Going Karura. Labour subjectivities and contestation in Nairobi's gig economy
(London School of Economics and Political Science)
Paper short abstract:
My paper discusses the emergence of new labour subjectivities and forms of protest among Nairobi's Uber drivers through the lens of digital invisibility ('going Karura'). It argues that labour relations should be understood in terms of 'precarious formalisation' and 'financialisation of precarity.'
Paper long abstract:
My paper discusses the emergence of new labour subjectivities and forms of protest in Nairobi's ride-hailing industry. It focuses in particular on Uber, the world leading digital peer-to-peer transport platform. My qualitative study seeks to grapple with new aspirations, dependencies and contestation practices emerging as the algorithmic logic of digital platforms interacts with local socio-economic processes related to urban mobility. To tease out these aspects, my paper engages with the meanings that going off the digital grid ('going Karura', in the parlance of Nairobi's taxi drivers) assumes for Uber drivers - as a source of anxiety, as a livelihood strategy and as a form of industrial action. Through this expedient, I show the relationship between platforms and workers as dynamic, and map it onto the broader political and economic context. I argue that labour relations in the Kenyan platform economy should actually be understood in terms of 'precarious formalisation' and 'financialisation of precarity': drivers are rendered digitally traceable, vulnerable to the vagaries of the market and legible to financial institutions. Confined in a space outside both formality and informality - in a driver's words, 'a Jua Kali (the Kenyan informal economy) with taxes' - drivers are increasingly entangled in a web of financial relations that erode their incomes and limit their agency. At the same time, digital workers reclaim their negotiating power by resorting to both individual creative strategies and grassroots mobilisation. In so doing, they collectively develop a critique of narratives of digital disruption.