The partnership trap in the Indonesian gig economy

In the last three months, there have been three strikes by gig workers in Indonesia. Problems related to harsh working conditions, injustice, and the decline in the welfare of gig workers became the main issues in the three strikes. The biggest strike was carried out by GoKilat couriers (delivery service from the Gojek platform company) for 3 days on 8-10 June 2021 involving nearly 1,500 couriers or almost 80% of active couriers on GoKilat. A day later, couriers from Lala Move went on strike spontaneously for three days by mass deactivating accounts on their platform application.

Prior to the two strikes above, on April 6, 2021, a strike was carried out by Shopee Express couriers for 1 day in Bandung, Indonesia, involving around 1,000 couriers. The Shopee Express courier strike was motivated by a cut in the payment they received. The new rules reduce courier revenue from 2,500 rupiah (US$0.17)/package to only 1,500 rupiah (US$0.10)/package and that is the only income earned by the couriers. In other words, they did not earn basic income equal to the minimum wage in the province where they work. Moreover, they did not have health insurance, decent working hours, overtime pay, leave /holiday rights, and severance pay. The working conditions were worse due to the fact that the vehicles (motorcycle) used are theirs and they had to pay fuel cost.

With such a wage system, to be able to earn the minimum wage in Bandung City in 2021 of 3,742,267 rupiah (US$263.16) per month for instance, couriers have to deliver 2,495 packages monthly—not including fuel and maintenance costs they have to pay. It means that they would have to deliver about 104 packages per day to the customers. If, on average, a package is delivered in 10 minutes, they need 17 hours per day, far above the decent 8 hours work day. This oppressive work system for gig workers is possible and there is no prohibition from the Indonesian government, due to the courier’s status as an independent contractor ormitra” (partner) for the platform company, instead of labor.

The precarious and uncertain working conditions stem from the misclassification of their employment status. Companies classifies them as “partners”, so that they could avoid the obligation to provide the minimum wage, health insurance, overtime pay, severance pay, 8 working hours per day, and holiday rights if they were labor, although the working relationships between the companies and their couriers represents the employer-employee relationships as there are shift work for the couriers, work control by the companies, requirements in recruitment such as contracts of employment, and the companies unilateral rules established by the companies.

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Neoliberalism and global development before and after the Washington Consensus: Agricultural credit at the World Bank

We’ve witnessed a revival of debates about the Washington Consensus and the future of neoliberalism in recent months. Recent increases in public spending have led several commentators to conclude, or lament, that decades of neoliberal consensus have been shattered. Much of this debate is misguided, rooted in a mistaken dichotomy between ‘states’ and ‘markets’, and a corresponding conception of neoliberalism as primarily involving a reduction in the role of the former. Efforts to rehabilitate the Washington Consensus, meanwhile, rely on flimsy and heavily ideological counterfactuals.

In this post, I want to take up another angle on this question, asking: what is ‘the market’ in practice? In particular, I take a closer look at the emergence of the idea that ‘interest rates should be market-determined’. This was a core tenet of the ‘Washington Consensus’ in John Williamson’s original formulation. It was also, historically, a key argument of neoliberal economists. From the early 1970s, several influential pieces (e.g. McKinnon 1973; Shaw 1973) urged the deregulation of interest rates, arguing that while usury caps were intended to assist small farmers, they wound up forcing banks to concentrate on relatively low-risk loans to government or large-scale industry.

In practice, though, the relatively simple proposition that ‘interest rates should be left to the market’ invited a whole range of difficult questions and political challenges.

In a recent article in New Political Economy tracing the history of World Bank agricultural credit programmes (Bernards 2021), I show how neoliberal approaches to development have never really involved ‘shrinking the state’ and unleashing markets so much as fraught and failure-prone efforts to figure out who and what should be governed by, and how to construct, markets.

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The Techfare State: The ‘New’ Face of Neoliberal State Regulation

By Ali Bhagat and Rachel Phillips

A recent article in the New York Times takes aim at ‘How Big Tech Won the Pandemic’, highlighting how in the last year alone, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook posted a combined revenue of more than $1.2 trillion. While the pandemic has resulted in the loss of both work and life the world over, companies like Amazon have managed to expand their warehouses and their cloud computing infrastructure—and reaped unprecedented profits in the process. As the Times put it, ‘the pandemic created a peculiar economy that benefited some people and industries, including in technology, even as it battered others.’ 

But as many commentators have pointed out, the explosive growth of the tech giants must also be understood in relation to more overtly political conditions. It may be true that the technology industry has maintained a liberal, progressive, and socially equitable visage throughout the pandemic, even as it has subtly extended its multi-tentacled reach into new physical and digital spaces. Indeed, we know by now, that Big Tech has long thrived on regulatory evasion and the exploitation of legal grey areas and this is a dominant reading within critical political economy which has been at pains to point out how laissez-faire regulatory environments—particularly in the United States—have allowed the tech industry to sniff out and exploit new sources of profit, including those that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.  

In this literature, then, the tendency is to assume that it is an absence of state intervention that has underpinned the technology industry’s growing economic (and political) power. With our conception of techfare, however, we aim to push beyond these explorations of how Big Tech evades state control. Instead of focusing on state absences, we set out to highlight an equally significant dynamic: how the technology industry has become deeply entwined with the activities of the neoliberal state. 

Our research agenda is centred on one key question: how has the dramatic post-2008 growth of the American technology industry interacted with—and been shaped by—the neoliberal regulatory projects that have prevailed during this time? In pursuing this question, we focus on one pivotal arena of neoliberal statecraft in which Big Tech companies increasingly participate, but where their presence has gone largely unnoticed: the disciplining of the relative surplus population, particularly through consumer debt, policing, and imprisonment. 

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Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions

In the first quarter of 2021, amidst the social and economic devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the South African Treasury announced, and subsequently defended, its decision to refrain from increasing the country’s extensive social grant payments—which now reach 18 million impoverished citizens—beyond the growth in inflation. Treasury officials have argued that a larger increase in social welfare protection is simply not currently feasible given the country’s rapidly rising public debt—which has now breached 80% of the debt/GDP ratio—and investor demands for fiscal consolidation. This type of fiscal restraint is unfolding in a context of heightened wealth inequality and an official unemployment rate now above 30%.

Those familiar with the financialization scholarship pertaining to developing countries—that strand which portrays the global financial markets as a force that can alter committed policy trajectories on a whim (Koelble, 2004), as well as the more nuanced literature (Mosley, 2000; Hager, 2017; Streeck, 2014; Ansari, 2017)—may recognize the Treasury’s framing of South Africa’s fiscal dilemma. However, as much of the international development literature on industrial upgrading and state policy has noted (Wade, 2018; Alami, 2019; Rodrik, 2006), there is a third option available to policy-makers in developing countries beyond the binary of debt build-up vs. austerity; namely, comprehensive, employment generating state-led development.

This is precisely the case I make in my new book, published by Palgrave (2021), Neoliberalism and Resistance in South Africa: Economic and Political Coalitions. In addition to documenting the onset of a financialized accumulation regime in post-apartheid South Africa since the democratic transition and the ANC’s adoption of economic liberalization, the monograph also highlights the missed opportunities that could have allowed the country to embark on a self-sustaining path of industrial up-grading, inclusive development, and internal revenue generation. Such missed opportunities include the early rejection by party leaders of the heterodox “Macro-Economic Research Group” (MERG) policy cluster, the removal of the trade unions from broader macro-policy-making processes, the rejection of a modest reconstruction and wealth tax, and the abandonment of much of the “Reconstruction and Development Program” (RDP) platform in favor of the orthodox “Growth, Employment, and Redistribution” (GEAR) package in 1996. Had some of these missed opportunities been pursued, South African state officials would likely be in a much better position to currently adopt expansionary fiscal policies, and perhaps could have lifted their citizens out of poverty via inclusive development instead of cash-transfers.

Yet, as my monograph further documents, since the democratic transition Treasury officials have continued, despite recommendations from other government ministries such as the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), to veto or oppose heterodox policy proposals that could potentially offer South Africa a path away from the current neoliberal quagmire. Such proposed polices include capital controls, export taxes on raw materials, the utilization of foreign exchange reserves to capitalize State-Owned-Enterprises (SOEs), and targeting specific industrial sectors for subsidies and state promotion.

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Debating ‘State Capitalism’ in Turkey: Beyond False Dichotomies

Following the 2016 failed coup attempt, and in the context of increasing mistrust towards the West, Turkey’s president Erdogan reflected his discontent with the EU and argued that Turkey should instead join the Shanghai Five, namely the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) led primarily by China and Russia. Soon after, despite being a NATO member, Turkey signed a deal with Russia to buy the S-400 air defence missile system. Taken together with Turkey’s other ‘adventures’ in its region, these developments were perceived as manifestations of a changing political economy of Turkey, and were deeply disturbing to Western powers. After all, since the end of the Second World War, Turkey had been a close ally of the US-led Western capitalist bloc, it continued to be one during the Cold War; and had remained very close to US and EU interests following the end of the Cold War in 1991.

For some accounts[i], these developments are related to the changing world order and global power shifts following the 2008 crisis, as the decline of the ‘liberal international order’ and the rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) marked transformations of the global political economy. Hence, there is a tendency to explain Turkey’s late political economy in this context. It is argued that, in this ‘post-liberal international order’ where two competing political economies come to the fore, Turkey is moving towards the ‘East’ or ‘non-West’ – mainly China and Russia. As such, Turkey’s engagement with non-Western ‘great powers’ (which are generally characterised by ‘authoritarian state capitalism’ as opposed to the ‘neoliberal political economy’/liberal democracy/’democratic capitalism’ of the West), shapes Turkey’s political economy and paves the way for ‘authoritarianism’, ‘illiberal democracy’ and ‘state capitalism’. Put differently, as the legitimacy crisis of ‘Western neoliberalism’ makes it less desirable for countries like Turkey, Turkey is regarded to have deviated from neoliberalism and liberal democracy and moved to state capitalism and authoritarianism.

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Neoliberalism’s many deaths and strange non-deaths 

neoliberalismBy Jack Copley and Alexis Moraitis

The coronavirus pandemic has required states to take unprecedented steps to backstop the world capitalist economy. This has included enormous liquidity injections into financial markets, guaranteeing the wages of furloughed workers, and temporarily requisitioning and coordinating parts of the private sector. Yet last year a different threat – not epidemiological but proletarian – similarly forced states to adopt redistributive policies against their wills, albeit on a smaller scale. 

From the vantage point of the current uprisings against racist police violence, the empty streets of the early 2020 lockdown appear as a brief exception to the broader trend of mass unrest. In 2019, streets, avenues, and squares in different parts of the world flooded with protestors decrying the pro-rich policies of their respective governments. The scale, endurance, and spectacular disruptiveness of these popular explosions pressed governments from Western Asia to Europe to Latin America to abandon so-called neoliberal fiscal rectitude and reluctantly embrace Keynesian stimulus policies.

In Chile, on the eve of the autumn 2019 revolt, billionaire austerian president Sebastián Piñera invoked a classic metaphor of neoliberal stoicism to explain how he would resist popular opposition to his painful reform programme: ‘Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the … siren calls’. Less than one month later, this modern Ulysses had broken free from his tethers, announcing increases in the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, pensions, electricity subsidies, and the reform of Chile’s very constitution. There are clear parallels with France’s Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who assumed power in 2017 on a platform of market discipline, only to buckle under the weight of the relentless Gilet Jaunes movement and announce a €17 billion package of concessions.

How are we to grasp the jarring Keynesian U-turns of such cartoonish neoliberal governments in the face of mass protest and pandemic? It is commonly assumed that the neoliberal project represented the shrinking of the state sphere and its replacement by the cold logic of the marketplace. The 2008 bank bailouts appeared to buck this trend, as states were called upon to undertake drastic interventions. But this turned out to be a hiccup in neoliberalism’s larger narrative arc, as austerity quickly took hold. Yet perhaps this latest accumulation of crises will at last force states to reclaim the territory they had ceded to the market. After its ‘strange non-death’, is neoliberalism finally dying?Read More »

Neoliberalism on Trial: Jokowi 2.0, Omnibus Bill and the New Capital City

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When the majority of Southeast Asian countries began to enact more aggressive responses to the novel coronavirus, Indonesia turned a deaf ear to virus mitigation efforts. As it had no confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of February, Joko Widodo’s (Jokowi) government instead kept pushing extensive economic reform agendas. It submitted a 1,028-page Job Creation Omnibus Bill on 12 February, calling the bill the country’s third great structural reform program after the  1998 International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Letter of Intent and the 1967 Foreign Direct Investment Law. Despite criticism from the opposition, the president insisted on this neoliberal agenda, claiming that the objective of the bill is to promote more foreign direct investment (FDI) in the manufacturing sector and thus create more jobs. 

What effects do neoliberal policies have on political and economic life in Indonesia and state-capital relations in particular? This blog post follows David Harvey (2006) in taking a historical-geographical approach to investigate this question, with a focus on policies put in place in the current president Jokowi’s second term. For many observers, such a bold move to deregulate the economy signals the resurgence of state-led development in a new form. Put differently, what this article would like to argue is that deregulation, an all-encompassing hegemonic ideology rather than simply a policy, has become some sort of ‘banner to unite under’ for the ruling capitalist class in Indonesia. Read More »

Laissez-Faire, Laissez Mourir

Emergency_hospital_during_Influenza_epidemic,_Camp_Funston,_Kansas_-_NCP_1603

The spread of the coronavirus epidemic around the world in the past few weeks has exposed not only differences in the lack of preparedness of various public health systems, but also differences in reactions to the crisis. Some governments imposed an early lockdown in their attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ while others have taken a more gradual approach, proceeding from travel restrictions through limits on non-essential businesses to shelter-in-place regimes. 

As the epicenter of the pandemic shifts from Asia to Europe and the U.S, however, some reactions stand out among the rest in their utter disregard for human life. Federal and state officials in the U.S. have first downplayed the threat two months before it arrived in the country, as well as refused offers for help from the World Health Organization. Now, as the curve in the U.S. is about to get steeper (see the surgeon general’s warning), top levels of government are considering scaling back the moderate measures that have been taken so far, with a view to return to normal activity within a few weeks. While blaming China for not controlling the virus early enough, some officials are contemplating consciously allowing their own citizens to experience a much worse spread of infection and death than China has seen. 

One clear example of this misguided and dangerous ideology can be seen in the pressure put on the U.S. government by corporate lobbyists not to activate the Defense Production Act – which enables the executive branch to order corporations to manufacture the direly-needed medical supplies for testing and treating the virus. Large swaths of the political elite, instead, are relying on the private sector’s voluntary offers to produce such goods. Worse, these same politicians are aching to get the economy back to normal, so as to boost the stock market and their own ratings at the same time. The  lieutenant-governor of Texas even went as far as suggesting that older citizens – the group most prone to dying from the virus – would gladly ‘sacrifice’ themselves in the interest of getting the economy moving again.Read More »