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Ghost Riders

For almost two years, countries across the world have imposed a host of restrictions on daily life to combat the spread of Covid-19, confining people to their homes and closing restaurants and bars. What people haven't been able to consume in public places they've been ordering into their homes, leading to an explosion in the food delivery business with companies big and small vying for a slice of this lucrative market.

South Africa, which has seen a number of serious outbreaks of Covid, is no different. Transnational companies like Uber Eats and Bolt, as well as smaller local ventures like Mr Delivery and Mr D Food, have been recruiting thousands of drivers to meet the growing demand from food and grocery outlets. In Johannesburg and other towns and cities across South Africa, most delivery riders are migrants from other African countries, many of whom have recently lost their jobs.

With little other work on offer, they are grateful for the opportunity and prepared to face the risks of this new type of work. Hailing from Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries, they have come to underpin the new gig economy that has been turbocharged by the Covid pandemic.

Governed by digital algorithms on the apps they use, their work is unregulated and precarious. Drivers only get paid if they work, so many end up working up to 12 hours a day or more. Some work across multiple platforms. This makes them vulnerable to exploitation. A small 'violation' such as delivering food late, even if it's not their fault, can lead to a driver being blocked on the app; a punitive measure with little chance to appeal. They are only able to resume work when they have been unblocked. The apps claim to work in partnership with the drivers but this relationship has a profound imbalance of power. The apps have been known to change the terms of their agreements without any consultation.

For this reason, drivers in certain areas have come up with an innovative response to protect themselves. They have formed small cooperative groups to support each another, using WhatsApp groups to communicate about work issues, potential hazards and soccer games. They often collect money to assist drivers who have been injured and are unable to work.

Despite this surprising solidarity, they remain an extremely vulnerable group of people. It is dangerous work, with frequent accidents resulting in injuries and sometimes deaths. They are also at the whim of South Africa's soaring crime rate.

This is a story about vulnerable migrants, inequality, exploitation, tech and digital economies that haven grown exponentially due to the Covid pandemic.
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