Uberization and digital informality

Image: Jos Peñarán


The informal sector only heralds the future of the formal sector

If the current configuration of the world of work was not constituted from major ruptures, but is the result of molecular changes, which were progressively occupying the pores of the labor universe, some masters of Brazilian social thought identified certain trends when they were still embryonic and little noticeable, as is the case of Francisco de Oliveira.

In the classic text The Platypus, Chico de Oliveira identifies a progressive trend towards the disappearance of the working day, as this would be an obstacle to increasing capital productivity. According to Chico, the increase in productivity depends on the decrease between total working time and production working time. This is because capital has a constant struggle to try to reduce the distance between working time and non-working time.

In didactic terms, imagine a salaried office worker who has an 8-hour day. It is obvious that the individual will not produce during his 8 hours of work, as he will be paid in moments of non-work during the day (goes to the bathroom, cell phone use, idle periods without demand, etc.).

However, some activities, such as informal street trading, exclude non-productive work time, making the worker's income depend on “the result of the sale of merchandise-products”,[I] as the individual will only receive payment when the value of the merchandise is realized. As an example, the street vendor only receives some value as he sells a soft drink and, at the same time, his income will occur in proportion to the number of soft drinks sold. Informal work represents a leap towards productivity, as “capital uses the worker only when it needs him”,[ii] in the exact measure of the capitalist's demand.

The existence of a working day is an obstacle for capital to reduce the distance between total working time and production working time. Chico de Oliveira is announcing that the working day and the rights inherent to it, as they are an obstacle to increasing productivity, will be increasingly eliminated from jobs. In the words of the sociologist from Pernambuco: “the informal sector only announces the future of the formal sector”.[iii].

It is curious to note that Chico de Oliveira writes The Platypus in 2003 and, at this moment, announces the bet that the on-demand worker, typical of informal employment, will spread throughout the world of work, with progressive exclusion from the working day. The company Uber, which gives its name to the phenomenon of uberization, was created in 2009 and began operating in Brazil only in 2015.

Worker consolidation just in time

A central feature of uberization is the transformation of workers into laborers just in time, that is, the imposition of permanent availability for work on the part of individuals, consolidating work on demand. Thus, although the individual is permanently available for work, he will only be paid for the specific demands he performs. According to Ludmila Abílio, “it is about reducing the worker to a factor of production that must be used in the exact measure of the demands of capital”.[iv]

Consolidation of the worker just in time appears as a modern form of informality, as the Uber driver or the Ifood delivery man are remunerated exactly according to the demands of the platform company. This digital informality means that “for these workers, remaining on the street, available for the company, for 18 hours a day does not mean being paid for 18 hours of work. The condition of the worker just in time is to be available to be used immediately, but to be remunerated solely for what it produces”. Just as the street vendor will receive according to the number of products he sells, the delivery man will earn his income in proportion to the orders he places.

It is no coincidence that in the GT created by the federal government to regulate app-based work, one of the biggest demands from delivery drivers is payment for the hour logged. According to Leonardo, one of the leaders who participates in the GT: “We need to put an end to the free time that workers have on the platform: time logged in is working time and needs to be paid.”[v] If capital has a constant struggle to reduce the distance between working and non-working time, the consolidation of the employee just in time resolves this dispute in favor of app companies.

For Marx, the salary constituted variable capital, representing an advance from the capitalist to the worker, before realizing the value of the goods.[vi] A wage earner who produced shoes did not depend on the sale of shoes to receive payment. In the informality of street vendors, as well as that of app drivers and delivery people, income depends on the realization of the value of the goods (whether they are a material, intangible good or a service).

The salary appears as an advance of value to the worker due to the fact that the capitalist is purchasing labor power and the means of production so that, in the future, individuals can produce a value that will be realized through the sale of goods. In the representation described by Marx in book II of The capital: DM (T and Mp) …. Production …. M'-D'.[vii] Thus, the capitalist pays the salary to the worker, advancing a value that he has not yet produced. In digital informality there is no such advance, as the individual will only receive it when the goods are sold, in such a way that the extraction of added value occurs without the value being advanced to the worker. Although piecework has been provided for in article 78 of the CLT since the 1940s, the expansion of this modality has spread more intensely in the last ten years.

It is common to observe, in some studies on uberization, the use of the piecework wage category – addressed by Marx in book I of The capital – to explain the payment received by delivery people or app drivers.[viii] Although this category is useful for understanding platform work, there is a fundamental difference that is forgotten in this explanation.

In piecework wages, the worker does not only receive when the value of the goods produced is realized. In didactic terms, the carpenter does not need the chair he produced to be sold in order for him to receive payment. In the case of street vendors, and keeping in mind the differences, in the case of platformed couriers, payment depends on the realization of the value of the merchandise.

The working day – and the rights inherent to it – have become an obstacle to the accumulation of capital, so that it tends to be gradually deconstructed. This deconstruction of historically conquered rights takes on the appearance, however, of a modernization of labor relations. Whoever wants to board the locomotive of modernity must get used to throwing away their rights. As Gilmar Mendes said in a STF decision on the subject, the decisions of the Labor Court that seek to guarantee certain rights to Uberized workers are “an innocuous attempt to frustrate the evolution of the means of production, which have been accompanied by legislative developments in this matter ”.[ix] Evolution, in this case, would be to return to the working conditions of the 19th century.[X]

*Matheus Silveira de Souza He is a doctoral student in sociology at Unicamp.


[I] OLIVEIRA, Francisco de. Critique of Dualistic Reason/The Platypus. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013, p. 136

[ii] OLIVEIRA, Francisco de. Critique of Dualistic Reason/The Platypus. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2013.

[iii] OLIVEIRA, Francisco de. Critique of Dualistic Reason/The Platypus. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013, p. 136.

[iv] ABÍLIO, Ludmila C. Uberization: the era of the just-in-time worker? Advanced Studies Magazine – IEA – USP, v.34, n. 98, p.111-126, 2020.

[v] BRAZIL IN FACT. App workers' representatives reject the companies' proposal and indicate a strike in 2023.

[vi] OLIVEIRA, Francisco de. Critique of Dualistic Reason/The Platypus. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2013, p. 137.

[vii] D = Money; M = Merchandise. T and Mp mean, respectively, work and means of production. Thus, the capitalist uses money to buy two commodities, namely, labor power and means of production. M' = Merchandise and more value and D' = money and more value.

[viii] In summary, if in piecework wages the carpenter receives according to the number of chairs he produces, and not according to the working day, Ifood delivery people, in a similar way, receive in proportion to the orders they place.

[ix] UOL. STF accepted 63% of requests to cancel employment relationships.

[X] KREIN, José Dari; DUTRA, Renata. Work: what would be new would be going back to the 19th century? Published in: https://outraspalavras.net/author/kreindutra/

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