about the priority and solutions of commuting and road safety, more than half (55%) agree that it is a major challenge at work. Moreover, half of the workers (50%) believe it urgently needs government regulations to tackle the issue. Around the same amount (48%) say that this issue always bothers them on an everyday basis and that it is an urgent issue to be addressed directly by platforms (49%).
Making headway in protecting the rights: self-organizing and strengthening collective organizations
Among others, the most exciting findings in this survey are concerned with collective actions and organizational formation of the platform workers. Since 2019, we observed nascent self-organizing activities in Bangkok, in which couriers formed what they call ‘recreational groups’ as a response to tension, sometimes violent conflicts, with traditional motorcycle taxi drivers who feel they are losing their livelihood. Riders with Grab in Bangkok were the first to form such groups which occasionally organized events for socialization. Using social media platforms such as Facebook pages to connect with each other, recreational groups have facilitated information exchange and fundraised for members who have been in an accident and are injured or died. Over time, we have observed formations of such mutual aid groups springing up across the country, catching up with incidents of injustices faced by platform workers. The negotiation or mediation roles of the groups have also deepened or developed.
Despite the lack of legal recognition, group leaders in Bangkok have progressively taken on roles similar to labor union representatives who negotiate with platform companies on issues ranging from pay to compensation related to injuries and accidents. One such group has become the first riders’ union 7, called the Freedom Riders Union, aspiring to represent all on-demand couriers regardless of the platforms. Although some groups are still ambivalent about going along the unionization route, these examples of self-organization have set precedents for many emerging groups in the provinces.
In the article “A Labor Movement for the Platform Economy,” the authors explain that dissatisfied workers traditionally have four strategic options: voicing their grievances and demanding change, exiting the current situations, showing loyalty and passively waiting for change, and neglecting. The exit-voice-loyalty framework is first proposed by the economist Albert O. Hirschman. The authors argue that, contrary to conventional wisdom, platform workers increasingly find innovative ways to express their voices such as through what is called decentralized collective actions (DCA). They claim, as change through voices within the existing platform ecosystem could lead to limited impacts, the platform labor movement may use DCA to create worker-friendly platforms, such as platform cooperatives, to allow them to use exit strategies. Moreover, workers could use labor laws to advance their status as well as advocate for regulations to codify their rights. Using the exit-voice-loyalty framework as a point of reference, the findings below support the aforementioned authors that many platform workers including in Thailand are responding to dissatisfaction at work through voices. 8
Despite challenges, informal gig workers showing interest in self-organization
When asked about self-organizing activities, most of the respondents (65%) say that they are already engaged with at least one group or self-organizing activities while the rest (35%) have not engaged with any collective. A small number (16%) say that they are members of more than one group and around half of the respondents (49%) are affiliated with one association. The fact that more than half are already engaged with some forms of organizations is encouraging. For those already engaged with collective actions, the types of organizations or activities are the following: exchange of tips and warnings related to work (38%), fundraising and mutual support (27%), socializing activities (23%), and collective bargaining (12%).
Regarding their interests in joining labor organizations such as unions, the majority of respondents (88%) show their interest while only a minority (12%) are not interested. Among the interested respondents, nevertheless, 15% are already affiliated with a group. Despite the high number of platform workers interested in labor unions, most of the respondents (72%) say that they still face some challenges.
Among the challenges faced by individuals, 15% of respondents need organizational and educational support: 11% want more information on relevant laws and regulations, and 4% say that there is no local organization or strong leaders. Around the same amount (15%) are concerned about security reasons: fears of company retaliation (5%), government persecution (5%), and preference for anonymity (5%). The majority of hesitant groups (38%) claim economic reasons: around one-fourth (26%) say that they are interested but their priority is making a living while the rest (12%) have no free time. A small number (5%) mention personal obstacles such as disapproval from spouses or family members.
Coming back to the exit-voice-loyalty framework, our findings help elucidate that many workers who appear to take loyalty (i.e. trusting in companies and passively waiting for situations to resolve themselves) and neglect (i.e. acting as if there is no point in taking action) options do have specific reasons behind their hesitancy and fears. Moreover, the findings point to directions that trade unions and labor rights advocates could potentially take to facilitate more workers’ participation or lessen their hesitancy.
The finding on individuals’ challenges echoes workers’ responses concerning organizational challenges. Among the list of seven organizational obstacles provided, the challenges that respondents deem most important are lack of strong leadership (59%), lack of support from fellow workers for fear of retaliation (58%), lack of organizational resources (57%), and lack of time for member (56%) as well as state prosecution (56%).
In Thailand, labor unionists and activists are often subjected to state persecution and company retaliations. Without effective recourse to justice, it is not uncommon for workers to desire strong leadership, on the one hand, and demonstrate hesitancy in participating in collective associations and bargaining for reasons of security, on the other. With their perceived image of dissidents being silenced and harassed, we often hear platform workers expressing skeptical views towards disruptive actions such as protests and demonstrations.
With this impression in mind, this survey examined workers’ preferred attitudes towards types of collective actions. As expected, the types of collective actions ranked ‘inappropriate’ the most by respondents are strikes (22%), protesting in public places (20%), and protesting at the company (17%). If we consider categories of both ‘slightly inappropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ together, the number of respondents opposing these actions comes to over half of the respondents: strike (56%), protests in public places (55%), and protests at the company (53%). By the same token, the least number of respondents (12%) consider each of these actions ‘absolutely appropriate.’
By contrast, the most three popular collective actions–actions deemed ‘appropriate’ and ‘absolutely appropriate’ by the largest proportion of respondents–are public relations and awareness raising (67%), educational activities (67%), and worker outreach and relationship building (62%). When considering the category ‘absolutely appropriate’ alone, public relations and awareness raising also get the most support (22%). It is worth pointing out that striking workers in Thailand do not generally receive a lot of public sympathy, especially when platform couriers mobilized large demonstration in public spaces to voice their grievances.
Given the fact that platform companies invest enormously in public relations and allies building, it is understandable that platform workers want to prioritize public relations building and awareness raising with customers. Despite existing prejudices on certain types of actions, we could yet interpret the emphasis on building internal strength within collectives as a positive sign. As the Thai laws do not yet fully recognize freedom of association and rights to collective bargaining of all workers, it is strategic for organizing workers to turn inward and give priority to building a strong membership base, especially when public opinions are not always on their side.
Lastly, when asked to rank the preferences (from low, to medium and high) to choices of actionable solutions to better their own conditions, namely, collective bargaining, consumer campaigns, advocacy for platform regulation, and legalizing platform workers’ rights, the respondents give high priority to legalizing platform workers’ rights (79%) and advocacy for platform regulation (77%) with the majority (over 80%) accepting priorities of all the collective solutions. The finding is self-evident in showing the significance of codifying legal rights for platform workers and regulating the platforms. Moreover, the survey as a whole is illuminating in showing the political will of the discontented platform workers. They choose no exit, neglect, or loyalty. They are here to stay.
- In many respects, the key findings from the project with women care workers mirror our results from the research conducted with male-dominated food delivery workers in 2019. For instance, as platforms are the only party with the power to change rules and regulations without worker consent, it is problematic to call it a contract. While couriers regularly faced (and continue to face) injuries and deadly traffic accidents, women care workers often feel unsafe owing to sexual harassment threats and abuses when entering private homes to provide services. In both situations, its algorithm and common policies that only prioritize customers (i.e. customer-centric review systems) expose workers to greater risks and danger, exacerbated by the failure of companies to establish effective grievance mechanisms. As a result of heightened senses of uncertainty, insecurity, and vulnerability, many workers are disillusioned with the false promises of flexibility.
- As the research outreach was facilitated and supported by workers’ grassroots organizations in the regions, the respondents are mostly platform workers with a certain degree of exposure to workers’ grassroots and self-organizing activities.
- Platform labor in 20 provinces from the Northern, Northeastern, Central, and Southern Thailand participated in the survey, with the majority of them residing in Chiang Mai (21%), Pattani (18%), and Bangkok (16%).
- This survey highlights workers’ engagement with platforms in terms of time and income generation. It identifies workers’ contentment with key terms of work including pay/remuneration, agency fees, benefits, and protection. It also highlights workers’ perception of two key challenges, which are occupational health and safety, and obstacles in engaging with collective actions, before encouraging them to offer thoughts on solutions. Here is the highlight of our findings.
- The percentages of respondents who are discontent with the conditions are highest in areas of costs of service (59%), pay/remuneration (58%), and fringe benefits (57%), followed by safety at work (52%) and commuting safety (50%), rating system and penalty (46%), and modification in terms of work (40%).
- This quote is taken from our report in 2020, On-demand Food Delivery: Emerging Realities in Thailand’s Platform-Mediated Work. Just Economy and Labor Institute, Funded by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung
- Li Jin, Scott Duke Kominers, and Lila Shroff defines informal unionization as situations of workers engaging in “union-like behavior, for instance by coordinating and submitting a list of demands to a platform.” A Labor Movement in the Platform Economy, Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/09/a-labor-movement-for-the-platform-economy
- Literature on on-demand work often refers to “platform stickiness,” namely the sunk costs that workers invest in the equipment and learning required by the new forms of work. The stickiness also includes nonmonetary costs such as emotional investment that workers put into the process of familiarizing themselves with new policies, practices, and ecosystems. Such lock-in is one of the reasons behind workers’ hesitation and inability to change platforms or exit the gig economy at will.