Illustration by Andrei Nicolescu
Promises and Realities: Working on Digital Platforms
Glovo, Uber, or Bolt are just some of the names that have become known in Romania in a very short time, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. But a less discussed phenomenon is what it means to be a delivery person or a courier when your manager is an algorithm that monitors your every move and checks you at every step. In other words, what does it mean to be a worker on a digital platform and part of the “platform economy”? Are these workers really their own bosses? And do they really work when and as much as they want? In this text and podcast, I talk about the lives of night workers hired by online ordering platforms and transport and courier services in big cities like Bucharest, Brașov, Cluj, Iași, and Timișoara, the so-called “siliconised cities.” Bolt or Uber drivers are the people who work “behind the scenes” 24/7 (twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week). But those who work in a different temporal rhythm, nocturnal, are invisible to the majority of society who work during the day. That is why nightshift workers have a low sense of the value of their services compared to workers in professional jobs in Romania, and they feel a lack of respect from consumers who use their services. In other words, I will tell you about the inequalities that appear and deepen in the social fabric of the “siliconised cities.”
As a night ethnographer and migration scholar, for the past decade Julius-Cezar MacQuarie has reached out to migrant nightshift workers working around the clock in European cities, because he is concerned with their invisibility from public debates, political agendas, and scholarly fields. Dr MacQuarie was awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Research Fellowship to carry out research on precarity in women migrant nightworkers in Ireland (PRECNIGHTS). PRECNIGHTS is hosted by ISS21 Migration and Integration cluster, University College Cork. You can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com and tweet away @precnights / @tweetsfromdrjc.
Andrei Nicolescu is an architect and visual artist living in Bucharest, Romania. During the day he dedicates his time to planning in architecture and at night is reserved for freelancing in graphic design working mainly in the fields of editorial illustration, poster design, album covers or industrial and furniture design. His works focus on experimentation in the visual arts. The dialogue between the various visual arts and their recombination are the basis from which he starts in his approach as an artist or architect. Passionate about all forms of art and design, he is dedicated to an essentialized image, with geometric shapes defining his clear and clean visual language. www.andreinicolescu.com
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
Sarah is a Bolt driver I met in Oradea in the summer of 2021. Sarah offers an “alternative transport” service, as written on her work ID. The digital platform company Bolt, where Sarah works, is a transport operator in Romania. To refer to her work, I could use labels such as “ride hailer,” driver for hire, digital platform worker, or entrepreneur. Alongside companies such as Uber or Freenow, Bolt has become ubiquitous in Romania in recent years, especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These companies operate in what is globally known as the “gig” or “shared economy” or “platform capitalism.”
In Romania, the Information Technology and Communication (IT&C) sector has developed mainly in large cities like Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Timișoara, or Oradea, hence the dubbing “siliconised cities.” They are characterized by processes of siliconisation, i.e., transformation into “smart” cities that attract and concentrate digital nomadic investors and global technocapital and implicitly marginalize and dispossess communities of local but unskilled workers of their physical and social capital. The IT&C sector is the “star of the economy,” even more productive in 2020 than in the years before the pandemic, according to Ziarul Financiar. At the regional level, Romania is an important player in IT&C in terms of productivity and sector size, after the Czech Republic, but ahead of Poland, Bulgaria, and Croatia.
In this research project, I approached the IT&C sector as part of an unequal work system where one sector is celebrated and the contributions of others remain invisible. Recent studies focus either on the growth of the IT&C sector or on the algorithmic management systems of digital platforms in the “gig economy.” To my knowledge, few studies look at these types of work as part of an unequal system, where low-paid workers in these sectors make possible the work of privileged IT&C workers or “digital nomads.”
My objective is to investigate and make visible how the workforce in the IT&C sector relies on precarious and low-paid labour in the adjacent services, such as passenger and freight delivery services. In the context of the pandemic, the number of platform workers and, respectively, online requests for delivery of products and taxi hire services such as Bolt and Uber has increased exponentially. The broader objective is to contribute to the understanding of contemporary capitalism and how it disciplines and extracts labour from what might be called “disposable bodies.” This system deprives workers of their physical and social capital, negatively influences the perception of their own social value and the value of their services relative to the professional hierarchy, and leads to the unfair allocation of resources. In short, it contributes to the growth of structural inequalities in the social fabric of “siliconised cities.”
Initially, my preliminary research questions were: What does it mean to have as your manager an algorithm that monitors your every step? Are you really your own boss? Can you really work when and as much as you want, as the “sharing economy” promises? What types of inequalities do these workers experience? To find the answers, I thought of approaching manual workers from software companies, call centres, security guard staff, cleaning staff, or workers on digital platforms in “alternative transportation” (Bolt, Uber, Freenow) and food delivery (Glovo, Panda). As my fieldwork progressed, I narrowed down the scope and aims to find answers to experiences of platform workers. I became interested in what they made of the promises and realities of being digital platform workers and part of the “sharing economy.” And who did or was most likely forced to do such work?
That’s how I met Sarah, a fifty-year-old woman.
From 2002 to 2020, Sarah and her husband transported Romanian migrants between Oradea and Milan, on fifteen- to sixteen-hour journeys. In 2020, after the death of her husband, their transport company went to her son, and Sarah looked for another way to earn a living. In July 2021, she became a Bolt driver, the only woman to do such work in her city. For her, it meant to adapt her skills as long-route driver to offering “alternative transport” services with a few runs per hour during peak demand. In her words:
A trip takes about ten minutes. But of course, I’m not paid for the time it takes to get to the client. I give rides within a 2km radius. If a ride is more than 5km away from where I am and the cost of the trip is low, I turn it down. So it’s somewhere between five to ten minutes of travel. Look, this week, we’ve had one ride after another… so that’s like four trips per hour. It rarely happens that there are five, the traffic in the city must be really quiet for that. … Bolt is easier compared to carrying passengers long distances like I used to do with my husband. I was burdening my mind with all the stories that people were more than happy to dish out during the fifteen- to sixteen-hour journey. Bolt trips are short. A lot of young people use Bolt, and they don’t like the chats. I have never had a client over the age of fifty. Young people prefer Bolt because it’s not like a taxi. When they call the driver, they see the price. If they like it, they confirm the trip.
Drivers register their car and if they pass Bolt’s forty-five-point test, they start working as registered Bolt drivers. From what they earn, they cover their expenses: petrol, car maintenance, and taxes. Time and fuel used to travel to the customer meeting point are not counted towards the payment of a ride. This service is labelled as “alternative” to distinguish it from renting a car and using a taxi service.
As a Bolt customer, you hire the driver for the ride. As a third party in this agreement, the Bolt company initially offers good discounts to attract customers. On the round trip I made between Oradea and a village near this city, with Sarah as the driver, I received a twenty percent discount, Sarah received the full fare for the trip, and Bolt took twenty percent of the total price charged to me by Sarah. At first glance, all parties involved seem to be happy.
The algorithms behind the platform digitally manage the orders and drivers. Both drivers and their customers rate each other. Sarah tells me what it’s like to be held accountable for what an algorithm decides:
A customer cancelled their trip because they had to pay more than the app showed at the pick-up point. He gave me a bad rating. My rating dropped from 5 to 4.5. Although it wasn’t my fault as the driver, it was the app’s fault. The Bolt app chose a GPS route that was more expensive for the customer. But I got the poor rating, not the Bolt app. … Some customers complain to me that the prices are high and go up when there is demand. But I don’t decide, the app does. A customer told me just today that he can only pay by card, he has no other options. That’s why he has to ride with me, but he doesn’t like that the prices keep going up. But it’s not my fault! … Others are unhappy that Bolt prices are the same as regular taxis. At first, Bolt was cheaper, 20 percent to 30 percent cheaper than the usual taxi fare. Now that is no longer the case.
I learned from Sarah that not everyone is happy with Bolt services. Including herself.
After four months as a Bolt driver, Sarah was experiencing problems with the way things worked between her fleet manager and Bolt as a platform. Our discussions highlighted a characteristic of this type of work that is not mentioned in the existing literature on platform capitalism.
In July 2021, Sarah learned from her mechanic that someone in town, a certain John, was hiring drivers. She was registered by him as a driver in his fleet on the Bolt digital platform a few days after Bolt started operating in Oradea. Initially, Sarah said, their relationship was beneficial: “John helped me, he did everything for me. Downloaded the app to my phone, entered my details. It went very smoothly. He paid me every weekend. I don’t know where he got the money from, but I was paid on time.”
John did the paperwork and managed the relationship with the authorities and everything related to Sarah’s registration as a Bolt worker and the car’s. For these services, Sarah paid John ten percent of her earnings. After a while, John informed Sarah that she could no longer work for him more than four hours a day and more than twenty-four hours a week. Otherwise the Labour Office in Oradea would fine both her as a driver and him as the fleet owner. “I can’t risk something like that,” John kept telling Sarah.
In November 2021, the situation changed even further. In Sarah’s words:
This week, after working four months in his fleet, he told me we have to stop next week. That I can no longer work for him. I don’t know anymore… And there’s also this. I picked up a customer today and said “Hello,” my usual way of greeting customers. The customer asked me, “But do we know each other?” “No,” I replied, “but that’s how I start my journey, greeting everyone.” He said, “I thought you might know me because I’m a Bolt driver too.” This customer had his own fleet in Cluj. He advised me to open an LLC and work for him. I was taken aback and didn’t know what to say to him. I don’t understand why John told me that I couldn’t work with him anymore, and then this guy came and said that I could work in Oradea in his fleet registered in Cluj. And another one told me that I could register and work on my own. But I don’t know how to do this, I don’t understand how, I don’t understand the application, I don’t know who to ask. But my feeling is that if I open an LLC, I will just switch from one to the other. And they’ll be taking their share of my work, and that’s not okay. If I could work on my own, that would be the best. These people live off us. The man from Cluj has even more people in his fleet in Cluj than John has here in Oradea. He comes here to recruit drivers from Oradea to work for him in Cluj. But you see, John really helped me! I’ll tell you what I’ll do! I’m going to look into how I can get that code, NACE, to see how I can start on my own.
The “sharing economy” is a type of economy that has promised a lot, first of all a new way of working, where workers manage their own time, work without bosses, and the earnings are entirely theirs. In tune with this promise, the official blog of Bolt Romania shows the picture of a woman describing her as a passionate driver who manages her own freedom.
In the book After the Gig, published in 2020 in collaboration with other researchers, sociologist Juliet Schor reveals the cynical way in which platforms break this promise. They exploit gig economy workers through disempowerment and inequality, in stark contrast to what this type of economy originally promised. Owners and investors in platforms now widely used around the world, such as Uber, Lyft, Postmates, or Airbnb, accumulate capital at the expense of these workers, many of whom are partially or totally dependent on these “parasite platforms,” as Schor calls them.
Sarah’s story brings to the forefront another type of parasite, the middlemen who get a percentage of the workers’ earnings. They are the hidden part of this platform, worker, and customer relationship. After all, Sarah isn’t really her own boss, she cannot work how and when she likes, and she doesn’t get to keep all her earnings either. For me, her story opens a new direction of research into the functioning of the adjacent sectors that support the IT&C sector in Romania, but whose contribution is not recognised by the state or society at large.
In closing, I reiterate Juliet Schor’s point that digital platforms can build bridges between people, not just walls as they seem to have done so far, with people like Sarah largely left out. But embedding and enabling these values depends on the people who create and use these technologies.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
 I use pseudonyms to protect the identity of my interlocutors.
 Scholz, Trebor. 2012. Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge; Scholz, Trebor. 2016. Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy. 1st ed. New York: Polity.
 Răzvan Botea. 2020. IT-ul a fost vedeta economiei româneşti şi sectorul-câştigător al pandemiei în prima jumătate din 2020. Ziarul Financiar, (October 14, 2020). Online at: https://www.zf.ro/banci-si-asigurari/it-ul-vedeta-econo-miei-romanesti-sectorul-castigator-pandemiei-prima -19654861. Accessed February 28, 2023.
 Ștefan Guga and Marcel Spătari. 2021. Excepția care confirmă regula. Evoluții în sectorul IT din România. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung & Syndex. Online at: http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/bueros/bukarest/17692–20210401.pdf.
 MacQuarie (forthcoming). A study on inequalities in siliconised Romanian cities carried out while a Stefan Odobleja post-doctoral fellow, New Europe Foundation (2021–2022), Bucharest, Romania.
 See McElroy’s work on “siliconized” Cluj and other works on postsocialist Romania. McElroy, Erin. 2019. Unbecoming Silicon Valley: Techno Imaginaries and Materialities in Postsocialist Romania. Santa Cruz: University of California; McElroy, Erin. 2020. “Digital Nomads in Siliconising Cluj: Material and Allegorical Double Dispossession.” Urban Studies, 57(15): 3078–3094.
 Schor, Juliet. 2020. After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win It Back. Boston: University of California Press.
 Idem, p. 71.