Platform Workers on Strike in South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand: a moment for building transnational labour solidarity

4 mins read

Long Nguyen

Platform workers are on strike across Asia, pushing against similar unfair and exploitative practices by the companies. This presents immense opportunities for building labour solidarity across countries that may transform their struggle into a global movement.

In October 2022, we saw mutiple strikes by delivery riders across Asia against unfair treatment by platform companies.

On October 27, delivery workers organised by the Rider Union in South Korea, which is affiliated with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), launched a strike against Coupang Eats, a local platform-based food delivery service. This was the second of two planned 1-day strikes. The first strike on Oct 18 saw 3,000 participants. This follows a series of strikes in 2021 by parcel and food delivery workers in the country.

The riders are pushing back against platform’s unfair pricing policies. The union cites the platform’s decision to cut the basic compensation from 3100 won to 2500 won per delivery (USD$ 1.75) in March 2021 as the catalyst for the strike.

Their demands include a raise in the basic fee, an implementation of fair standard for extra fee per kilometer, support for riders’ insurance payment, as well as a disclosure of how the platform utilized algorithm and data in determining working conditions.

Speaking in a video clip posted on social media, the leader of the Rider Union, Jeonghun Park, called out the platform and its black-box algorithm for undercutting riders’ pay, “Coupang Eats always says, ‘it is AI determining how much extra charge per kilometer would be (but no rider believes true or fair). ‘”

Park also voiced solidarity with gig workers in Hong Kong, “Korean Rider Union supports Hong Kong Foodpanda strikers. We should develop international solidarity to fight against platform companies.”

Park was referring to a strike that took place a few days earlier. On October 17, hundreds of Foodpanda couriers in Hong Kong staged a strike by refusing to take orders from Pandamart, which is Foodpanda’s grocery service. They were protesting a new distance calculation method implemented by the company that incorrectly reflects the actual distance of delivery.

Almost exactly a year ago in November, 2021, Hong Kong’s Foodpanda couriers went on a strike following the company’s cuts to their pay. The strike forced the company to agree to a host of their demands, but one year on the company has largely failed to honor their agreement.

This time, the couriers cited the broken promises by foodpanda as reason for taking action again. They demand Foodpanda to stop the pay cuts and raise fees to a level that reflects the actual distance of deliveries.

Hundreds of Foodpanda couriers in Hong Kong staged a strike. (Photo: inmediahk.net)

Meanwhile, in Thailand, Grab riders in Chonburi, southeast of Bangkok, organised a 1-day strike on Oct 25 to demand Grab reinstate the 30-baht-per-delivery fee rate (USD$0.87)  and reconsider its new fee policies which were implemented without consultation with its riders.

One worker shared that the new fee system had reduced the number of orders through the services, resulting in fewer orders and less incomes for riders. Alongside this demand, strikers also called for a better bonus rate and a fair distribution of orders between the riders.

This happened at the same time as the meeting between the governor of Chonburi and the representative of the Chonburi Freedom Rider Union which submitted the riders’ demands. The strike happened after riders came together on Oct 21 to submit a request to the Minister of Labor, Suchart Chomklin, to act as an intermediary between Grab and the riders in negotiations.

A few days later, delivery workers for Lalamove in Bangkok staged a protest. The protest was sparked by the company’s new discount campaign that allows customers to use the services for a discounted fee, which is made possible by deducting into workers’ compensation.

The Freedom Rider Union demands the returning to the 33 baht starting fee, as well as canceling the 475-for-4-hours campaign. Since it does not factor distance into the cost, this flat-rate campaign forced many workers to ride more than 100km to break even.

At the same time, the union also called out Lalamove for skimming workers 8-baht every time they make a bank withdrawal, a policy that was not introduced by banks as the platform previously claimed. In response, workers demand that the platform allows one free withdrawal per day.

Company profits and customers’ satisfaction should not come with the exploitation of riders. Prior to this strike in Thailand, Lalamove has faced similar strikes by workers in the Philippines and China over pricing policies.

Speaking in support of the striking Lalamove riders, Thailand’s Freedom Rider Union shared a photo which bears the capitalized word “SOLIDARITY” as its title. Its catchphrase reads: “Thank you for every sacrifice. The world is changing. And the people who can change the world are those who stand and fight”.

Time to Build Transnational Solidarity

The similarities across these strikes are easy to see: cuts to workers’ pay, unfair pricing systems that disadvantage workers and lack of transparency in the algorithms are the main reasons for the workers’ mobilization. These mechanisms were developed and implemented by the platform companies to workers’ disadvantage and without any consultation or negotiation in good faith with workers.

During the strikes, the invocation of the positions of “gig workers” and “riders” against “platform company” shows workers see their struggle as a shared struggle against the exploitative practices of platform companies in which building power in numbers is their strongest weapon.

Platform workers continue to cultivate a sense of solidarity that is moving beyond the boundaries of any platforms or geographies.

The call by Freedom Rider Union addresses not only to riders who works for Lalamove, but also to riders across the countries who work for platform companies – “across all apps and areas” as the union declared. Likewise, in the strike of Hong Kong’s foodpanda couriers, solidarity was also the name of the game.

Thai Freedom Rider Union staged a protest against Lalamove on 26 Oct 2022. (Photo: The Standard)

Here, we see a solidarity between local Hong Kong workers as well as immigrant workers from South Asia. Photos of the strike show both South Asian workers and their Hong Kong compatriots standing side-by-side holding the banners calling for fair pay, and more importantly, against “slavery”.

Slavery, a mode of domination historically based on racial hierarchy, has been reclaimed by workers of different skin colors, languages, and culture as the vocabulary to depict the domination of platforms. In this case, “economic slavery” is the slogan that brought the gig workers of Hong Kong together in a common struggle against Foodpanda.

This was also what Jeonghun Park and the South Korean riders recognised in their message of solidarity. The riders of the bustling Seoul metropolitan area found in the strikes of the Hong Kong workers a common struggle, despite their geographical distances and social-political differences.

The language of solidarity, invoked by the striking workers, shows a clear understanding of the need for cooperation in the fight against platform companies.

The question for workers’ future is whether they can continue to build transnational solidarity that can help them transform their struggle into a global movement.

Long Nguyen is a ALR’s inaugural Contributing Fellow

This piece was first published on Asian Labour Review on 31/10/2022. Click here for the original article.

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