(A motorcycle taxi driver’s helmet sporting the logo of his unofficial work community, based on a ride-hailing app, which promises a “big family” and “unity”.  All photos by Ying Gao)

“My work community is my second family, no less,” one motorcycle driver said, smiling with infectious optimism.  This declaration echoed many I heard in Jakarta, from other drivers, usually 20 to 40 years old, mostly men with a few women, too.  Everywhere you look, motorcycle taxi drivers dressed in branded, bright green jackets swarm the busy streets of Indonesia’s capital city. 

Uber-like ride-hailing platforms launched here in 2015, leading to meteoritic demand from the urban middle class who were sick of driving in the city’s noxious traffic jams.  In transforming Jakarta’s urban transportation landscape, the apps led countless informal workers into the digital labor market. In this case, informal workers or the informal economy refers to people operating in markets outside formal government regulation and oversight. Motorcycle taxis operate in regulatory gray zones; hence, they are informal (or unregulated) transportation (see UN-HABITAT 2000).  Drivers often lack proper license and violate road traffic, safety, and environmental rules, which makes them vulnerable to official crackdowns.  Operating in an unregulated market brings fear of excess competition as there is no one to prevent competitors from flooding the local service supply.  If not managed well, these types of threats could put the drivers’ livelihood in jeopardy, and even make it impossible for them to carry on working. 

Aside from reports of  several raucous but brief protests by taxi unions and bajaj drivers in 2016, there was not much information on how these new digital platforms were affecting the labor force.  I was interested to see how this shift impacted the political engagement and organizing capacity of mostly low-skilled urban service workers.

(A motorcycle taxi driver’s helmet sporting the logo of his unofficial work community, based on a ride-hailing app, which promises a “big family” and “unity”.)

After the morning rush in central Jakarta one day, I took a break with a group of drivers in their regular sidewalk spot, sheltered under a simple tarpaulin and bamboo structure.   The shelter was cozy with benches, smartphone chargers, and a friendly assortment of food and beverage hawkers. A steaming snack of fried tofu and a cup of sweet tea lay in front of me, a treat from my interviewee.  

At first, my interviewee’s description of his co-workers as a close-knit club or family seemed like a contradiction to the negative reputation the new digital economy often gets.  The “gig” economy brings to mind an image of vast and efficient app platforms, populated by atomic freelancers, who switch on and off to perform spontaneous jobs based on individual calculations.  Yet there was also little sign of effective labor organizing, i.e. formal collective bargaining vis-à-vis the government and the app company.  

I was beginning to glimpse the extensive, unique organizing that underpins informal work in Indonesia.  Indonesia’s urban informal economy has a rich social fabric of street-level informal institutions comprised of grassroots groups, networks and practices.  Moreover, the informal economy’s functions are as much political as social.  

To understand how technology and sociopolitical networks reshape one another on the street, I conducted interviews with drivers and other informal workers, officials in government ministries, transportation authority employees, representatives of labor unions, urban planning experts, NGO workers and entrepreneurs in the private sector in Jakarta.  My research sheds light on three findings: 1) informal transport workers and their traditional way of banding together can coexist with new technology, 2) participation in the digital gig economy hints at opportunity for informal workers to scale up horizontal networking, and 3) local policymakers should pay attention to the network of labor solidarity groups in order to translate the gains from technology into broader benefits for urban service workers across the formal and informal sectors.  

App drivers use traditional organizing models 

First, I found out that there was a surprising amount of continuity rather than change.  Informal work on digital platforms was not exempt from ongoing well-coordinated collective action practices on Jakarta’s streets – collective action that has long existed as a matter of tradition in this country with relatively weak labor unions and protections for the sizable informal economic sectors. 

My interviewee explained how  groups like the informal motorcycle taxi drivers’ community support organizing practices. Anyone could become a member by chipping in a modest weekly sum to a communal fund (around $2 USD).   Most drivers use the ride-hailing app to work 12 to 16 hours a day and in between rides drivers return to the group’s roadside shelter. The communal fund provides for things like hospital bills for accidents, barbecues with families, expenses for maintaining the shelter, and the design and printing of the community’s logo – which was a playful blend of labor union language and biker gang aesthetics, much like the group itself. 

[An example of motorcycle taxi group’s logo.]

Jakarta is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of similar groups. Bajaj tricycle, traditional (non-app) motorcycle taxis, and taxi pools gather at makeshift shelters on the road.  So the recent app drivers’ community is clearly modeled on older forms of transport workers’ communities in urban Indonesia. In fact, the leader of my interviewee’s app community was a defector from the traditional motorcycle taxi camp and had brought much of their practices from his previous trade.

Skills-sharing and solidarity reinforce the gig economy

Informal transport workers’ communities also offer intangible incentives for members to stick together through providing avenues for conflict resolution and problem-solving.   In traditional (non-app) transport communities, queuing norms all but ensured that drivers in the same community would earn similar money. In the new breed of app driver communities, there is no more queuing (due to algorithmic matching).  However, app motorcycle taxi drivers support one another in a different way now: they teach each other how to purchase and use smartphones, a previously unfamiliar technology. Some commented that they wouldn’t trust a new function on the app before checking with their “brothers and sisters” in the community.  In this regard, the transition to a tech-enabled economy in Jakarta is happening not despite, but partly because of these street-level groups, which seems to have quickened the recruitment of app drivers.  

Having an organized presence on streets also enables drivers to manage relationships with traffic police and municipal regulators, property owners, other drivers’ communities, and facilitates ways for drivers to deal with labor conflicts and disruptions locally. 

This is where the coordinator’s (the community leader) abilities come into play.  They represent members of their community to negotiate terms of accommodation with street-level bureaucrats, private property owners, other drivers’ communities, and any other authorities.  This could simply mean knowing the right people in the local neighborhood, or using personal charisma to diffuse fights or work out a win-win informal arrangement with the local police. In one case, app drivers claimed that they had signed a “contract” on paper with local non-app drivers upset about their new presence (think of taxi drivers in the U.S., faced with Uber drivers). Coordinators worked to reach an arrangement where app drivers agreed to pay  compensation to the older groups, and informed the local police officer of the deal.   

In short, social groups like drivers’ work communities enable informal work by providing tangible benefits and predictability with skill-sharing and problem-solving, creating solidarity within the community. 

[A billboard at a university campus announcing local regulations for app motorcycle taxi, citing the reason as “to avoid misunderstandings” that can “disturb safety and public order” with conventional motorcycle taxi groups.]

Examining the coordinators’ roles reinforces that ride-hailing apps did not replace existing street-level coordination mechanisms, but rather extended them.  One app driver showed me the virtual coordinators’ groups in WhatsApp, claiming that 700 to 1,000 coordinators were in constant contact with one another to swap information about occupational hazards throughout Jakarta such as accidents, crime, and political harassment  They said this coordination was particularly helpful in preventing the 2016 taxi protests from turning into too many direct confrontations. 

Aligning policy with the informal market

Though each drivers’ community is miniscule in the vast metropolis of Jakarta, their street norms amount to a wide, diffuse horizontal network. Smartphones in the hands of informal workers may have suddenly widened the scale of grassroots information- sharing.  The implications of these observations lead me to , suggest that researchers and policy wonks concerned with the impacts of technology on labor in other developing cities need to pay more attention to the local equivalent of the street norms described here.  

In the long run, what can we expect in terms of greater welfare and voice for informal workers?  how people cope with hyperlocal conflicts and the role of existing sociopolitical resources are critical to how large problems and opportunities, like the tech-enabled transformation of work, should be addressed.  For example, could informal drivers’ communities channel grassroots demands to governments, or facilitate skills training such as financial literacy and road safety? Some such initiatives are starting to take place in Indonesia, but they are still tentative.

There is great potential for collaborative actions across civil society, governments, and industry – and one thing is clear: Jakarta’s streets may hold many lessons to guide such collaboration.