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Necrocapitalism in the Gig Economy: The Case of Platform Food Couriers in Australia

Authors:

Abstract

Although recent deaths of multiple couriers on the road have raised awareness of the dangers of on-demand food delivery, there remains limited government regulation of the industry in many jurisdictions. In this article, we argue that the labour conditions of platform couriers in Australia constitute a case of necrocapitalism (Banerjee), a contemporary form of accumulation through which organisational structures harness the power of debilitation and death for economic gain. After contextualising food delivery within the Australian gig economy, our analysis underscores how necropower operates through courier labour. We illustrate three dimensions: how this form of labour entails corporeal risks and harms; how these harms are heightened by platform infras-tructures; and how strategic regulatory inaction maintains necropolitical orders. The article concludes with a reflection on how this contemporary example of necrocapitalism illuminates intersecting vectors of domination underpinning the logics and practices of platform governance.
A Radical Journal
of Geography
Necrocapitalism in the Gig
Economy: The Case of Platform
Food Couriers in Australia
Will Orr
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California, Los
Angeles, CA, USA and
Justice and Technoscience Lab, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian
National University, Canberra, ACT Australia;
orrw@usc.edu
Kathryn Henne
Justice and Technoscience Lab, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian
National University, Canberra, ACT Australia and
College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USA;
kathryn.henne@anu.edu.au
Ashlin Lee
Justice and Technoscience Lab, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian
National University, Canberra, ACT Australia and
Environmental Informatics Group, CSIRO, Canberra, ACT, Australia;
ashlin.lee@csiro.au
Jenna Imad Harb
Justice and Technoscience Lab, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian
National University, Canberra, ACT Australia;
jenna.harb@anu.edu.au
Franz Carneiro Alphonso
Justice and Technoscience Lab, School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian
National University, Canberra, ACT Australia;
franz.carneiroalphonso@anu.edu.au
Abstract: Although recent deaths of multiple couriers on the road have raised aware-
ness of the dangers of on-demand food delivery, there remains limited government reg-
ulation of the industry in many jurisdictions. In this article, we argue that the labour
conditions of platform couriers in Australia constitute a case of necrocapitalism (Baner-
jee), a contemporary form of accumulation through which organisational structures har-
ness the power of debilitation and death for economic gain. After contextualising food
delivery within the Australian gig economy, our analysis underscores how necropower
operates through courier labour. We illustrate three dimensions: how this form of labour
entails corporeal risks and harms; how these harms are heightened by platform infras-
tructures; and how strategic regulatory inaction maintains necropolitical orders. The
Antipode Vol. 0 No. 0 2022 ISSN 0066-4812, pp. 122 doi: 10.1111/anti.12877
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits
use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial
purposes.
article concludes with a reection on how this contemporary example of necrocapital-
ism illuminates intersecting vectors of domination underpinning the logics and practices
of platform governance.
Keywords: necropolitics, gig economy, domination, labour, platforms, regulation
Introduction
On 24 September 2020, a car in Sydneys inner suburbs struck Dede Fredy while
he was working as an Uber Eats courier. He suffered a brain injury and died a few
days later in the hospital. Fredy had migrated to Australia in 2019 from Indonesia,
where he had a wife and a young son, whom he would regularly send a propor-
tion of his earnings to support. His death was the rst of ve reported deaths of
platform food delivery couriers within a two-month period in Australia (Om
et al. 2021). Like Fredy, these couriers, all of whom were migrants to Australia,
worked for various app-based delivery services and were killed on separate occa-
sions while fullling an order (Novak 2020). In response, many food delivery com-
panies denied responsibility and resisted calls to implement reforms aimed at
preventing future tragedies (Butler 2021). In fact, Uber Eats did not report the
death of one of its couriers, evincing how couriers are arguably expendable labour
for these companies (Begley 2021).
It is not just platform companies that resist stronger regulation of the food
delivery sector. Governments, too, are hesitant to introduce holistic responses tar-
geting platforms. For example, the New South Wales (NSW) Governments recent
report on the work health and safety of food couriers (Convery et al. 2020) sug-
gests individual risk prevention activities to promote gig economy worker safety.
It proposes increasing participation in safety training at onboardingand alter
[ing] the order acceptance process to minimise the risk of phone distraction
(Convery et al. 2020:26). As such, the recommendations frame courierssafety as
their own responsibility, embracing responsibilisation, a technique of governmen-
tality that shifts culpability and blame from companies by attributing risk to mar-
ginalised groups(Mythen and Walklate 2008:229). In other words, couriers are
rendered culpable for their own deaths rather than platforms and the inequities
of gig economy labour.
In this article, we examine how the deaths of several food delivery couriers in
Australia point to the risks and insecurities of their work and the devaluation of
their labour and lives. As others observe, the conditions of gig economy labour
are coercive (Richardson 2020), degenerative (Wood et al. 2019), and insecure
(Malin and Chandler 2017). They also reect wider economic, gendered, and
racial inequities characteristic of service work (Shade 2018; van Doorn 2017). The
on-demand food delivery market requires workers to manage intersecting social,
economic, legal, organisational, and technological pressures as they navigate plat-
forms to perform work. Here, we illustrate how the value of these workerslabour
becomes inextricably linked to their capacity to be injured, neglected, and
dispossessedthat is, in a biopolitical sense, to let die.
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To do so, we draw on insights gleaned through an analysis of the regulatory
conditions surrounding courier deaths and a larger qualitative study on shifting
work conditions during the pandemic in Australia.
1
During our research on how
people from different backgrounds adapted to COVID-19 restrictions, interviews
revealed striking distinctions in lived experience: While many middle-class partici-
pants conveyed a reliance on food couriers to manage long periods of lockdown,
interviewees in more precarious situations, particularly international students and
other migrants, conveyed a strong sense of abandonment, disregard by govern-
ment, and risk as they navigated limited options for generating income. Courier
work emerged as one of their few prospects. Consistent with the structures of
silence that pervade this industry, limited data about courier deaths, injuries, and
experiences have been recorded or made public (Ross 2019). Thus, we shifted
our emphasis to capture more data on their perspectives and carried out a criti-
cal content analysis of news media and government documents on platform
food delivery work to investigate how different actors framed this labour and its
value. Our analysis yields clear tensions in how different workersbodies are val-
ued, with courier degradation operating through racialised and socio-economic
fault lines.
2
Building on scholarship attentive to the biopolitical implications of the platform
economy (e.g. Gregory and Sadowski 2021; Walker et al. 2021), we examine
how the documented working conditions of platform food couriers bring biopol-
itics and necropolitics into crisis, as their bodies are primed to live through his
or her dying(Puar 2007:157158). As other geographers observe, this form of
platform work is predicated on the expendability of couriersbodies (Bissell 2022).
We extend this observation by exploring how such labour is etched and shaped
by what Bobby Banerjee (2008) describes as necrocapitalism, a form of capital
accumulation through which organisational structures harness the power of debil-
ity and death for economic gain. A focus on necropolitics, as Achille Mbe-
mbe (2003) contends, reveals that states of suffering are not simply
manifestations of market actions; they reect the dispossession of rights and liber-
ties.
Our analysis examines how necropower sustains structural vulnerability through
practices of capital accumulation, attending to their entanglement with interlock-
ing systems of oppression. Like scholarship on racial capitalism, our research scru-
tinises how racism has been central to capitalist accumulation (Robinson 2000),
particularly, as other geographers acknowledge, how capital prots from varie-
gated landscapes of difference(Inwood et al. 2021:1084). This Australian case
study deepens emergent insights into how digital systems can instantiate and
extend racial capitalism by exploring how platform technologies exercise a dis-
tinct form of sovereign power (Henne et al. 2021). In the pages that follow, we
begin by situating the deaths of food delivery couriers within the wider landscape
of gig economy work in Australia. We then outline key tenets of necropolitics
informing this article, acknowledging that the exercise of necropower entails a
spectrum of debilitation that includes, but is not limited to, death. Three parts
comprise our analysis of how necropower operates vis-
a-vis labour conditions:
how corporeal harms are inherent to this work; how these harms are heightened
Necrocapitalism in the Gig Economy 3
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by platform infrastructure; and how strategic regulatory inaction maintains these
necropolitical orders. We conclude by reecting on how necrocapitalist analysis
aids in unveiling underlying logics of platform governance and their connections
to interlocking systems of domination. In doing so, this article responds to calls
for critical geographers to develop an intersectional conception of capitalism in
which its deeply racialised nature is fully recognised(Pulido 2016:1) and to
query how capitalism enshrines racial hierarchies of those considered human
(Gilmore 2007).
Precarity and Servitude in Australian Platform-Based
Food Delivery
Understanding how necropower operates requires contextualising the deaths of
food couriers within broader power disparities between workers and other stake-
holders in Australias platform economy. Frances Flanagan (2018) explains that
while the Australian platform economy resembles forms of domination associated
with domestic servitude, there are key distinctionsnamely that gig economy
workers do not serve a single master. Rather, these workers occupy a regime of
structural dominationin which their servitude is facilitated by a vast multiplic-
ity of potential masterswho are brought together within a common, econo-
mised matrix founded on the private laws of contract, tort, and property
(Flanagan 2018:71). Platform food couriers are situated at the intersection of
three relations of servitude: to customers that provide demand; to restaurants that
provide supply; and to platforms that facilitate transactions. Each delivery job
brings a new set of mastersinto relation, with couriers positioned centrally
among the plurality of people caught in relations of servitude. Dynamics between
workers can be volatile, as couriers may establish dominance over one another
(Bissell 2022). With one-in-ten riders identifying as women, gendered marginalisa-
tion is a core feature of this male-dominated industry (Transport WorkersUnion
2020b).
While contemporary capitalism both contributes to relations of servitude and
structural domination (van Doorn 2017), law aids in sustaining workerseconomic
precarity (Malin and Chandler 2017). Workers in Australia are classied as employ-
ees or contractors based on a common law test that considers stakeholder rela-
tionships, worker control, and autonomy (Forsyth 2020). Rather than being
recognised as employees of corporations, couriers are framed as delivery part-
nersor self-employed contractors(Uber Eats 2021). This labour status benets
platforms; they are not required to ensure government-mandated employee rights
and protections, such as minimum pay, overtime pay, holiday pay, sick leave, and
maternity leave (Zwick 2018). Estimates place the average hourly wage of plat-
form couriers at $10.42, which is well below the Australian minimum wage, with
an average of $322.15 of unpaid wages each week (Transport Workers
Union 2020a,2020b). Couriers must nance their own vehicles, helmets, regular
maintenance, and worker insurance, which are legal requirements for their work
(Uber Eats 2021). The marketisation of labour without traditional employment
protections contributes to conditions in which workers are easily exploited,
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terminated, and replaced (Richardson 2020; Zwick 2018). In sum, workerslegal
status functions to solidify endemic economic precarity.
Racialised logics are embedded within gig economy work relations. While the
violence of Australian racism has been well documented in relation to the killing
and subjugation of First Nations peoples (Anderson and Perrin 2008), Australian
policies targeting migrants have also bolstered white supremacy (Bonds and
Inwood 2016). As a legacy of the White Australia immigration policy, which
sought to curtail non-European migration and ofcially ended in 1973, many
migrants still experience limited rights, with notable restrictions placed on work
permits. The proliferation of temporary working visas has eroded migrant workers
bargaining power and made them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and pre-
carity (Wright and Clibborn 2020). As of 2018, Asian migrants made up close to
70% of all temporary visa holders in Australia (McDonald 2019). These migrants
have come to occupy many jobs in industries with weak labour protections, as
epitomised by the gig economy (Zwick 2018). Under temporary work restrictions,
workers face deportation two months after the termination of their employment if
they do not nd another sponsor (Wright and Clibborn 2020). Indeed, three-
quarters of surveyed food delivery workers in Australia are temporary visa holders,
with less than 10% of couriers reporting Australian citizenship (Transport Workers
Union 2020b). Further, the fractured landscape of Australian unions has limited
their effectiveness to organise in response to precarious work (Barratt et al. 2020).
The prevalence of migrant workers in this industry reects the historically racia-
lised nature of service work in settler-colonial states such as Australia (see Ander-
son 2000). While scholarly examinations of the gig economy have interrogated
the poor working conditions of platform workers, they have not yet explored how
interlocking systems of oppression constitute the economic, racial, and structural
features of their domination. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007:28) explains, racism is
the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-
differentiated vulnerability to premature death. In other words, racism, as a sys-
tem, is necropolitical. Our examination explores how the conditions of food cour-
ier labour reect this proclivity toward death through engagement with
platforms.
Necropower in Contemporary Capitalism
Scholars acknowledge the gig economy enables and extends forms of biopolitical
governance through digital means (Walker et al. 2021). Biopower is intertwined
with the expansion of capitalism through the controlled insertion of bodies into
the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of popula-
tion to economic processes(Foucault 1978:141). Although biopower may oper-
ate in optimising and prolonging the health of individuals and populations, many
bodies exist in spaces of legal and spatial exceptionswhere they are not recog-
nised as having political rights or life-afrming protections that others enjoy
(Ahmetbeyzade 2008:188). Their existence within this state of exception evinces
the sovereigns capacity to determine who is disposable and who is not
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(Mbembe 2019:80). This status, which Giorgio Agamben (1998) refers to as bare
life, marks the bodies that can be killed with impunity.
Foucauldian explanations of biopolitics have been criticised for framing death
as a byproduct, a secondary effect of the primary aim and efforts of those culti-
vating or being cultivated for life(Puar 2007:32). In contrast, as Jasbir
Puar (2007:33) argues, the analysis of necropolitics foregrounds death decou-
pled from the project of livinga direct relation to killing. While physical death
may be an end of necropower, necropolitics operates beyond the act of killing;
certain subjects are valued precisely because their bodies can be devalued and
debilitated. Consider, for example, how Mbembe (2003:21) explains the produc-
tion of death-in-lifeas central to spaces of exception. It cultivates power
through exploitation, as exemplied by apartheid systems, colonial occupation,
and plantation economies. For Mbembe (2003:21), the slave exemplies this state
of being; they are kept alive but in a state of injury, experiencing a triple loss:
loss of a home, loss of rights over his or her body, and loss of political status.
They exist in conditions predicated on the disavowal of their belonging and
autonomy(Gilbert and Ponder 2013:407). Their labour serves to optimise
otherslives. In this case, relations of servitude debilitate food couriers for cus-
tomer satisfaction and corporate prot.
Contemporary necropolitical agendas underpin dynamics often framed as the
free market (Banerjee 2008). Accordingly, the market becomes an arbiter of
death, with necroeconomics reecting the monetary value placed on certain lives
and livelihoods (Montag 2005). These capitalist arrangements position certain
populations and types of labour as not simply devalued; they are excess labour,
redundant, socially useless, economically unviable, unemployable, or simply put,
social excrement(Haskaj 2018:1155). As Fatmir Haskaj (2018:1148) argues,
cohorts of persons become usable and disposable for the vitality of capitalist sys-
tems, valued only in their negation. Their devaluation fosters what Jin-kyung
Lee (2010:6) denes as necropolitical labour, which has worth precisely because it
is entangled with the possibility of deathfor example, enlisted military service.
The bodies that sustain necroeconomic orders often embody racialised class
oppression and are unable to access resources necessary for maintaining robust
livelihoods (Banerjee 2008). Accordingly, the food courier industry captures how
necropolitics and racial capitalism become inextricably intertwined.
The continued extraction of value from high-risk labour carried out by bodies
that can be disposed of, replaced, or killed reect not only these death-in-life
market logics, but also the states tacit endorsement of them (Mbembe 2003:21).
Others emphasise how necropolitics manifests through passivity and calculated
blindness (Davies et al. 2017), thriving through cultures of epistemic silence, or
wilful ignorance(Hatch 2019:24). Anthony Hatch (2019), for instance, draws
attention to the structures of silence that pervade the US carceral systems use of
psychotropic drugs for population control. The gig economy similarly produces
cultures of silence around exploitative working conditions, with governments
actively contributing to necropolitics. Appearing blind and ignorant, deliberate
government inaction maintains conditions of domination by failing to regulate
conditions despite evidence of oppression (Davies et al. 2017). In the remaining
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pages, we explore how these dynamics coalesce around the recent deaths of Aus-
tralian food couriers.
Corporeal Harms Inherent Within the Necroeconomics
of Food Delivery
Corporeal harms associated with food delivery labour are an observable manifes-
tation of necropower. Necropolitical conditions of platform couriers manifest,
most literally, through the physical injury and killing of food couriers. They also
constitutively reect how workerssubjectivities take shape in their physical con-
texts (Bissell 2022). External forces become inscribed in their bodies, their affect,
and their capacity to be affected (Bissell 2022). Puar (2017) describes these rela-
tionships as corporeal assemblages. Her framing underscores bodies as malleable
composites of parts, affects, compartmentalised capacities and debilities, which
become sites for violence, injury, and suffering under capitalistic conditions
(Puar 2017:50).
Recent courier deaths exemplify the corporeal risks of this labour. As a condi-
tion of food delivery labour, workers are exposed to situations that often drive
them closer to debilitation. Vehicle collision is the most common form of work-
place death in Australia, accounting for 43% of all workplace fatalities in 2019
(Safe Work Australia 2020). Platform couriers must navigate the mercurial and
often dangerous ows of urban trafc on a regular basis. Often under time pres-
sures and geographic constraints, they frequently use highly mobile vehicles such
as bicycles and motorised scooters (Convery et al. 2020), which provide little pro-
tection in the event of a collision. Serious injury is a grave concern. Approximately
one-in-three couriers report sustaining injuries on the job (Transport Workers
Union 2020a) such as fractured bones, some resulting in permanent impairment
(McKinnon 2021). Without nancial compensation or sick leave, many couriers
continue to work while injured to nancially sustain themselves (McKinnon 2021).
Over two-thirds of couriers reported fearing the possibility of being seriously hurt
or killed while working (Transport WorkersUnion 2021b), highlighting the affec-
tive burden of these physical risks (Bissell 2022). The possibility of debilitation is
necessary to meet the market logics of capital accumulation and prot maximisa-
tion central to platform capitalism (Tyner 2019). As couriers accept these necrop-
olitical risks, they are often disposable and seemingly interchangeable, as any one
courier could deliver any one order (Richardson 2020). Accumulating capital for
corporations, the intrinsic value of couriers comes not from their individual skills,
but from their willingness to do labour that puts them at risk of debilitation.
Couriers come to bear the economic brunt of their injuries while platformsbot-
tom line remains largely unscathed.
Courierslabour nourishes the lives of the customers they serve. These
customer-servant relations demonstrate a duality between life maximisation and
debilitation: while courierswork may sustain customerswellbeing, they do so at
the risk of seriously injuring themselves. This dynamic became particularly pro-
nounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. With people encouraged, and even
mandated, to remain home to stay safe, average customer spending on Uber Eats
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more than tripled from pre-pandemic levels (Accenture 2021). Despite stay-at-
home orders in place around Australia, couriers were classied as essential work-
ers, meaning they were not subject to movement restrictions and could continue
to deliver food to customers. To satisfy demand, more workers became enrolled
in food delivery labour, with many of them being exposed to heightened risks
over elongated shifts, including increased risk of COVID-19 exposure (Accen-
ture 2021). Chow Khai Shien, a courier working for DoorDash, was killed three
days before the end of Melbournes lockdown (Zhou 2020), with the other four
reported couriers killed in NSW around a similar time. Commentaries on these tra-
gedies have acknowledged the deadly toll that the pandemic-fuelled food delivery
boom has had on workers (Leeson 2021).
The distribution of these corporeal risks evinces their racialised contours.
Indeed, each of the ve couriers who were killed were migrants from nearby Asian
countries (Om et al. 2021). For instance, Chow would regularly send money from
his earnings home to his mother and sisters who were still in Malaysia. He did not
complete his nal order, which was agged in the DoorDash system. Yet, Chows
body was not identied for two and a half days, and his death was unreported by
DoorDash (Zhou 2020), with his family in Malaysia waiting for him to return their
calls. Chows case highlights the expendability of migrant couriers: as a foreign
national without the protections afforded to citizens or employees, he could be
forgotten without acknowledgement by the platform he worked for.
Accounting for the range of risks that couriers endure points to other necropo-
litical concerns. The degradation of health and wellbeing accelerates physical
debilitation while they labour. Consider, for instance, the January 2020 bushres
that tore through much of Australias east coast and engulfed cities in toxic levels
of smoke. It is estimated that the number of deaths resulting from bushre pollu-
tion was 13 times greater than the fatalities from the res themselves (John-
son 2020). Indeed, pollution levels in major cities were deemed so hazardous that
governments advised individuals to limit exposure to smoke, reduce outdoor
physical exercise, and work from home where possible (Department of
Health 2020). Food couriers, however, continued to workand thus ride
through smoke-affected landscapes, delivering meals to residents who were able
to stay home. These workers did so despite often lacking access to meaningful
protective equipment, such as facemasks. Instead, platforms provided them with
weather information and alerts regarding potentially harmful air-quality
(Yeo 2020). As such, couriers had to make complex calculations as they engaged
platforms, trading their long-term vitality for short-term nancial needs. They bore
the risks associated with smoke inhalation, compromising vital bodily integrity in
the pursuit of capital.
The dehumanising dimensions of platform economy work often manifest in
explicitly corporeal ways. For example, couriers often cannot access basic sanita-
tion amenities available in the restaurants they serve (Leon 2021). Half of sur-
veyed NSW couriers reported difculties accessing restroom facilities while they
worked (Convery et al. 2020). Research elsewhere has documented workers
resorting to degrading practices, such as having to discreetly pee in the bottle
behind the stairways of buildings after delivering an orderor pee in the street
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basically like a dog(Leon 2021). These inhumane standards reect a form of
subjugation in which the besieged body ... is transformed into a mere thing,
malleable matter(Mbembe 2003:37). In fact, the recognition of dignied and
sanitary urination as a human right has become a key gig economy worker
demand (Klippenstein 2021).
The prospect of bodily harm while carrying out platform delivery labour reveals
additional necropolitical dimensions. Couriers have been victims of attacks that
reinforce their social subordination, with emotional consequences that can include
fear and anxiety of carrying out this work (Walcott 2020). At each end of the
food delivery process, delivery workers face the possibility of being verbally
degraded. Almost a third of surveyed NSW couriers reported experiencing verbal
abuse by restaurant staff, while 37% reported verbal abuse from customers (Con-
very et al. 2020). Other acts of degradation are not uncommon. Delivery drivers
have reported being targeted by disgruntled customers, including being sprayed
with a garden hose (Ayling 2020). The violence of these altercations can turn bru-
tal, as reports of attacks and robberies of food delivery drivers are not uncommon
(Cunningham 2019).
Migrant couriers have been subjects to racial targeting (Beers 2019; Olle 2020),
a set of concerns exacerbated by heightened anti-Asian sentiments during the
COVID-19 pandemic (Power 2020). Such attacks not only heighten awareness of
the bodily risks associated with courier labour, but they also contribute to a fear
of victimisationfor example, in couriersrisk assessments of working late at night
or within dangerous neighbourhoods (Leich 2019). These fears are particularly
acute among women couriers who experience higher rates of sexual assault (Wal-
cott 2020).
3
This observation reects broad trends of sexual targeting of female
gig workers in Australia, with nearly half of surveyed women drivers experiencing
sexual harassment (Transport WorkersUnion 2021b). Though heightened affec-
tive states such as fear are common, others have demonstrated that couriers often
develop an acquired numbness to the forms of domination they experience as
part of their working conditions (Bissell 2022). These experiences exemplify the
psychological maiming of couriers as slow but simultaneously intensive death-
making(Puar 2017:139). Thus, the affective burden of courier labour, including
the fear of physical, verbal, and even sexual abuse, are distributed across gen-
dered and racialised lines, compounding at their intersections.
The targeting of food couriers by restaurants, customers, and the public is
symptomatic of entrenched subordination characteristic of necropower. Couriers
have noted that their branded uniforms, large heat bags, and motorised scooters
make them hypervisible (Gregory 2020). While visibility is a commonly proposed
solution to the problem of courier road safety (Rabe 2021a), it also makes them
identiable targets and more prone to attacks (Gregory 2020). According to Ste-
phen Walcott (2020), the theft of couriersvehicles has become prevalent. Couri-
ers not only fear the physical violence of these attacks, but also a loss of their
livelihoods, which is compounded economic subjugation (Walcott 2020). In Aus-
tralia, there are accounts of couriers being attacked for their delivery bags and
phones (e.g. ABC News 2021; Chain 2020). Others trace how the lack of support
provided by platforms in these instances exacerbates gig economy workersfears,
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with some couriers reporting a two-week account suspension for reporting a
crime (Walcott 2020). In short, they are sanctioned for being the victims of crime.
They are subject to violence without being recognised as worthy of protection.
These distinctly necropolitical dynamics are etched and shaped by interlocking
systems of domination, inequality, and servitude.
Platform Infrastructure Exacerbating Necropolitical
Conditions
Necropower is exercised directly through the platforms that couriers must interact
with and rely on for work, as platforms retain absolute control over the digital
infrastructure of food delivery. As Mbembe (2003:22) observes, this power over
the life of another takes the form of commerce: a persons humanity is dissolved
to the point where it becomes possible that the slaves life is possessed by the
master. While food delivery itself does not amount to slavery, it facilitates
unequal power dynamics between corporations and couriers in which the former
retains authority over the geographic movement of the lattera foundational
dimension of necrogovernance. In other words, platform capitalism affords con-
trol of couriers, even as corporations espouse worker exibility and autonomy
(Richardson 2020). Necropower operates through platform infrastructures in ways
that contribute to the dehumanisation of couriers for capital extraction.
App design features interface with couriers as they engage with them, dehu-
manising couriers by upholding their structural dominationby multiple masters
(Flanagan 2018:71). These affordances
4
also exploit courierssubordinate status
to exacerbate the corporeal risks associated with their work, thus increasing the
probability of death and debilitation. Notably, corporations frame their platforms
as licensed to couriers to use, framing couriers as independent contractors that
are a class of app users (Uber Eats 2021). However, couriersstandards of treat-
ment sit well below those of other users, such as customers and restaurants,
reecting embedded layers of servitude embedded (Flanagan 2018).
Consider how couriersaccounts of being unexpectedly terminated for failing
to comply with community standards. Amita Gupta, for example, had her Uber
Eats account suspended and later terminated after allegedly arriving to an order
ten minutes late (Chau 2019). Other workers have noted the lack of support for
their grievances; there is no direct way to contact a platform representative and
in-app complaints are met with automated replies (Walker et al. 2021). This unre-
sponsive complaint process distances workers from the platforms they serve, with
the pursuit of claims requiring extensive time and emotional commitment. Abrupt
contract termination has also been used to entrench couriersstate of injury as
account deactivation is used to dissuade workers from organising (Tran and
Sokas 2017), or inquiring about safety, wages, and working conditions (Wal-
cott 2020). Platformsdisciplinary techniques thus encourage couriers to accept
their substandard work conditions, creating a compliant labour force. The rules
of the gameare set by the platforms, yet they remain opaque and uncontestable
by couriers (Flanagan 2018). As such, platforms retain the power over couriers to
10 Antipode
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
dictate the terms of their work, while disciplinary techniques encourage couriers
to remain compliant.
Customers, too, exercise disciplinary power through affordances that implicate
courierslivelihoods. Consider, for example, the use of ratings. At the end of each
transaction, many platforms, such as Uber Eats, encourage customers to rate their
couriers performance. The burden of maintaining these ratings is a source of fear
and anxiety for workers as even a slight drop in reputation scores can result in
fare reductions, reduced access to customers, and even prole termination
(Jamil 2020). Furthermore, such ratings are also extremely hard to improve, with
customers having signicantly more power to offer both quantitative (ratings)
and qualitative (written feedback) assessments of the drivers. Couriers are pushed
to satisfy customersexpectations for fear of a negative review (Veen et al. 2020).
Necropolitical contours come to the fore when considering how these transac-
tions reect entrenched relations of servitude: attending to a multiplicity of cus-
tomers, most of whom have little visibility of the range of delivery demands,
couriers must often take risks to complete various ordersoften at the same time
as a condition of retaining the ability to do so in the future. Their debilitation is
not just a status, but a state controlled by customers vis-
a-vis apps. Analyses of
Australian customer attitudes indicate they deliberately overlook these negative
outcomes, upholding the necroeconomy through wilful ignorance (Healy
et al. 2020).
Platforms aid in enacting a heightened atmosphere of obsequiousness and
domination that couriers must navigate. Through a form of algorithmic manage-
ment, software tools and computational instruments are central to decisions previ-
ously made by human managers (Lee et al. 2015). These algorithmic tools
manage the geographically and temporally diverse workforce that makes up the
on-demand labour sector (Chen 2018; Veen et al. 2020), enabling the largely
autonomous and scalable workows of on-demand work. Because drivers are
hypothetically free agents who can choose when and where they work, plat-
formsuse of algorithmic systems ensures an appropriate supply and quality of
labour is sufcient for their needs (Richardson 2020). To maintain a workforce
available to meet demand, platforms encourage the prolonged engagement of
couriers through algorithmic management techniques. This not only secures a
workforce available for accruing capital, but also has dangerousand at times,
deadlyimplications with fatigue being a major concern reported by couriers
(Convery et al. 2020).
Platforms experiment with ways to compel drivers to maximise outputs at mini-
mal cost, through customised incentive schedules that hookdrivers on a plat-
form (Shalini and Bathini 2021). Techniques include monetary incentives when
demand is high as well as bonuses for completing a certain number of orders in a
designated time frame (Rosenblat 2018). Richardson (2020:629) describes how
rider statisticsare used to give some drivers priority accessto meals to be
delivered. These statistics include the proportion of attended deliveries to
accepted deliveries; late cancellations of deliveries; percentage of super-peak ses-
sions (times of high demand on delivery drivers, often occurring on weekends
and evenings). These ratings are designed to maximise the availability of workers
Necrocapitalism in the Gig Economy 11
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
in periods of demand who provide reliable service for the platform and its brand.
Conversely, the algorithmic evaluation of humans often constitutes demeaning
and dehumanising experiences (Lee 2018), thus compounding the affective bur-
den of the job. Working together, these algorithmic incentives prey upon the
nancial precarity of couriers to encourage continual engagement with platforms.
Subsequent worker fatigue exacerbates the physical and affective strain of couri-
ers, heightening their vulnerability to death and debilitation.
Platform affordances further accentuate couriersvulnerability by encouraging
unsafe practices to expedite delivery. As couriers are paid per delivery, workers are
encouraged to complete as many trips as possible. This payment structure creates
labour with one of the highest risks per kilometre travelled(Ross 2019), pro-
moting unsafe practices for faster delivery such as running red lights, riding on
footpaths, or against the ow of trafc (Convery et al. 2020). Couriers also have a
reputational incentive for prompt delivery. Platforms often use data from algorith-
mic management systems to provide numerical estimates and infographics for
their customers. This includes real-time tracking of couriers (such as a GPS map
allowing users to surveil workers at each step of the delivery), as well as an esti-
mated time of delivery. While these afford a positive customer experience, provid-
ing a sense of connection, immediacy, and control over the experience of
ordering food, they also pressure couriers to rush to satisfy customersexpecta-
tions and maintain their positive worker statistics (Veen et al. 2020). Furthermore,
calculated delivery times are often unrealistic as they may not account for factors
such as trafc and parking, thus increasing the likelihood of dissatised customers
(Convery et al. 2020). By algorithmically constructing this drive for speed, plat-
forms heighten the physical and affective vulnerability of their workforce, pro-
pelling them closer to premature death and debilitation.
Apps also provide a set of affordances that erode the mental and social health
of couriers. Kathleen Griesbach et al.s(2019) participants highlight how the
shopping delivery platform, Instacart, has removed the option to decline orders,
and instead has developed an uninterruptible four-minute alarm when receiving
an order. Couriers must wait for the alarm to subside or accept the order.
Repeated failures to answer the call to work logs a user out of the system, poten-
tially losing them a coveted early accessstatus for shifts. This creates what
Griesbach et al. (2019:2) call algorithmic despotism, as the platforms arbitrarily
demand greater control over a couriers time and work activities (see also Walker
et al. 2021).
This despotism renders workers as disposable labour, whose value to the plat-
form is to maintain the vitality of both the platforms operation and its customers
consumption habits. The platform can unexpectedly intrude into the lives of
couriers to call them to work, in a way that is not comparable to other, non-
platform work environments. In doing so, the conditions of the gig economy can
fuel a sense of alienation, loneliness, and powerlessness amongst platform work-
ers, including poorer psychosocial and mental health outcomes, as algorithmic
management distorts the social contract of work (Glavin et al. 2021; Walker
et al. 2021). Thus, necropower as the generalised instrumentalisation of human
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existence(Mbembe 2003:14) operates through delivery platforms, ensuring
couriers are driven to carry out work through coercive systems design.
Sovereign Power Through Government
Regulatory (In)Action
A third dimension of necropower within the Australian food delivery industry
emerges through governmentsfailure to provide regulation that meaningfully
supports the health and livelihoods of couriers. Instead, the Commonwealth and
NSW governments have framed safety as a problem that can be managed
through self-regulation. By encouraging self-regulation of the industry and individ-
ualised risk management by couriers, corporate costs are kept to a minimum.
Here, we consider how government regulation is not simply ineffective at protect-
ing the safety of couriers; it also enacts sovereign power by remaining intention-
ally passive in terms of protecting couriers. In doing so, it maintains market
interests by ensuring a workforce that is available for injury(Puar 2017:81).
To illustrate, consider government narratives around couriers, which often pre-
sent them as the source of their own vulnerability as well as the solution to it.
Then NSW Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, Kevin Anderson high-
lighted this perspective, stating: We can no longer stand by while riders continue
to place themselves and others at risk(Rabe 2021a). Indeed, this self-reliant
framing of personal safety has been enshrined in law. In June 2021, NSW intro-
duced a series of laws that aim to improve the safety of couriers. Focusing on
education and compliancethese laws shift the burden of ensuring the safe
operation of the industry onto couriers themselves (Rabe 2021a). These condi-
tions exemplify what Peter Fleming (2017:693) refers to as radical responsibilisa-
tionof the gig economy whereby responsibility for all the costs and benets
associated with being an economic actor are solely his or hers. In doing so, gov-
ernments deect calls to reform the exploitative sector. Governmentsdisavowal
of accountability for courierssafety thus legitimises the power imbalance between
couriers and their multiple masters, enabling these structures of debilitation to go
unchecked.
Disciplinary techniques deployed under the umbrella of courier safety con-
tribute to sustaining a compliant and docile workforce. For example, NSW couri-
ers are to be subjected to increased police scrutiny, with each rider given a
unique police identication number so that transgressions can be tracked
(Rabe 2021a). Riders who fail to comply with safe practices as determined by
police will be ned (Rabe 2021a). Fines deplete the already scarce nancial
income that couriers rely upon, thereby entrenching nancial precarity. To miti-
gate the nancial pressures imposed by nes, 73% of couriers surveyed by the
Transport WorkersUnion of Australia (2021a) noted working more dangerously,
including working longer hours and rushing to complete deliveries, underscoring
the co-constitutive cycle of precarity and debility. By framing additional surveil-
lance as a solution to worker debility, the most vulnerable bodies within the sup-
ply chain become monitored in ways that are likely to increase their exposure to
risk and state-sanctioned violence.
Necrocapitalism in the Gig Economy 13
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
This responsibilisation of couriers extends to the costs they bear as contractors
who must pay to ensure their safety. As workers must provide their own equip-
ment, the cost of safety can be too much for some, increasing their vulnerability
to physical injury and the risk of non-compliance (Transport Workers
Union 2021a). Furthermore, though Australian citizens are eligible for state-
funded healthcare in the event of a collision, migrant workers must nance their
own medical expenses (Symington 2020). Couriers are therefore not only affected
by industry-specic interventions, but also broader regulations that shape access
to welfare thereby contributing inequality and the risky nature of work. In con-
trast, platform corporationscosts of regulation are kept to a relative minimum
(Rabe 2021a). The costs borne by the vulnerable actors within this nexus of inter-
locking oppressions are generative precisely because of their necropolitical logics.
Taken together, it becomes clear that government action not only supports cheap
gig economy work, but also shifts risk to the actors who are the least equipped to
manage them (McDermott et al. 2018).
The COVID-19 pandemic added new pressures to these dynamics, as couriers
experienced compounding risks associated with their dual classication as essen-
tial and contingent workers. Labelling couriers as essentialsignied their labour
as necessary for maintaining the nation throughout social and economic turbu-
lence while legitimising their vulnerability to virus exposure. Through this label,
governments legally enshrine couriersaccess to work and the expectation to
serve (and be dominated by) multiple masters. Despite the recognised value of
this work and risks borne by couriers, migrant workers remain precluded from
government provisions such as healthcare and income support (Symington
2020). Without this nancial support, conditions of precarity and debility spread,
with 59% of surveyed couriers commencing delivery work due to pandemic-
induced nancial strain and 31% increasing hours worked (Accenture 2021). The
disregard of couriersneeds for healthcare and nancial resources emerge in stark
contrast to other government pandemic provisions, which allowed Australian citi-
zens to remain indoors and, for the most part, nancially secure. In doing so,
government initiatives not only enabled couriers to maintain their relations of
servitude, but also maximised customerswellbeing while heightening couriers
vulnerability to injury and death.
These platform economy relations reect a longer-term trend in which the Aus-
tralian Government, at least since the 1980s, positions itself as a market steward
that supports a business-friendly society (OKeeffe 2019:109). It has granted plat-
forms jurisdictional authority to oversee market-driven practices. Emphasising
worker exibility, platforms maintain courierscontractor status, thereby avoiding
requirements to provide employee benets such as minimum wage and superan-
nuation (Select Committee on Job Security 2021). Though contractors can hypo-
thetically dispute their conditions through legal channels (albeit at signicant
costs), there are no meaningful penalties for unlawful terms in contracts and, con-
sequently, no compelling reason for businesses to amend them (Victorian Govern-
ment 2021).
The federal government facilitates the exercise of necropower by allowing plat-
forms to circumvent regulations aimed at protecting workers from exploitation
14 Antipode
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
and maltreatment. Despite formal inquiries suggesting the need to overhaul the
gig economy to ensure worker rights, the government maintains that regulation
should not come at the cost of innovation and worker exibility
(Forsyth 2020:290). Instead, platforms are framed as providing positive disrup-
tionto stagnant markets and as supporting innovation for economic growth
(Koutsimpogiorgos et al. 2020:532). These arrangements reect Foucaults(2008)
observation that neoliberalism is not simply a market society, but one in which
the principles of the market economy are projected onto and embodied by the
project of governance.
Governments further defer responsibility by framing corporations as able to reg-
ulate themselves. Instead of imposing interventions into the gig economy, gov-
ernments have encouraged platforms to implement their own solutions. For
example, the NSW Government appointed a taskforce including representatives
from platforms, couriers, unions, and restaurants to address the industrys safety
problems (NSW Government 2021). Insisting that regulatory change was be-
yond scope(Rabe 2021b), the resulting Industry Action Plan consisted of plat-
forms committing to improve courier safety by providing workers with more
information, increasing courier surveillance, gamifying app affordances to improve
safety practices, and introducing ergonomic heat bags (NSW Government 2021).
Although seemingly proactive, these suggestions place regulatory burden onto
couriers by targeting their individual behaviours rather than the structural forms
of subjugation they experience. Indeed, courier and union representatives with-
drew from this taskforce due to concerns about exploitation, limited worker bene-
ts, lack of platform transparency, and the risk-inducing imperative for speed
being continuously silenced(Rabe 2021b).
Contradictory framings of platform regulation divert accountability for the lives
(and deaths) of couriers. Firstly, the federal government defers power to ensure
the working standards of couriers to market logics of supply and demand. For
example, when serving as Industrial Relations Minister, Christian Porter stated
platforms have a commercial interest in caring for their workers: those with the
best reputation and policies that benet workers will be more sought after as the
workplace of choice(Zhou 2020). This framing neglects the structures of precar-
ity that underpin Australias gig economy. In this case, couriers may not willingly
accept exploitative and dangerous working conditions, but many are left without
an alternative. Platforms, in contrast, argue that governments set standards of
work. For instance, following the death of one of their workers, Xiaojun Chen,
Hungry Panda denied responsibility by arguing that the NSW Parliament set the
rules around who was covered by workerscompensation and how much compa-
nies must pay(Co
e2021). Government inaction thus enables disavowing
accountability, leaving courier safety to market self-regulation aligned with capital-
ist logics.
In contrast to government rhetoric, self-regulation does not aim to improve the
labour conditions of workers. Without enforceable standards, corporations can cir-
cumvent responsibilities. It is not surprising, then, that these actions are seen as
a purely promotional exercise ... to dissuade the state from imposing more
robust forms of regulation upon them(Rawling and Munton 2021:34). For
Necrocapitalism in the Gig Economy 15
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
instance, amidst increasing media attention, Menulog announced a plan to move
towards a traditional employment model, including unfair dismissal protections
and minimum wage. Although seen as a win for labour, Menulogs actions pro-
pose the lowest possible award rate ($20.33) for couriers, below that of both
transportation and fast-food workers (Bonyhady 2021b). The company has also
noted that they would not permanently switch to an employment model without
a legal overhaul to erode employee provisions such as penalty rates which are
deemed unaffordable(Bonyhady 2021a). The constitutive relationship between
government and industry incentivises regulation that serves as a tool to protect
corporate interests rather than courier safety. Through strategic inaction (Davies
et al. 2017), governments distance themselves from their responsibility to
improve couriersworking conditions while simultaneously protecting the interests
of corporations. Governments enact sovereign power by intentionally maintaining
and reproducing the necropolitical conditions of the sector.
Conclusion
This analysis illuminates how interlocking systems of domination coalesce as
necropolitics by situating the recent deaths of platform food couriers within struc-
tures of domination and precarity. While critical observers draw attention to indi-
vidual risks of gig economy labour, the lack of protection from companies, limited
nancial or medical support from governments, and the racialised dynamics of
gig work, this analysis documents how these considerations are entangled in dee-
ply biopolitical ways. Highlighting the proclivity towards debilitation and death as
an overlooked structural feature of the gig economy, we trace how the violence
of platforms cannot be separated from deep-seated logics of domination, servi-
tude, and racial capitalism. We have mapped three dimensions of necropower to
underscore how the pursuit of capital and customer satisfaction comes at the cost
of couriershealthand sometimes their lives. The risks borne by couriers reveal
how necrocapitalism sustains a necessarily contingent and expendable labour
force for the benet of corporate revenue. The devaluation of couriers is essential,
accentuated by their subservient position within the gig economy to customers,
restaurants, and the platform infrastructure that facilitates transactions.
This focus on necropolitics aids in illustrating how interlocking systems of domi-
nation and oppression support the sustenance of the gig economy. In this case,
courierssocial subordination, compounded by their migrant status, economic
precarity, and racial subjugation, positions them as able to be dehumanised,
injured, and attacked. Their debilitation is not merely a by-product of social
injustice and inequity;itisconstitutive of the very mechanisms that enable cer-
tain populations to occupy the make livevector(Puar 2017:69).
In focusing on courierslabour conditions, our aim has been to shed light on
the constitutive logics of necrocapitalism, racialised difference, and their materiali-
sation in practice. While platforms frame themselves as cheap alternatives to tradi-
tional market options, the costs of the gig economy persistthough in ways not
borne by the companies that benet from workerslabour. Despite visible victimi-
sation and recent courier deaths, Australian governmentscontinued commitment
16 Antipode
Ó2022 The Authors. Antipode published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of Antipode Foundation Ltd.
to industrial protection over courier wellbeing amounts to tacit approval of couri-
ersstatus as bare life. These necropolitical conditions reveal how intersecting vec-
tors of domination contribute to certain bodies being deemed unworthy of
protection even as their labour supports the livelihoods of others. These insights
underscore the uneven experiences of urban geographies under racial capitalism
as the production of repressed topographies of crueltyare normalised in the
pursuit of capital (Mbembe 2003:40). While other geographic analyses have
examined these concerns in particular situations, such as chronic pollution and
suburban relocation (Davies 2018; Ortega 2020), this analysis offers a reminder
that necropolitics permeates mundane facets of everyday life.
Acknowledgements
We would like to thank Aleksandar Deejay, Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran, and Walter G.
Johnson of the ANU Justice and Technoscience Lab for their feedback in developing these
ideas.
Data Availability Statement
The data that support the ndings of this study are available from the corresponding
author upon reasonable request.
Endnotes
1 The initial study included interviews with 40 Australia-based participants carried out over
the course of 18 months.
2 We carried out an abductive analysis, paying particular attention to how data pushed
against theoretical assumptions in novel and unexpected ways (Timmermans and Tavory
2012). Given the embodied emphasis on labour conditions conveyed by participants and
in reections on courier work, biopolitics was a logical starting point; however, the diversity
of perspectives revealed contours that more clearly aligned with the nexus between necro-
politics and capitalism.
3 While there are insufcient data to conrm women couriers are inherently at a greater
risk of being attacked, reports of sexual targeting have predominantly come from women
(Transport WorkersUnion 2021b), which reects wider gender-based violence trends sup-
ported by empirical research.
4 Affordances refer to the qualities of artefacts that dynamically enable or constrain sub-
jectsactions when accounting for the situation and the subjects attributes (see
Davis 2020).
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