AnthologyApril 17 2024

The Formalization of Social Precarities

Platformization from the Perspective of Precarious Workers in India, Brazil, and Bangladesh

Murali Shanmugavelan
Aiha Nguyen
Ambika Tandon
Aayush Rathi
Ludmila Costhek Abílio
Ananya Raihan
Shamarukh Alam
Samiha Akhter
Jinat Jahan Khan

More than two decades after the first ride-hail driver rolled through San Francisco’s streets, the idea of a platform worker is a permanent fixture in many communities and economies. And as more sectors become platformized, there is an increasing urgency to understand how these jobs have changed, what new work conditions have been created, and what regulatory reforms might be needed to ensure fair conditions. 

Edited by Murali Shanmugavelan and Aiha Nguyen, The Formalization of Social Precarities explores platformization from the point of view of precarious gig workers in the Majority World. In countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, and India — which reinforce social hierarchies via gender, race, and caste — precarious workers are often the most marginalized members of society. Labor platforms made familiar promises to workers in these countries: work would be democratized, and people would have the opportunity to be their own boss. Yet even as platforms have upended the legal relationship between worker and employer, they have leaned into social structures to keep workers precarious — and in fact formalized those social precarities through surveillance and data collection.

Ambika Tandon and Aayush Rathi, in their contribution “India,” illustrate how the convergence of platform labor and platform urbanism has resulted in hyper-surveilled and controlled sites of employment that affect the most marginalized workforce. In “Brazil,” Ludmilla Costhek Abílio traces how motorcycle couriers have had their work completely reconfigured, illustrating how platformization aligns with the structural characteristics of Brazilian society. In their essay “Bangladesh,” Ananya Raihan, Samiha Akhter, Shamarukh Alam, and Jinat Jahan Khan argue that platforms could reduce the precarities of women domestic workers by formalizing the scope of work and establishing basic workplace treatment standards, but choose not to do so.

In illuminating the double-edged sword of platformization, this anthology underscores the need for regulators and advocates to acknowledge how platforms both control workers and reinforce social hierarchies. 

This report was produced with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.