The labour process and workers’ rights at Mercado Libre: Hiding regulation in the digital economy.

Atzeni, Mauritzio
Kenny, Bridget
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Southern Centre For Inequality Studies (SCIS)
University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
In this working paper we consider the case of Mercado Libre in Argentina, the largest e-commerce platform there and in Latin America. E-commerce is, most basically, the sale or purchase of goods or services over the internet (Goga and Paelo, 2019: 2). E-commerce platforms such as, most famously, Amazon use digitalised control systems in warehousing and distribution services. We examine how such digitalised labour processes impact upon the quality and protection of labour in warehousing, and how regulation and trade unions’ practices combine to represent workers in these new sectors of the economy. Based on the Argentinian experience, we found that workers’ jobs were fragmented, with high use of labour broking. The workforce was overwhelmingly young and temporary. It was the combination of algorithmic management with discretionary human management which imposed stressful working conditions on workers required to negotiate daily conditions, often with negative implications for health and safety. Yet the image of the firm and its reliance on young workers mediated experiences of working there for many. In addition, high turnover relieved some grievances through workers exiting. Still, the Argentinian case also suggests the key potential role of trade unions in the sector to protect workers, given the regulatory context of labour rights and sectoral representation. However, we suggest, this was not an automatic condition of institutionalised regulatory frameworks. Indeed, the recognised union served to buffer management from workers’ complaints while the more militant transport workers’ union fought to organise warehouse workers more meaningfully. We conceive this study of labour process dynamics and collective issues in Argentina as a way of generating ‘lessons’ for worker organising and trade union mobilisation in South Africa and more broadly in the global South, which we discuss in the conclusion. We also conceive of this research as the first leg of a broader comparative research agenda on labour relations in Argentina and South Africa to be jointly developed in the future.
Gig Economy, Inequality, Digital Labour Platforms, E-commerce Platforms, Argentina, Digitalised labour process, Collective resistance, Global South, Mercado Libre
Atzeni, M. and Kenny, B. 2021. The labour process and workers’ rights at Mercado Libre: hiding exploitation through regulation in the digital economy . Future of Work(ers) SCIS Working Paper Number 31, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University Of The Witwatersrand.