The Fight for Employment Status for App-workers Broadens

Amsterdam      The Department of Labor under the Trump administration is doing all it can to assure app-based tech companies from Uber, Deliveroo, and others that they will bend over backwards to shield them from classification as directly employed workers rather than independent subcontracts.  Government agencies in an even greater acrobatic twist in the US are saying that they will give employers a “free pass” if they misclassify workers as subcontractors, seemingly encouraging them to do so until caught without making proper payments for taxes and benefits.

California once again acting as the bulwark against such offenses despite being the home state of many of the tech giants specializing in play-pretend work practices around the fiction of independent contracts is on the verge of passing a bill that would clearly determine such workers to be employees rather than contractors.  Besides the Ubers, Lyfts, and wannabes hiding behind apps, it is well known that Google, Facebook, and the rest work hundreds of thousands of contract workers side by side with regular employees in order to save money and keep them out of employment status and benefits.   The companies are playing hardball and threatening to raise $20 million to put any law that is passed on the ballot to California voters to overturn it.  I haven’t seen the polling, but regardless of the tech war chest, I would bet the odds are not naturally in their favor.

This isn’t just a domestic issue, and the going may be rougher in fact elsewhere in the world.  Sitting with colleagues in Amsterdam in preparation for a more extensive meeting, one told how taxi strikes had pushed Uber out of Barcelona recently when they visited and talked to local activists in Spain.

An official from the Netherlands Trade Union Federation (FNV), the largest union in the Netherlands, had successfully engaged Deliveroo and its delivery driver exploitation.  In Netherlands, achieving a certain threshold, unions are able to negotiate collective labor agreements for entire sectors.  FNV argued that delivery was covered under their sector agreements for retail and warehousing.  The government had stalled, claiming the need for study and saying it was complicated.  FNV sued and easily won the case.  The government is still foot dragging he reported, and Deliveroo has challenged the ruling in their own suit, but right now the union clearly has the whip hand and is using it well.

In Mumbai, India, these delivery operations both international like Deliveroo and locally-based are facing a different kind of problem.  Smaller restaurants are banning together and striking in their words by refusing to accept orders.  Their issue is the exorbitant fees, often 25%, being charged by the delivery companies for their service which are forcing the food establishments to lose money on every order.  Our own social enterprise, Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, walked away from all delivery inquiries after a one-month trial with Uber Eats that quickly convinced us that there was no way it benefited the coffeehouse, workers or anyone but the Uber people.

The business model seems predicated on worker exploitation to save money and sourcing exploitation on unprovable claims of customer expansion.  Customers may enjoy transitory cost savings and convenience, but the model ultimately seems unsustainable when based on such sinking sand.

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India’s Anti-Muslim Detention Camps

People stand in line to check their names on the first draft of the National Register of Citizens in Assam

New Orleans       In the wake of anti-immigrant nativist policies, shooting massacres, and blatant racism, it is easy to think that it couldn’t be worse.  Certainly, on the immigrant front, we have hit a nadir that the country may not have seen since the days of the “yellow peril” and anti-immigrant policies to restrict Asian in-migration.

Tragically, it can be worse.  We saw this in Myanmar with the brutal suppression and genocide of the Rohingya whose biggest crime seems to have been their Muslim faith.  We are now also seeing this in India, another American ally, allowed to trumpet its claims as the largest democracy on earth, while allowing a communalist, rightwing Hindu-only nationalism become the dominating political program behind the BJP and Prime Minister Modi’s government.  The headlines most recently revolved around withdrawing the special status of Kashmir, one of two majority Muslim states in India.  A lesser known horror is taking place in the state of Assam, bordering Bangladesh.

Since 2016, Assam, also governed by the BJP, has been compiling a dangerous list, called the National Register of Citizens (NRC).  The NRC claimed to be a way to identify illegal intruders migrating from Bangladesh, but instead has become a Kafkaesque, Catch-22 list of four million of the state’s thirty-three million residents who are now forced to prove that they are citizens.  More than 1000 people are currently being held in six detention centers and another ten are being built as the program expands.

The suspected foreigners are required to prove that they or their forebearers have lived in the state since March 1971.  Some 3.7 million have already challenged this designation, but the process involves appearing before a Foreigners Tribunal, where there is no right to appeal or receive any review.  Cases have already emerged where members of the same family were declared both citizens and foreigners.  An Indian war hero was listed.  A young high school graduate, according to The Economist, was listed although no one else in her family was and then was unable to resolve it, because the bureaucracy required her to prove her citizenship through her voting record without reconciling the fact that she was too young to even register to vote yet.

As bad as all of this is, it gets worse.  Anyone can anonymously file an “objection” letter demanding the removal of suspected foreigners.  They never even need appear in court to face their accused.  Groups gained access to the NRC list and filed 220,000 letters before a late spring deadline.

The national government is touting the Assam anti-Muslim efforts as a model and announcing its interest in expanding the program nationally to deal with the 14% of its more than one-billion population who are Muslim.  Lest there be any doubts about the Hindu-chauvinism here, a national law has been drafted that would allow any on the list to recover citizenship or become citizens if they are Hindu, Christian, Zoroastrian, or in fact belonging to any religion other than Islam.

The United States is silent in the face of this outrage of human rights.  Perhaps that is because so many of our policies against migrants, immigrants, and Muslims are trying to travel this same road without being as clear about it as the Modi and the BJP have been?

This detention camp is located inside Assam’s central prison
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