Bargaining With the Algorithm

Though companies like Deliveroo or Foodora refuse even to recognize them as employees, food delivery riders have taken a lead in organizing workers in the gig economy.

A Deliveroo rider in Berlin, Germany. Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Food delivery workers’ mobilizations are on the rise across Europe. In the last year and a half, riders’ collectives have been formed in several cities across Italy, and they are increasingly winning recognition. While recent legal action against employers has not achieved the hoped-for gains, the riders’ visibility has allowed them to keep up the struggle and use public support to their advantage, drawing ever greater media and political attention to their condition.

Since the first strike against Foodora in Turin in October 2016, the need to regulate the gig economy has entered mainstream discourse: last week Bologna council negotiated a “Bill of Digital Labor Rights” with self-organized riders, unions, and some platforms. On Monday Italy’s new labor minister, the Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, proposed extending the bill to the national level, having met with a riders’ delegation as his first official meeting. In Spain, a judge in Valencia ruled for the first time in Europe that a Deliveroo rider is not a freelancer, but an employee.

The extreme visibility and recognizability of riders in every European city allows many different kinds of precarious and exploited workers to identify and solidarize with them. This has provided these workers an unexpected capacity to attract media attention and to force political institutions onto their side, partly compensating for the lack of any solid bargaining structure as well as for the platforms’ unfettered power in escaping regulation. In a landscape in which there are also real dangers, the labor movement needs to strategically exploit the opening of this window of opportunity.

On the one hand, we see the potential for a massive wave of public discussion and organization around the issues of precarity, the gig economy, and digital labor. On the other hand, it is clear that this task cannot be left to the riders alone, and that governments and businesses will do whatever they can to present the riders’ condition as an anomaly to be addressed with small regulatory adjustments, instead of an extreme expression of wider phenomena that demand substantive change. This requires a sustained mobilization, building connections with other labor struggles, and a new labor-centered discourse for political organization more broadly.

An Economy of “Gigs”

Food delivery platforms like Foodora or Deliveroo are one of the most visible examples of the so-called “gig economy,” a system in which working activities involve a series of tasks fulfilled via online platforms. In this organization of labor, work is fragmented into a series of one-off “gigs,” and workers are employed as freelancers paid for particular tasks, rather than receiving hourly wages. Labor thus becomes an on-demand service that can be easily accessed through an app.

Thanks to digital technology, platforms can function as databases that adapt the supply and demand of work, while making a profit out of this process and exploiting the flexibility of a “pay-as-you-go” workforce to the maximum possible. Human work becomes less and less visible as such, and the risk of losses as well as production costs are passed on from the company to the worker.

Among these workers, food delivery couriers are the most visible. Young adults riding bicycles while carrying big boxes marked by the logos of companies like Foodora, Deliveroo, Justeat, Glovo, and so on, are today a common sight in most European cities. Customers order food from a restaurant of their choice through a website or an app, and riders deliver it as quickly as they can, notwithstanding time and weather.

According to the companies, there is no employment relationship: platforms claim to be mere databases geared to match the supply and demand of “gigs.” They do not feel compelled to provide insurance, sickness leave, support related to the purchase and maintenance of bicycles, and so on. What is more, every choice made by the platform, from the number of “gigs” offered each rider to the management of shifts, is hidden behind “the algorithm,” invisibilizing the power relations that structure wage labor. This brings an ever more precarious situation, fragmenting work itself into a series of gigs, and thus undermining a person’s ability to rely on work as a means of accessing part of the socially produced wealth.

Delivery Workers Across Europe

The first protest by digital platform workers in Italy took place in Turin in October 2016, when a group of riders employed by the food delivery company Foodora went on strike in order to reject the transition from an hourly pay system to a payment-by-delivery system. Their example was followed by a group of Deliveroo employees in Milan in summer 2017, by a cross-platform collective of riders in Bologna in the fall, and by another in Rome last month.

Last November, the self-organized collectives Deliveroo Strike Raiders, Riders Union Bologna, and Deliverance Milano signed a common list of demands to Deliveroo. The demands included the application of the national bargaining agreement on transportation, the introduction of a real employment contract, the renewal of all the contracts that were about to expire, a minimum wage of €7.50 an hour, the guarantee of at least twenty hours’ a week pay, a 30 percent raise in case of rain or snow, a 50 percent raise in case of deliveries lasting beyond the planned shift, and a 30 percent raise as a compensation for exposure to smog, as well as insurance coverage, the reimbursement of maintenance expenses for the worker’s bicycle and phone, and a safety kit with a helmet. The second national assembly of riders, after the one organized during the anti-G7 protest in Turin in 2017, took place in Bologna on April 15, 2018, and planned joint actions for May Day.

But Italy is not an isolated case. While the “Transnational Food Platform Strike Map” drawn up by French activists showed only three protest events for 2016 (in London, Turin, and Bordeaux — all of them triggered by changes in the payment structure), it reported forty protest events for 2017 across eight different countries (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, and United Kingdom).

A wide range of tactics was used, from small demonstrations to scrupulous (and thus time-consuming) obedience to traffic laws, encircling company buildings, distributing leaflets in the restaurants that use the platform, striking, occupying company offices, refusing to ride in bad weather conditions, marching with activists in solidarity, and so on.

The actors involved are also very varied: while grassroots riders’ collectives have almost always been at the center of each mobilization, their internal composition (the share of platform workers and of the political activists mobilized in solidarity with them) and their relations with grassroots or established unions have greatly varied. In most cases, the development of the mobilization has been supported by established networks of activists, from Plan C in the UK to Critical Workers in Germany. Such networks mainly come either from the radical left (such as post-autonomous social centers or post-Trotskyist groups) or as crystallizations of the recent wave of anti-austerity mobilizations.

The Courts, Political Institutions, and the Media

As Arianna Tassinari and Vincenzo Maccarrone aptly indicated in their Jacobin article analyzing the 2016 Turin Foodora strike, riders’ protests have met with unusually extensive and sympathetic media coverage, and the workers have managed to win over public opinion. This is partly due, as Callum Cant has argued, to the movement-like strategy employed by workers, taking to the streets and directly engaging with the public, for want of a physical workplace. But there is also a peculiar element that characterizes food delivery workers: their extreme visibility and recognizability, and the connotations that go with this.

In every European city center, riders carry the company’s logo and colors the whole day long; the whole urban population knows about their existence and immediately associates them with these platforms, contradicting the “freelance” narrative promoted by the companies. Furthermore, gig economy companies, and food delivery platforms in particular, are clearly interested in image and communication.

The figure of the rider as a young adult on a bicycle who delivers a meal ordered online helps reproduce an idea of smartness, coolness, and modernity, spiced with techno-enthusiasm and environmental sensitivity. This strong symbolic connotation of food delivery platforms — a significant component of the business model from which companies profit — provides riders with a powerful weapon. Food delivery companies make a profit out of the fact that their riders project a cool, fresh, and environment-friendly image. This appeal makes the companies vulnerable in the public eye: to attack the symbolic component of the business is to attack a key element of the value chain. Riders know it, and joke about it: the day after a strike, tips usually double.

The media appeal of the riders’ struggle is confirmed by the behavior of a species that is particularly sensitive to the smell of media relevance: political office-holders. Last week, Bologna council negotiated a “Bill of Fundamental Rights of Digital Workers in the Urban Context” with the self-organized Riders Union Bologna collective. The bill asserts basic standards of dignity, including insurance, union rights, and hourly salaries in line with national collective bargaining agreements. This latter element has proven crucial in terms of being able to include the trade union confederations in the agreement; they have traditionally opposed any form of legally sanctioned minimum wage, in order to defend their role in bargaining processes.

Bologna’s example triggered a national escalation: a few days later, Foodora and Deliveroo managers publicly stated their opposition to locally negotiated agreements and asked the government to intervene. No sooner said than done: on Monday, the Five Star Movement (M5S) leader and newly appointed labor minister Luigi Di Maio called a delegation of riders from Bologna and Rome to start negotiating a national agreement. This was a tactical move by the new government: after having established an alliance with the radical-right Lega, the politically amorphous M5S needed to appease the progressive parts of its base. Furthermore, direct negotiations with self-organized collectives of workers are very much in line with the populist, anti-union tendencies of the M5S, as the trade union confederations huffily pointed out.

Nevertheless, this provided an unquestionable piece of recognition for the movement, that may allow its progress to be coordinated at the national level, and indeed set a precedent for other countries. Such experiments in collective bargaining with political institutions are potentially dangerous and are to be handled with care. But they also show the movement’s capacity to creatively find a space for negotiation and regulatory advances in a context in which companies are refusing to bargain. Mobilizing public opinion and engaging political institutions are among the increasingly widespread characteristics of social movement unionism.

Italian riders have not met with similar success in the courts: two months ago, the riders that had been “logged out” by Foodora after the strike in Turin in 2016 lost their lawsuit. The judge ruled that they are freelancers, not employees, and thus they cannot claim unfair dismissal. An appeal will follow, and for sure the courts route will be tried again, but it seems difficult to make breakthroughs in this context, given the deregulation of labor in recent years. In Spain, however, things are going in a different direction: last week a judge in Valencia stated that Deliveroo could not unilaterally rescind its contract with a worker, precisely because the worker is a Deliveroo employee and not, as the company argued, a freelancer. This opens up great opportunities for unionization and collective bargaining, since the whole “gig economy” scam is based on the idea that platforms are only service-providers and not actual employers.

Organizing the “Unorganizable”

Examples from food delivery workers’ mobilizations show that organizing precarious workers, even in the extreme context of the gig economy, is, indeed, possible. The organization of precarious workers poses challenges that traditional forms of labor action often fail to address. The pessimism often fueled by the decline of Fordist industry is contradicted by concrete cases of labor organization and mobilization.

Nonetheless, we should not confuse a part for the whole: riders represent only a small proportion of all gig economy workers (10 percent, according to a recent study by the Italian social security agency INPS); they are the youngest, more visible, and probably most effectively organizable part of it. They are only a small vanguard of the digitally exploited precariat: in order to be successful, their example needs to be exploited for a wider struggle.

There are grounds for such a shift. The gig economy represents the extreme case of near-ubiquitous tendencies in today’s labor market, making it easier to see processes that are usually hidden and difficult to read. The aura of smartness, coolness, and modernity so instrumental to the delivery platforms’ business models can be exploited by activists, as they take on companies concerned to avoid any blow to their corporate image. The riders’ visibility and recognizability allows many precarious workers, whose mechanisms of exploitation and subordination are far less visible, to identify with them. While it doubtless has its own peculiarities, the fight waged by the riders comes to represent many different workers’ struggles in an era of precarity and digitalization.

This also allows activists to use riders’ struggles to highlight broader issues of labor in contemporary capitalism and to engage public opinion. This is a window of opportunity that needs to be exploited by the labor movement as a whole, from self-organized collectives to major union confederations. It offers the chance to launch a new wave of labor organization, public debate, and policy innovation. As the riders’ collectives themselves often explain, their condition is not some anomaly that demands its own small regulatory adjustments, but the ultimate expression of wider phenomena resulting from more than three decades of deregulation, neoliberal reforms, and capitalist offensive. They have opened the way. Now the rest of us must take the leap.