In 2004, when I finished my undergraduate studies, I couldn’t wait to leave Cluj for Bucharest. At the time, the Romanian capital where I would spend the next decade before moving abroad had many more opportunities than the Transylvanian city which I had left behind. As I returned to the city of my alma mater for a project researching the local gig economy, things could not have been more different than almost 20 years before. Friends who are still living in Cluj kept on updating me about how, during my absence, the city had changed, both for the good and the bad. But now I was there to see this change with my own eyes.
The first things that struck me were the polished city center with well-manicured pedestrian areas lined with hype cafés and restaurants, that were nowhere to be seen when I was a student. There was also a new shiny football stadium which hosts every summer one of the many huge music festivals which have been taking over the city for a few years now. Many other languages aside Romanian and Hungarian could also be heard on the streets, a sign that international students, expats, and tourists are now much more common. But what has prompted this radical facelift?
The Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe
With a population of over 410,000 in its metropolitan region, Cluj is the second largest Romanian city, behind the capital Bucharest. It is also one of the only two large cities in the country where the population increased in the last decade. The demographic growth as well as the elegant city centre can be partly attributed to the IT sector which has driven the local economy for more than a decade. While many talented IT workers migrated abroad in the 1990s and 2000s, some of the brain drain reversed in the following years as ICT specialists with technical and management experience returned from to set up companies oriented to the international market (Fan, Urs and Hamlin, 2019).
It’s true that I don’t have any friends or acquaintances working in the local IT sector (after all, the few people I still know have studied humanities, like I did!), but that doesn’t mean that they do not represent an important chunk of the population. Official statistics estimate that the city hosts over 20,000 tech companies, over 110,000 professionals and up to 8,500 annual graduates, while the IT is the second largest economic sector. I begin to see this reality as soon as I stray away from the city centre and shiny glass buildings which are home to the tech elite pop from between smaller houses and blocks.
With the rise of what some call ‘the Silicon Valley of Eastern Europe’, Cluj has become less and less affordable for most of the population. Coworking spaces for local tech workers and foreign ‘digital nomads’ have sprung across the city, while former industrial socialist factories are transformed into IT plants for Western firms such as Bosch and iQuest (McElroy, 2020). Much of this development happens at the expense of the less affluent local residents. A friend of mine lives in a one-bedroom house north of the center, just across the Someș river. She shares a courtyard with four other precarious families who live in similar habitations. They are all afraid that they will have to either sell out to property developers keen to build new and expensive residences or be simply kicked out because they cannot afford to pay rent anymore in an increasingly expensive area.
But most of the brunt for the changing face of Cluj has been borne by the Roma population which has been evicted to the periphery (Vincze, 2017). The real estate market has exploded, with most new buildings supported by private rather than public investments (Vincze and Liţă, 2021). Cluj is the only Romanian city where the housing prices increased by a third in the last two years: at 2,400 euros per square meter, the price is higher than in Bucharest. The city is also one of the few in Romania where the housing prices increased more than local salaries in recent years: 80% versus 74% (Odobescu, 2022).
These figures made sense once I did some calculations of my own income and expenses. I used to pay a monthly rent of 300 euros for a one-bedroom apartment in the city centre, but my UK salary was well above 800 euros, the average salary in Romania. While I didn’t feel particularly impacted by the housing costs myself, many of my friends could hardly afford living in the city. Some of them were considering or even succeeded to leave it altogether and move to cheaper cities in the region.
What’s the gig about?
Against this background of tech savvy and smart city that brings about prosperity for the few and misery for the many, I began researching a phenomenon which follows a similar logic: the gig economy. The promises of flexibility, autonomy and entrepreneurship promoted through digital labour apps are what drive this new economic realm. Yet, the reality behind is a little bit more complex and not necessarily as bright.
The phenomenon began a bit more than a decade ago, when platforms such as Uber and Airbnb started to rely on a workforce of independent contractors. This independent workforce working online or via platforms quickly rose to over 150 million people worldwide and represents a third of the working-age population in the United States and most of Europe (Manyika et al., 2016). The emergence of platform work can be traced to a set of factors, amongst which are the digital legibility and measurability of work, the ubiquity of mass connectivity and cheap technology, and the desire for flexibility for and from workers (Woodcock and Graham, 2019). These are intensified by the changing socioeconomic landscape of the last forty years prompted by neoliberal policies that saw the deregulation of work and the weakening of employment protection by the state. The trend was also driven more recently by the ‘lean platform economy’, developed after the financial crisis of 2007– 2008, which ‘ultimately appears as an outlet for surplus capital in an era of ultra-low interest rates and dire investment opportunities rather than the vanguard destined to revive capitalism’ (Srnicek, 2016, p. 91).
As the platforms proliferated in cities across the world throughout the 2010s, so did the criticisms they received. Critics take issue with the gig economy’s contribution to the dissolution of jobs into atomized tasks undermining the role of jobs as anchors of the social structure (Pesole et al., 2018), the algorithmic management of work enhancing digital control and discipline (Rosenblat, 2018), the threat they represent to workplace organization and unionization (Woodcock, 2017; Popan, 2021) as well as reinforcing the precarity of more vulnerable groups such as women and migrants (Popan and Anaya-Boig, 2022).
At the time I started my first gig, in January 2018, while I was in London, I was freshly awarded a PhD in Sociology and I didn’t have any employment prospects in academia. In parallel with a retail part-time job, I decided to join Deliveroo, a London-based start-up which was amongst the first platform food delivery companies to launch (in 2013). A mix of economic hardship, desire to do some physical exercise and academic curiosity pushed me towards them. At the time I began cycling for Deliveroo the payment was not great (around £7 per hour versus £12 the minimum wage), but it was still worth doing it as a part-time job. Many couriers I met in East London were young British students or second-generation migrants, most riding bicycles, sometimes scooters, and eager to make some pocket money. Strikes were frequent even as they didn’t amount to bettering working conditions and instead lead to riders’ accounts being deactivated (Cant, 2020; Popan, 2021).
Fast-forward to the summer of 2022, two years after I had effectively started doing research on the topic, and the working conditions and demography of the couriers had changed dramatically. In Manchester and Lyon, two other cities where this research takes place, most couriers are precarious migrants, many of whom undocumented, who work full-time rather than part-time. Increasingly lower fees force them to work between 10 and 12 hours every day, often time using multiple apps to secure a living. The precarious situation prevents them from organising at work and demanding better conditions.
Glovo et al.
15 minutes before I start the three hours shift which I booked with Glovo from 6pm, I need to be logged in the app and already heading towards the McDonald’s outside the city center. This is how I try to avoid being sent cycling uphill: once the algorithm detects I am in the center, chances are I will be given an order to be delivered to the steep hills in Zorilor, an affluent neighborhood where a real estate boom has taken place in the last decade. It’s June 2021 and already scorching hot, but there’s not much I can do. Had I known I was about to get cooked in the heat today, I would have skipped the shift, but now it’s too late: I can’t decline work I committed to with less than 24 hours before it starts, otherwise my account can be temporarily suspended. Most of my shifts with Glovo in Cluj were similar to this one: a game of cat and mouse where the algorithm wants me to cycle long distances or uphill and me devising cunning strategies to avoid the predicament.
Apart from the booking system for shifts and a few other functionalities which I gradually learned, Glovo in Cluj is not very different from its cousins in Manchester, Uber Eats and Deliveroo. But the first food delivery platform launched in Romania was Foodpanda, in 2013, the year when Deliveroo was sending its first couriers to pick up orders in the UK. A few years later it was followed by Uber Eats, Glovo and, more recently, Bolt and Tazz. The local platform food delivery industry is estimated at 10-15 million euros (Roșca, 2020), while Glovo, the biggest local player, has over 27,000 couriers. Only 6,700 are ‘glovers’ on a regular basis, of which 1,000 work in Cluj. Over 90% are men and the vast majority drive a car.
In 2020, a year before I started my research in Cluj, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, a series of strikes were initiated by Glovo couriers, echoing the similar struggles elsewhere, but failing in the same way to improve working conditions. By April 2021, as I arrived in Cluj, the pandemic and the impending economic crisis deterred couriers from even mentioning the word ‘strike’. While the profile of workers in Cluj is slightly different then in the UK and France (mostly Romanian, often highly educated and in some cases also older), the problems they face are similar across borders. Long working hours, the risk of accidents and an overall lack of security are all signs of the transnational precarity of these jobs.
Cosmin and Letizia wish to thank Alin Tămășan and Adrian Deoanca for checking, reading and commenting (more than once!) on the early drafts of this piece. Grazie belli de casa!
Note About the research
This illustrated story draws on ethnographic work undertaken for the Leverhulme post-doctoral project Doing gig work: Social implications of platform-based food deliveries. The research focuses on the platform-based gig economy and its reconfiguration of urban spaces, by investigating the management, solidarity and resistance of cycle couriers in three European cities: Manchester (UK), Cluj (Romania) and Lyon (France). More details about the fieldwork can be found at Gigwork.city , a website which gathers, in a multimedia and interactive format, platform food courier stories.
Cant C., Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy., Polity, Cambridge, 2020.
Fan P., Urs N. and Hamlin R.E., Rising innovative city-regions in a transitional economy: A case study of ICT industry in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, Technology in Society, 2019, 58, p. 101139.
Manyika J. et al., Independent work: Choice, necessity, and the gig economy, McKinsey Global Institute, 2016. (Accessed: 9 November 2018).
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Cosmin Popan is a sociologist and Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow based at Manchester Metropolitan University. Before moving to the UK to pursue his academic career, he worked for nearly a decade as a journalist for various media outlets in Bucharest.
In the past two years he has carried out ethnographic research for his project ‘Doing gig work’, exploring the working conditions of platform food couriers in Manchester (UK), Cluj (RO) and Lyon (FR). Further details about his project can be found athttps://gigwork.city
Cosmin has extensively collaborated with artists and illustrators to bring to life some of the stories he has collected amongst food couriers; through the production and distribution of zines and illustrations and the organisation of two art exhibitions (Cluj and Manchester), he has brought the exploitative working conditions in the gig economy to the attention of wider publics.
Letizia Bonanno is a social anthropologist and comic artist based in the UK. She has worked and researched between Italy and Greece, looking at the emergence of social medicine in Italy and grassroots medical facilities, known as social clinics of solidarity, in Athens. She has written and extensively published on the affordances of the graphic medium for teaching, research and public engagement purposes. Since 2014 she has produced illustrations and short comics about the social clinics of solidarity and the economic crisis in Greece.
Letizia has contributed to some visual outlets of the project ‘Doing gig work’; she visited Cluj and met some of the couriers she illustrated for the graphic piece ‘Shadowing precariousness. ’