Striking against algorithmic management

Posted on 26.07.2023
Hanoi, Vietnam - Apr 9, 2017: Vietnamese Grab bike riders waiting for passenger on a street. Grab is a popular app for taxi service in Southeast Asia.
(PC: Shutterstock)

By Fairwork Vietnam

The Vietnamese working class is well-known for its militancy, organising frequent strikes. Since the late 2000s, especially, there have been literally thousands of strikes, which are often successful at winning workplace demands, the vast majority of which are about wages and benefits. The state-led trade union confederation, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labour (VGCL), has never organised a strike (independent unions are not allowed), despite some of the confederation’s leaders saying they would wish to do so. All strikes are technically unlawful, as a legal strike requires workers to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops and requires the strike to be led and organised by the VGCL – which it does not do. Despite being unlawful, strikes are largely tolerated. Strike numbers have substantially reduced over the past few years but remain a significant force in Vietnamese labour politics. 

Strikes have largely been by factory workers in industrial sectors. Since the rise of digital labour platforms, however, there have been a number of strikes by these workers, especially app-based drivers – the first time that a service sector has seen significant strike numbers. Strike demands in this sector have tended to mirror those in the industrial sectors, with the majority focusing on income and benefits, such as levels of commission taken by the platforms, or bonus policies. The largest gig economy strike to date, by Grab drivers in December 2020, was to oppose a change in tax policy which would have significantly reduced drivers’ take home pay. Gig economy strikes often involve drivers gathering in front of the company offices with placards and banners, or driving in convoy around the city to ensure they are noticed and to make their demands clear to the public. As in industrial manufacturing, all strikes are self-organised by workers, not the union, with worker-activists often using Facebook groups and other social media to mobilise their colleagues. 

A strike by Be motorbike drivers in March 2023 in Hanoi was notable for a more unusual demand. Drivers gathered in front of the company’s office from 2pm and then moved to the nearby Cau Giay park to protest, with hundreds of drivers taking part. Authorities then asked drivers to disperse, saying their behaviour was not maintaining social order, so drivers set off driving around the city in convoy, eventually stopping to congregate in front of the iconic colonial-era Hanoi Opera House. 

Alongside a common demand to reduce the level of commission taken by the platform, drivers were also opposing the way the platform’s software handled fraudlent activity incorrectly, which caused workers to be locked out of the platform. Drivers then had to contact the platform’s support team, but still found that their issues were not resolved quickly.  

In response to the strike, Be defended the platform and its management of fraudulent cases, but asked drivers to provide more information and present their demands, so the company could consider them and find a solution. 

This is the first time, as far as the Fairwork Vietnam country team is aware, of a reported strike in Vietnam’s digital platform economy in which workers were protesting against algorithmic management. This is perhaps surprising, as workers frequently report that they oppose the black box of algorithmic management, and that it causes serious issues. A study of four ride-hailing and delivery platforms – Baemin, Be, Now and Grab – undertaken in 2021 reveals the discontent of app-based drivers over algorithmic management. Of the 203 drivers participating in the study, 49% reported that the allocation of orders by their platforms was untransparent while 57.2% said that this process was unfair. Moreover, interview data found that the non-disclosure of the algorithms used by platforms enabled them to not only exert constant pressure for drivers to work harder, but also manipulate the working of the algorithms, such as to limit drivers’ chances to meet bonus thresholds. App-based drivers were also unhappy with (semi-)automated disciplinary processes and customer rating systems, as platform companies often failed to provide workers with sound reasoning and evidence or give them sufficient chance to explain their circumstances and appeal. 

Vietnamese policymakers and labour practitioners have thus far not paid much attention to issues of algorithmic management in the platform economy. Rather, the focus has largely been on issues of workers’ legal status and current lack of social protection. If opposition to algorithmic management starts to become a more frequent demand by striking and protesting workers, this may change. To avoid this, platforms should start making serious efforts to meet Fairwork’s Principle 4, on Fair Management. This Principle stresses the need for algorithmic transparency, documented processes to appeal decisions, the need for human support systems, and reasonable response times.