Photoblog -- Couriers in the gig economy

Everyday urban sociology

(c) Jan Rath, 2021 -- Couriers in Istanbul

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Couriers in the gig economy

Transportation of smaller goods in Istanbul, Turkey, has always been a marked feature in the urban landscape. The unique urban morphology contributed to the development of idiosyncratic ways of transportations. In the myriad of steep and narrow streets in old town Fatih, for example, notably in the artisanal enclave between Mısır Çarşısı (‘the spice bazaar’) and Kapalı Çarşı (‘the big, covered bazaar’), both established in the 17th century, there has hardly been any space for horse carriages, pushcarts, cars, or other ways of cargo transportation. Consequently, goods were moved from one place to another by hamallar (porters: men carrying bales and boxes on their backs, sometimes nearly double their body weight, lugging them with their heads bowed and their knees bent to local shops). Initially, this was an Armenian niche, later they were succeeded by Kurds from south-eastern provinces such as Malatya and Adıyaman. However, the relocation of wholesaling activities to more accessible places as well as the introduction of more modern means of transportation has resulted in the gradual vanishing of the trade, making space for less grueling work.

Nowadays, delivery services seem to be dominated by couriers on scooters and (light) motorbikes; indeed, such services have taken off in a big way. My own observations even suggest that the vast majority of motorbikes are in this trade today. These bikes are equipped with big storage boxes to transport kebabs, pizzas, other food and drink items, and any other thinkable and transportable good. Traffic jams abound as vehicles queue up to move around the city and especially during rush hour going from one place to another is a nightmare. But the fast and noisy motorbikes are remarkably maneuverable. The couriers are typically men -- aged between 25-40 -- and that is significant: they drive like crazy on the highway or on narrower streets in residential areas, and apparently always in top gear. They break traffic laws without any hesitation, go the wrong way against traffic, run fearlessly red lights, and drive just as easily on the sidewalk. Fast delivery has absolute priority! And can be risky.

What we are witnessing here are the effects of a free market system where organizations and independent workers engage in cheap and short-term work arrangements. The emergence of the gig economy, as it is called, has boosted the courier trade. But there is more. It is also related to the proliferation of urban middle classes that possess the means and the appetite to enjoy middle-class life styles. The outsourcing of domestic activities—varying from house cleaning, child care, and going to the supermarket, to cooking—has promoted the growth of a market of flexible, low-rated and poorly-paid jobs. And thirdly there is the role of the Internet and the emergence of platforms that offer a host of affordable services. Quite a few billion-dollar companies such as Trendyol, Getir and Yemeksepeti have begun to dominate this market. They can afford expensive marketing campaigns on the billboards, TV and the Internet in which superstars praise their products. They are extremely visible. Their motorbikes are in the company colors, and so are the couriers with their yellow or pink suits and helmets. You cannot miss them when you are stuck in traffic or trying to walk on the pavement…

07 January 2022

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