The Global Fight Against the Gig Economy

Workers across the Middle East and North Africa are taking on the gig economy in the face of political oppression - and demonstrating the power of solidarity.

Workers in the gig economy or organising in the face of political oppression (Hasan Zaidi)

Talabat, a Middle Eastern rival to delivery apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats, recently launched their latest marketing drive. The face of the campaign? Cristiano Ronaldo. 

The company’s ability to nab Ronaldo, who reportedly charges upwards of £1 million for a single Instagram post, is testament to the gargantuan growth of the digital labour economy in the region in recent years. A report from the Dubai chamber of Commerce noted that online sales in the food and beverage market were worth $412 million to the Emirati economy in 2020, a figure expected to reach $619 million by 2025.

In Egypt, a country which has long faced high rates of youth unemployment, digital labour platforms have attracted hundreds of thousands of workers, with Uber alone employing 90,000 drivers in 2021.

As elsewhere, though, the personal freedom, flexibility, and unrestrained earning that gig work purports to offer to such workers are all too often replaced by scant salaries and exploitative conditions.

Fairwork, an Oxford University project focused on highlighting the best and worst labour practices across the platform economy, has documented widespread infringements of workers’ rights in Egypt. The project awarded Talabat, which is a subsidiary of the Germany-based Delivery Hero, a 1/10 ranking, making the company, alongside Uber, one of the most unfair digital platform apps assessed. 

Workers are not taking these infringements lying down. As in the UK, recent years have seen the shortcomings of gig companies attested to by a steady increase in instances of strikes and collective action. But a widespread absence of workers’ rights across the region means that gig staff in the Middle East and North Africa, or MENA, also have their own specific obstacles to face. 

Striking back

In early April, Talabat drivers in Egypt announced a two-day strike for higher wages after more than a month of rising food and energy prices in the country. It was an unprecedented call to action, but one met with little support. Only a few dozen drivers opted to take part in the strike, perhaps, more than anything else, a reflection of the danger of any form of collective action in the country.

Labour organising, which played an underreported role in the lead-up to the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Egypt, has been a central target of government repression in recent years. Critics of a new trade union law passed in 2017 argue that it’s an attempt to wrestle more power away from workers by only permitting membership of government-endorsed unions, while an Amnesty International investigation into the crackdown against 2,000 striking employees in a razor-blade factory in 2021 found that the Egyptian authorities were complicit. 

Other efforts, however, have been more successful. Later in April, Deliveroo UAE announced plans to reduce the pay of their riders by fifteen percent, to 8.75 dirhams ($2.38) per delivery, and increase shift length by three hours to twelve.

Riders for the company in Dubai immediately announced their intention to strike, and within hours of drivers parking up their bikes, Deliveroo had reversed its decision. In a statement, the company said that their initial objective, ‘a more well-rounded structure for rider earnings’, had not been made clear, and that they would listen to drivers’ demands. 

A week later, on 9 May, drivers for Talabat in Dubai went on strike to demand a pay rise from 7.50 dirhams to nine dirhams per order, commitment to pay riders if orders were cancelled and an increase in compensation for longer journeys. Organisers pointed out that the pay rise was necessary to offset skyrocketing petrol costs, which drivers must pay themselves. ‘If Deliveroo gives this price… why are we not getting [it]?’, a Pakistani driver for Talabat asked in an interview with Reuters. 

In a statement released to the Associated Foreign Press, Talabat claimed the strike was not a ‘constructive way to ask for improvements’. More importantly, the company was quick to note that the action was in violation of UAE law: joining a union, collective bargaining, striking, and peacefully protesting are all prohibited in the UAE.

Emirati nationals are subject to these laws, but they are primarily used to stifle dissent among the large population of migrant workers who staff the country’s service industry and who make up around ninety percent of the country’s population.

The Kafala System

Key to understanding the significance of these industrial actions is the role which migrant workers have played in the seemingly miraculous economic development of the Arabian Gulf in the past half-century. Largely emanating from South Asia, they have been granted permission to work in the region through kafala

Kafala, an Arabic word meaning ‘to provide for’ or ‘support’, denotes a system of employment sponsorship present across the Arab Gulf and in Lebanon and Jordan. The scheme provides an almost endless stream of cheap labour to the region, while offering little in the way of protection for workers.

Human rights group have likened it to a modern form of slavery; though recently adjusted in the UAE, previous versions of the system prevented workers from quitting their jobs and in some cases leaving the country without the permission of their employer. 

The UAE is one of the primary beneficiaries of the kafala system. Ninety-six percent of families in the country employ domestic workers to look after their children, and in 2021 the country was the second largest source of remittance payments globally, after the United States.

It’s this system that enables the UAE’s ruling monarchs to provide significant social benefits to its citizens, including free education and medical services, high salaries, and huge investments in infrastructure. In turn, the monarchy enjoys widespread public support—from those capable of voting—with the UAE and other Gulf states consequently avoiding much of the civilian discontent witnessed throughout the region in recent years.  

The consequences of the inequality this system creates and justifies are often deadly. In Qatar, another kafala beneficiary, an average of twelve migrant workers have died per day since 2010, when the country was awarded the contract to host the upcoming World Cup.

Some of these deaths are the result of exhaustion or unsafe working conditions; others are suicides stemming from a mix of relentless work, high rates of abuse and harassment, and financial stress. In the UAE, according to India’s embassy in Dubai, on average 100 Indian workers take their own lives each year

Organising the Gig Economy

The importance of these gig economy strikes lies, therefore, not in their size, but in the fact that they emanate from the ranks of some of the region’s most marginalised workers—who are aiming to take on the some of the world’s largest companies, who rely on the atomisation gig work naturally fosters to limit the potential for collective action. 

Recent events, however, demonstrate that at both a local and international level workers are forming bonds of solidarity. Hard-fought victories, such as the recent rulings in the Netherlands and the UK that Uber drivers must be considered ‘workers’, have proved to workers around the world the true potential, and power, of organised labour. But they have also highlighted the inequalities of both opportunity and outcome for workers of different demographics and in different places.

Even after decades of attacks, trade unions in Britain offer their members a protection and, perhaps more importantly, a form of visibility that many workers in the MENA region lack. That means establishing and fostering global links among workers in the gig economy and beyond is key to fighting the exploitative practices of gig platforms as a whole.

If bosses are able to exploit workers in one country, you can be sure they’re dreaming of exporting that model. Thus, international solidarity would not only allow workers in the MENA region to pursue their aims more safely and more effectively—it also significantly cranks up the pressure on companies that have profited from the fragmentation and enforced silence of their workers for so long.