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XXIX.4 July - August 2022
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Digital Citation

Beyond platform cooperativism: Worker-owned platforms in Brazil


Authors:
Rafael Grohmann

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Platform cooperativism is the union of technological potential with the strength of the cooperative organization. Worker-owned platforms can be laboratories, building local experiences to challenge the dominant dynamics of gig work. They can reinvent local economic circuits of production and consumption through platforms and improve working conditions while promoting mobility policies and improvements in public transportation, care services, and integration into the health system. This is both a promise and a potential of platform cooperativism.

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The history of the Brazilian economy is found in the gig.
Groups in the Global South have built technologies and collectives that go beyond the standard model of platform cooperativism.
We need to reimagine and prototype other futures of work, for workers.

The meaning—both theoretical and practical—of platform cooperativism is still under construction. This means there is room for experiments and laboratories, including conceptual ones. If the term platform cooperativism [1] is perhaps too rooted in its origins at the New School in New York City, we might think more along the lines of possibilities for building broader, worker-owned alternatives to platform labor elsewhere. This means going beyond Eurocentric definitions of platform and cooperativism and understanding the possibilities of construction [2] from below by workers.

The history of the Brazilian economy is found in the gig [3]. It is permanent, a means of survival, in the lives of the working class. What is new, perhaps, is the dependence on digital platforms—and their infrastructure—to do work. On Brazil-based click-farm platforms [4], for example, workers spend their days liking, commenting, and sharing posts on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube on behalf of influencers, politicians, celebrities, and PR agencies in exchange for a few fractions of a cent per task. These parasite platforms use the mechanisms of social media to manually boost content through the low-paid work of "human bots." Parallel to this is a market of fake accounts and bots, as workers strategize to earn a minimum.

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Staying attuned to these activities helps us understand changes in the world of work and recognize that gig workers are not passive entities. On the contrary, they look for loopholes and fissures [5] in algorithms and platforms to build everyday tactics at work. It is necessary to understand workers' defenses and struggles, not only in the sense of outright refusal but also in how to appropriate platform mechanisms in favor of workers and the common good.

The experimental nature of platform cooperativism means initiatives must be born from below, supported locally and by communities. These are the ongoing, prefigurative processes of building locally for the needs of the world's workers. This means expanding the sense of technology itself—after all, the platform is still very much linked to Silicon Valley imaginaries and infrastructures.

For these initiatives not to fall into technological solutionism in their local contexts, technology must serve the community, not the other way around. The digital platform is not just technological; in addition to the technological infrastructure, it involves issues such as governance, ownership, work organization, politics, and economic models. Likewise, cooperative platforms involve multiple dimensions, with the technological being the final result of a process.

That said, platforms inspired by the principles of platform cooperativism, but which are not cooperative, exist. For example, there are many bike courier collectives in Brazil that are not legally cooperatives—opening a cooperative in Brazil requires a lot of worker investment. There is a split between the solidarity economy movement, which is more linked to workers, and official cooperativism, which is more related to an entrepreneurial ideology and big players. In this context, the construction of bike courier platforms does not necessarily legally mean the building of a cooperative, but also collectives or other forms of self-management inspired by the principles of platform cooperativism.

In Brazil [6], a series of alternative arrangements to big tech is emerging in the form of collectives or other community groups. For example, in my research on alternative media and media workers' cooperatives, we found that the countries with the most cooperatives in the sector are Argentina and Spain. There are very few cooperative initiatives in Brazil, but there are a number of collectives and community media. This increases the range of institutional designs and expands what is understood to be the definition of platform cooperativism.

The expanding definition of platform cooperativism does not in itself mean the negation of the movement. On the contrary, and even because the expansion was successful, it is a matter of starting from the concept of platform cooperativism to understand what lies beyond the nomenclature. It also means opening the movement to a series of initiatives that have emerged in Brazil, such as Contrate Quem Luta (Hire Who Struggles; https://contratequemluta.com/) from the Homeless Workers Movement, and Antifascist Couriers, that do not exactly fit the definition of platform cooperativism but are inspired by some of its principles and need to be carefully observed as laboratories of the working class. In this conceptual expansion, in addition to the usual platform cooperativism, terms such as worked-owned platforms can be understood as alternative arrangements to big tech.

What are the characteristics of these initiatives? The central one is self-management, of workers, consumers, or many stakeholders. Governance, then, must be democratic, with decision and management processes that have working people at the center. This also means fighting for the equality of genders, races, and other social markers of difference in the self-management process of worker-owned platforms

Decent work is another key point for building self-management in platform labor. Fighting for fair work (https://fair.work/en/fw/principles/) on platforms involves advocating for minimum wage; working conditions that provide health and safety nets; clear and accessible contracts; a management process that ensures equity among workers and combats inequalities, such as those involving race and gender, on the platform; and algorithms that do not harm workers but rather allow their voices to be heard. In addition to these principles, self-management presupposes that, in addition to working for the platform, there is collective care work; that is, the health—physical and mental—of workers is a collective responsibility.


Initiatives must be born from below, supported locally and by communities.


Creating a sustainable, long-term alternative is not possible when workers' own software continues to depend on the mechanisms and infrastructures of Google, Apple, and Microsoft. The use of free and open technologies, with open codes, that prioritize privacy is related to the search for nonaligned technologies, without the infrastructural dependence of the platforms. This means reviewing the entire platform ecosystem. It also involves reviewing the platform design from a perspective of design justice (https://design-justice.pubpub.org/), based on elements such as those proposed by Sasha Costanza-Chock. The design and algorithms of worker-owned platforms must put workers at the center. It is well known how algorithms and other technologies can reproduce historical inequalities (class, race, gender, sexuality) through the power of automation.

Data politics are also a central element in this process, as data extraction has become a form of renting and thus an expansion of digital colonialism. Driver's Seat (https://driversseat.co/) is an example of a data cooperative in which workers collect data on their activities for large platforms and then resell it to public agencies so that the public sector does not suffer from dependence on technology conglomerates. This means understanding the digital infrastructure of worker-owned platforms, including free technologies and data commons. Data [7] should be owned by workers as a community governance possibility. This is a decisive step toward attempts at digital sovereignty in a country like Brazil [8]. In the country itself, there are already a number of hacker collectives doing an excellent job searching for autonomous digital infrastructures, such as the hackfeminist collective MariaLab (https://marialab.org/).

Worker-controlled platforms also challenge the idea that platform economics need scale. Take the mainstream market. A survey by the Brazilian Association of Startups (https://abstartups.com.br/) shows 63 percent of Brazilian start-ups have five or fewer employees. Thus, we cannot expect cooperatives and collectives with 30,000 people involved. There are no arguments to delegitimize worker initiatives with three or five workers just because of their size. One of the strengths of worker-owned platforms is their capacity for articulation and cooperation between initiatives.

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This highlights the rich possibilities for building platform cooperativism in Brazil while fostering alternative circuits and places of production and consumption, and the multiple designs that can be born in an experimental way in laboratories, considering the above principles. These struggles involve the fight for the redefinition of the platform in favor of the working class, articulating free technologies, data commons, decent work, democratic governance, and intercooperation, with the possibilities of promoting public mobility policies, improvements in public transportation, care services, and integration with the health system, among others. It is important not to reproduce a "sharing economy" effect with another type of "washing" or "faux co-op" [9]. It means conceiving the construction of self-managed platforms from below.

These characteristics have been built from below in several collectives and cooperatives in Brazil. Señoritas Courier (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qEy4AMy9dRw), for example, is a collective of women and LGBTQIA+ couriers who are building their own technological tools. There is also a collective of trans people (https://www.instagram.com/trans.entrega/). In Porto Alegre—a city rooted in cooperativism since before the World Social Forum—there are many cooperatives and delivery groups, including Pedal Express (https://instagram.com/pedalexpress), Puma Entregas (https://www.instagram.com/pumaentregas/), and Levô Courier (https://www.instagram.com/levocourier_/). Collectives have emerged from the struggle of Antifascist Couriers, especially in Sõo Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. All these initiatives are laboratories and experiments, without a readymade formula and still under construction. At DigiLabour Research Lab (https://digilabour.com.br/), we recently launched a Platform Cooperativism Observatory (https://cooperativismodeplataorma.com.br/), with a series of videos and articles to encourage the construction of these laboratories in Brazil.

Broadening the understanding of platform cooperativism to build worker-owned initiatives that go beyond dominant definitions of platform or cooperativism requires learning from and with workers all over the world. This allows us to reimagine and prototype other futures of work, for workers.

back to top  References

1. Scholz, T. Platform cooperativism: Challenging the corporate sharing economy. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York Office, 2016; https://rosalux.nyc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/RLS-NYC_platformcoop.pdf

2. Grohmann, R. Rider platforms?: Building worker-owned experiences in Spain, France, and Brazil. South Atlantic Quarterly 120, 4 (2021), 839–852; https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-9443392

3. Marx, P. Gig work is not a novelty in Brazil w/ Rafael Grohmann. Tech Won't Save Us podcast, 2022; https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/gig-work-is-not-a-novelty-in-brazil-w-rafael-grohmann/id1507621076?i=1000538308933

4. Click farm platforms: how they work. DigiLabour. Jul. 2, 2021; https://digilabour.com.br/2021/07/02/click-farm-platforms-how-they-work/

5. Ferrari, F. and Graham, M. Fissures in algorithmic power: platforms, code, and contestation. Cultural Studies 35, 4-5 (2021), 814–832, DOI: 10.1080/09502386.2021.1895250

6. Worker-owned platforms and other experiences in Brazil. DigiLabour. Jun. 17, 2021; https://digilabour.com.br/2021/06/17/worker-owned-platforms-and-other-experiences-in-brazil/

7. Scholz, T. and Calzada, I. Data cooperatives for pandemic times. Public Seminar. Apr. 19, 2021; https://publicseminar.org/essays/data-cooperatives-for-pandemic-times/

8. Ricaurte, P. and Grohmann, R. Data sovereignty and alternative development models. Bot Populi. Oct. 22, 2021; https://botpopuli.net/data-sovereignty-and-alternative-development-models/

9. Zeger, E. Working at the faux-op. The Baffler. Jul. 1, 2021; https://thebaffler.com/latest/working-at-the-faux-op-zeger

back to top  Author

Rafael Grohmann is an assistant professor in communication at the Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos University), Brazil, and incoming assistant professor of media studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. He is coordinator of DigiLabour Research Lab and principal investigator for the Fairwork project in Brazil. His research interests include platform cooperativism, worker-owned platforms, AI and work, datafication, and platform labor. rafaelgrohmann@unisinos.br

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