Resistance is Possible: Lives of Grab Workers in Indonesia

Some analysts of the platform-based gig economy have argued that the potential of gig workers to resist their exploitation is low. I want to show the opposite: it is not only possible to organise drivers to resist precarity – it is already happening.

Editor’s Note:

This is part of our Special Series on Grab in Southeast Asia. Read the introduction and a brief history of Grab in Southeast Asia here: A Brief History of Grab in Southeast Asia: transnationality, dominance and resistance

Some analysts of the platforme-based gig economy have argued that the potential of gig workers to resist their exploitation is low, due to the individualisation of labour processes and management by algorithms1.

I want to show the opposite. In fact, during the Covid-19 pandemic in Indonesia, a total of 34 protests were carried out by Grab drivers and seven of them met with their demands. It is not only possible to organise drivers to resist precarity – it is already happening.

Grab Comes to Indonesia

Grab, one of the largest platform companies in the world, started to expand to Indonesia in June 2014. At first, it was the GrabCar service that was available. Then, on 20 May 2015, the company launched GrabBike, which had 2,000 registered drivers eight weeks after launching. They continue to expand into other on-demand service. With its “super-app” status, Grab has also launched GrabFood, GrabMart, GrabExpress, GrabHealth, GrabHotels, and 10 other services.

Grab grew rapidly, becoming the leader in Indonesia’s platform-based transportation market, beating various competitors including the homegrown Gojek. The number of Grab drivers in Indonesia has also increased significantly, reaching two million in 2020. In 2018, Grab announced that it was merging its Southeast Asian ride-hailing and food delivery businesses with Uber’s operations in the region. This merger gave Grab a dominant market share in the ride-hailing industry in Indonesia.

Grab’s success is at the expense of millions of drivers living in precarious conditions. In Indonesia, Grab and other platform companies classify their drivers as independent contractors—or in Indonesian terms mitra (partner)—in a partnership relationship. With this classification, Grab does not have to provide drivers with employment rights, such as a minimum wage, holiday entitlement, the provision of vehicles and protective equipment. As a result, after the money-burning period in Indonesia ended, drivers experienced increasing job vulnerabilities.

Just how vulnerable are the Grab drivers, and how have they organised to counter the conditions? I would like to show the extent of their precarious working conditions, and how they respond to these vulnerabilities with collective actions.

To do this, I use data from research I conducted with a research team from the Institute of Governance and Public Affairs (IGPA), Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia. The study was conducted between June and October 2020 where one hundred and thirty Grab drivers in three Indonesian provinces were surveyed2. In addition, between August 2020 and March 2022, I conducted research on driver resistance in Indonesia during the COVID-19 pandemic, by joining 44 platform driver social media groups (on Facebook and WhatsApp) and tracking driver protests online.

Bogus Partnerships and Undisguised Exploitation 

Although designated as partners by the platform company, Grab drivers in practice do not get any rights as partners. According to Indonesia’s Law No.20/2008 on Micro, Small and Medium Business, and Micro Business, a partnership relation is a relationship in which the partnering party has an equal position in making decisions, in other words no one dominates and is dominated. This distinguishes a partnership relationship from a labour-employer working relationship. But in reality, the partnering parties do not have an equal position. All work arrangements and decision-making processes are carried out unilaterally by Grab, without accommodating the voice of the drivers, thus creating bogus partnership practices.

The practice of bogus partnerships is closely related to what some researchers call disguised wage labour in the informal sector3. This is because platform drivers are classified as partners, but their work process is one of hired workers in an employment relationship. The classification of drivers as independent contractors or partners has provided space for Grab not to pay drivers the minimum wage or accord them the components of a decent living. As partners, drivers are paid for gig work4, based on the number of orders from consumers that they complete. The company determines which drivers get orders, and this allows work control to be exercised.

Grab’s control of work and dominance over drivers makes it possible for Grab to continue to cut driver fees (both incentives and fares), resulting in decreasing income for drivers. In 2018, when Grab had a “money-burning” strategy to attract drivers as well as customers (a period lasting from 2015-2019), the average daily gross income of Grab drivers was 458,093 rupiah (29.73 US dollars; 1 US dollars = 15,416 rupiah). Drivers’ earning significantly decreased as the “money-burning” period ended. The most drastic decrease was during the COVID-19 pandemic, from an average gross income of 273,746 rupiah (17.77 US dollars) per day in February 2020, to 85,085 rupiah (5.52 US dollars) in April 2020. After the post-COVID-19 new normal period was implemented in Indonesia, Grab drivers’ income did not increase significantly.

The decline in income goes hand in hand with the increase in the working time of Grab drivers. Increasing working hours is an attempt by Grab drivers to increase their chances of earning enough income, as fares and incentives are reduced for them. From 2018 to July 2020, working time increased by 1.03 hours per day on average, from 12.21 hours per day to 13.24 hours per day. The average working hours of Grab drivers in Indonesia exceed normal working hours, which according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is eight hours per day or 40 hours per week5. Because they are classified as partners rather than workers, Grab drivers are prevented from getting any additional pay for hours in excess of standard working hours; if they were formal workers, this would be considered as overtime work.

Decreased income and increased working hours have increased the drivers’ health and safety risks. The percentage of drivers who have experienced illness, including road accidents, due to fatigue from overwork is 73.85%. Those drivers unable to work in secure conditions due to the lack of job security, causing stress is 79.23%. Drivers have little social protection, as this is not provided by Grab. For example, 49.23% of Grab drivers do not have health insurance, while 50.77% of drivers have health insurance that is self-financed or provided free of charge through the Indonesian government’s programme for poor families.

Low incomes also make it difficult for Grab drivers to pay for the costs of doing business. One platform driver organisation of GrabCar and GoCar drivers reports that 87.38% of its members are no longer working as drivers because they are unable to pay for the car credit – most platform drivers who use cars buy their vehicles on credit – amid a drastic decline in income. Data from our survey shows that 77% of GrabCar drivers are still in debt at the bank for car credit. The transfer of business risk from the platform company to the driver to provide the means of production has increased drivers’ vulnerability.

The Myths of Flexibility and High Income

To attract drivers, Grab promises to provide work flexibility, reliable earnings and empower driver livelihoods. On the Grab website, on the page to register as a driver, they say that if you are a driver you will “be your own boss” and can “decide when, where and how often you want to drive”. On social media, Grab claims drivers can earn up to 14 million rupiah per month, or about five times the national minimum wage.

Drivers decide to become Grab drivers based on considerations about flexible working hours, high incomes, and easy registration methods. Sixty percent of Grab drivers said they decided to do so as they were attracted by the promised work flexibility, while 50% mentioned the expectation that they could earn high incomes and 16.92% of drivers decided to register as a Grab driver because of how easy the process is. The hegemonic narrative produced by Grab has, therefore, encouraged many people to become drivers, even to the point of being willing to queue.

Of the Grab drivers in Indonesia, 92.31% say it is their main livelihood or full-time job. Before becoming Grab drivers, most were workers in the informal economy (55.38%), such as small traders, non-platform drivers (ojek pangkalan), pedicab drivers and tyre repairmen, whose incomes tend to be low and insecure. The other 36.92% were previously formal workers – but, in an era of labour market flexibility, these jobs were also insecure – whose contracts ended, who were fired, or who were attracted by the promise of flexibility and a high income by driving for Grab. Entrepreneurs who employ more than three workers and drive for Grab as a side job make up 3.85%, and another 3.85% started working as Grab drivers immediately after graduating from school.

As noted above, during the 2015-2019 “money-burning” period, Grab drivers in Indonesia tended to earn high incomes due to the large number of incentives6. Consequently, they were not overly concerned with their vulnerabilities such as long working hours, lack of social protection, misclassification, and other rights. However, the end of the money-burning period resulted in a drastic drop in driver income and an increase in vulnerability. The percentage of Grab drivers who think that the company’s change in policy has cost them is 89.23% and 76.92% of drivers say that expectations about flexibility, high income, and better livelihoods are not reflected in reality.

The flexibility promised by Grab does not actually happen, because of Grab’s control over the labour process. This allows the company to punish drivers who are considered undisciplined, for example by deactivating a Grab driver’s account for a period of time, dismissal (stopping a driver from using the app), or by not prioritising the account for orders. The disciplinary mechanisms developed by Grab coerce drivers to consistently work hard for a long time (even more than 12 hours per day), accept all incoming orders, rarely take time off, and provide the best service (to get higher ratings from consumers). This means that flexibility does not exist, because when a driver does not work long hours, they can be sanctioned by being de-prioritised for orders.  This forces drivers to make their Grab work a full-time job, with long hours and low wages.

Mobilising Resistance

In response to Grab embedding their precarity, drivers respond with various forms of resistance. The number of protests increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially; from March 2020 to March 2022, a total of 71 app-based driver protests were recorded, with 34 (47.9%) involving Grab drivers. Protests involving Grab drivers in Indonesia during the pandemic included mass taking to the streets (26 actions), strikes (22 actions), blockading Grab offices (two actions), and hearings with the government (one action). The primary methods of action carried out by drivers were mostly mass action outside government buildings and Grab offices combined with strikes, namely by logging off the app. In some cases, protests were carried out entirely online and remotely, with drivers collectively logging off the apps but not undertaking street level protests.

Levels of pay (both tariffs and incentives) are a major issue for drivers, with 58.8% of protests demanding proper payment. Protests demanding an end to Grab’s deactivations and unilateral sanctions with no right of appeal were 20.5%, and those demanding better working conditions 17.6%, while 17.6% also demanded the legalisation of platform-based transportation in Indonesia.

This is because the Law on Road Traffic and Transportation states that vehicles for transportation are only allowed if they have a yellow plate and a vehicle eligibility test letter issued by the government. Motorbikes cannot be used as public transportation. Meanwhile, platform companies such as Grab are not registered as transportation companies and violate the law on the Law on Road Traffic and Transportation because they use motorbikes for public transportation, do not have a yellow plate nor a vehicle eligibility test letter.

Other protests were over such issues as demanding a decreased charge for drivers (11.8%), drivers’ legal classification (5.9%), demanding free parking (5.9%), non-benefit pay (5.9%) and no longer accepting new drivers in Grab (5. 9%).

Of the 34 Grab driver protests during the pandemic, most of them (24, 70.6%) were dominated by spontaneous actions. Of these spontaneous actions, 70.8% were carried out using the wildcat strike strategy, which in the context of platform-based transportation meant a collective log-off from the Grab driver account. The wildcat strikes were primarily organised on social media, especially Facebook and WhatsApp.

When there are policies or conditions that are felt to be detrimental to drivers, for example when Grab lowers fares, drivers then communicate with each other in social media groups. There they convey their complaints to each other, and often come up with ideas to find solutions to these complaints by carrying out wildcat strikes. Drivers consider the official procedural method, making a complaint through the application or meeting directly with Grab management, to be largely useless due to workers being silenced so that drivers’ voices are not heard or accommodated.

Wildcat Strikes and the Question of Organisation

Ten protests were carried out through formal organisations or unions (29.4%). All formal organisations or unions that accommodate Grab drivers are independent organisations and are not connected to traditional unions in the larger sectors such as manufacturing. Before being formalised, these organisations began by organising wildcat strike actions, namely actions that tended to be spontaneous, without a main leader, with no formal organisational structure for a long time, and not connected to larger unions7.

Weaknesses in the wildcat strike strategy in winning broader and substantive demands (such as fair rates, clarity of classification, and better working conditions) led drivers to form formal organisations or unions. One example of this was Grab drivers in Jabodetabek (Greater Jakarta) who, after a wildcat strike between 23 to 25 ​​June 2021, later formed the GrabExpress Sameday Sejabodetabek Association to be able to organise the movement and have a long-term vision to win demands.

Although short-term and potentially myopic, wildcat strike actions have several advantages over those coordinated by a formal organisation or union. Wildcat strike actions can take place quickly because they do not need to go through the bureaucratic procedures which formal organisations do, are difficult to co-opt due to the absence of a single leader in the movement and are democratic because everyone has the same voice as others. On the other hand, protests through a formal organisation have weaknesses, such as being too dependent on a few leaders, a tendency to be easily co-opted and being unable to respond quickly to issues.

Most of the demands made by Grab drivers during the protests in Indonesia have not been accommodated by Grab and the government. In responding to demands related to increased pay and job protection, Grab tends to refuse to comply with these demands. The reason from Grab is that increasing pay and providing proper job protection would make the company uncompetitive. The impact of that they claim would be detrimental to drivers, because consumers would choose other platforms and orders for drivers would decrease. In this context, Grab runs market despotism to control and discipline drivers.

Although most of the demands were not met, there were several demands that were won by Grab drivers (seven demands in action, or 20.6%). The victories were influenced by two factors. First, the demand that the Maxim and InDriver companies—which are Grab’s competitors—follow the fares regulations set by the government succeeded because Grab had a vested interest in it. Second, the drivers won the demand to increase ride-hailing fees (although the increase was under the driver’s demands) and have their charges reduced (previously it was above 20% to 15%, the driver’s demand was 10%). This substantive victory involved tens of thousands of drivers in dozens of cities across Indonesia and was achieved after consistent protests over a long time, and during the momentum of rising fuel prices.

Despite the various problems and challenges faced by drivers, the contradictions in platforms such as Grab provide space for the emergence and growth of driver resistance movements. Grab drivers have staged actions to demonstrate their collective power. But he tasks of workers to explore and develop their organising strategies and organisational forms to win significant changes to their conditions remain.

(Photo: Grab Facebook)

Extended Reading:

A Brief History of Grab in Southeast Asia: transnationality, dominance and resistance

Suicide, Debt, Control and Resistance: stories of platform drivers in Indonesia

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  2. The survey was conducted in DKI Jakarta (44 respondents), DI Yogyakarta (45 respondents), and Bali (41 respondents). Of the respondents 46.9% are GrabCar drivers and 53.1% are GrabBike drivers. In terms of gender, 85.4% are male and 14.6% are female. Under 30-year-olds count for 20.77%, 51.54% are aged 31-45, and 23.69% are aged 46 years and over. Meanwhile, in terms of education, most of the drivers are high school graduates (59.23%), then undergraduates (26.15%), followed by junior high school (11.54%) and the least is elementary school (3.08%). The survey was conducted to determine the working conditions of Grab drivers.
  3. Harriss‐White, B. (2014). Labour and petty production. Development and Change, 45(5), 981-1000; Pattenden, J. (2022). The patriarchy of accumulation: homework, fieldwork and the production-reproduction nexus in rural Indonesia. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement, 1-19; Mezzadri, A. (2017). Sweatshop regimes in the indian garment industry. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Woodcock, J., & Graham, M. (2019). The gig economy: A critical introduction. Polity.
  5. ILO (2013). Decent work indicators. ILO Publications, Geneva
  6. Keban, Y. T., Hernawan, A., & Novianto, A. (eds.) (2021). Menyoal kerja layak dan adil dalam ekonomi gig di Indonesia. IGPA Press.
  7. Buckley, J. (2021). Freedom of association in Vietnam: A heretical view. Global Labour Journal, 12 (2).

Arif Novianto is a Junior Researcher at the Institute of Governance and Public Affairs, Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia. He is one of the editors of the book "Menyoal Kerja Layak dan Adil dalam Ekonomi Gig di Indonesia" ("Questioning Decent and Fair Work in the Gig Economy in Indonesia", 2021) and has written widely on gig workers, labor studies and social movements.