Delivering Food in a Pandemic

On Monday, Italy began to ease COVID-19 restrictions, with more than 4 million returning to work. But some, like delivery workers, never stopped working — nor organizing for labor rights in an industry deemed "essential" and putting workers at serious health risk.

Food delivery riders on March 12, 2020 in Milan, Italy. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images)

At just shy of 7 PM, Gabriel grabs his square orange bag, walks down three flights of stairs, takes his red bicycle, and leaves his house. He starts riding through downtown Bologna, Italy. The city is desolate. His shift as a rider of the My Menu delivery food app will start in a few minutes: he will take and deliver orders until 9 or 9:30 PM.

On March 11, the “I Stay Home” decree was announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. The emergency coronavirus measures turned into a nationwide restriction: travels and outdoor gatherings were banned, movements were heavily limited.

Almost two months later, according to government data, 29,315 people had died from the virus, while more than 98,000 positive cases have been reported as of May 5. Italy was at its knees.

Under the lockdown, city streets gradually emptied of human life: police, ambulances, and food delivery riders are the only presences Gabriel runs into while he’s at work. While riding, he feels vulnerable and angry. For weeks now, the collective of riders to which he belongs has been demanding the interruption of the delivery service and the provision of income support to allow riders to stay home. For now, however, they’ve been ignored.

COVID-19 has escalated into a global epidemic, but the Italian government still considers food delivery an essential activity, and riders must keep on riding, no matter how risky their job has become.

Riders in the Pandemic

“I don’t think that riders are working in this situation because they like to, or because they are fond of their work,” says Gabriel. “They do it because of the paradoxical necessity of having to choose between protecting their health and defending their sources of income.”

Gabriel is twenty-five. He is originally from Milan but moved to Bologna several years ago to study psychology. He started to work as a food delivery rider in 2018, at the end of his first year of university, to support himself. Before the outbreak, he earned an average gross of €550 (approximately $597) per month working ten to fifteen hours per week. He decided not to stay home during the pandemic because, otherwise, he would not be able to pay his rent, bills, or groceries.

The app he works for, My Menu, was one of the few companies that, since the beginning of the emergency, granted its riders safety masks and a €12 ($13) fund for buying protective devices, like hand sanitizer, gloves, and masks — to face the pandemic. But far from feeling “privileged,” Gabriel knows that under the yoke of the biggest companies working conditions are even more precarious.

The €12 fund allowed Gabriel to get a 200 ml hand sanitizer bottle that was worth €10. So far, he thinks it could last several more weeks.

Saeed Khan lives in Bologna, too, and is also a rider. He is twenty-eight years old and originally from Peshawar, Pakistan. Before working as a rider for Deliveroo, the London-based food delivery giant, he was a welder; prior to that, in Pakistan, he studied political science at a university.

“Deliveroo gave us a €25 fund we can use to buy protection devices: we must purchase them and send a picture of the ticket to the app to get a refund,” he explains. “But I’ve been looking in the pharmacies for days, and I couldn’t find the masks. I only managed to buy the sanitizer gel. It cost me €14.”

In the absence of masks — a scarce item these days — Saeed repurposed a black cap he had at home, cutting it to make it as close as possible to a mask.

Before COVID-19 came to impose a new order on life, Saeed used to work between forty to fifty hours a week, earning an average gross of €2,000 (approximately $2,173) per month. Now, even if he connects to the app for the same number of hours, his income has shrunk drastically: he can wait up to three hours without even receiving an order. In March, he only made €380 ($413).

Disconnecting from the app doesn’t seem like an option to him. If he did, his ranking would drop, and he’d get even fewer deliveries. Besides, finding another job right now is almost impossible.

“We are all scared: a friend that used to work in a restaurant lost his job, and I’m helping him,” he says. “I’m doing the same with another friend who works as a rider but lives in the suburbs. Since the bus service was suspended, he can’t reach the city center where the bulk of deliveries are made.”

Saeed’s parents and wife live in Pakistan, and every month he sends them €300 ($326) for rent and food expenses; in Bologna, he lives in a three-bedroom apartment with fourteen other people and pays €200 ($217) a month for a bed. In Italy, rents have a greater impact on migrant incomes, and speculative sub-rentals are a quite common reality. According to research conducted by the National Unified Union of Tenants and Assignees (SUNIA), housing rented to migrants is often precarious and lacking the minimum equipment required by regulations on the safety of domestic and condominium installations. What’s more, owners’ mistrust and prejudices reduce the offers available to migrants who often accept to pay very high rents.

Several of Saeed’s roommates are riders, and most of them are trapped between the fear of infection and the threat of running out of money. In Bologna, the majority of riders that keep working despite the virus are immigrants — mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Iran, according to Saeed — and the same happens across Italy.

Sushi Is Not a Right

Since February 21, the Italian government has issued a series of decrees to manage the worsening of the outbreak; some have confirmed that the protection of workers in Italy is rather fragile. This is the case of the decree that came into force on March 11 restricting commercial activities, such as shops, bars, and restaurants, but allowing home delivery. Food delivery has thus been defined as an essential public service for “the proper functioning of the remaining sectors,” and riders as a key player in the emergency.

The decree, known as “Cura Italia,” which came into force on March 17, established different subsidies to various groups of workers economically damaged by the virus. Some workers, because of their contractual profile, fall under this decree; others do not. For the moment, occasional collaboration — the type of contract that the majority of riders have — has been excluded.

Marco Marrone, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Humanities and Social Change of the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, says the government is tackling the crisis by building a labor regime based on the exploitation of weaker workers, such as those employed in logistics or agriculture where the migrant workforce is dominant.

“It’s a new polarization within the labor market,” states Marrone, whose research focuses on labor and resistance. “On one side you have workers that live protected in their homes, on the other side there are all those that are forced to work outside, exposing themselves to the virus and also putting their family members at risk, to whom they return in the evening.”

Marrone is also a spokesperson for Riders Union Bologna, the group of riders and activists to which Gabriel and Saeed belong. “The government won’t stop talking about national solidarity but what kind of country is it that the survival of one worker is based on the exploitation of another?”

While food delivery was being defined as an essential service, most of the food delivery start-ups left their riders alone to manage the health measures needed to deal with the epidemiological emergency. And not only in economic terms.

“We didn’t receive any specific training. Precautions are at one’s discretion,” Gabriel says. “But as far as we try to work safely and hygienically, for us and for clients, we can’t be 100 percent sure we are doing it right.”

Of his own initiative, Gabriel has established a ritual that seems acceptable to him: he always wears a mask and disinfects his hands with sanitizer before entering the client’s building and after leaving it. When he picks up orders at the restaurants, he stays at a safe distance and doesn’t touch anything besides his bicycle.

At home, he doesn’t have to deal with the fear of infecting other people. His roommate had to leave Bologna after losing her job; she was working without a contract and got fired overnight when her workplace shut down for the pandemic.

According to the legislative decree n. 101/2019, focused on the improvement of riders’ working conditions and passed by the Italian government last autumn, digital platforms must supply riders with “individual protection devices,” all equipment intended to be worn by workers in order to protect against the risks present in the work activity. During the COVID-19 crisis, that means masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves.

Yet delay and neglect have characterized most of the companies’ responses. In Rome, the start-up Glovo primed the pump with a sort of snowball strategy by giving a batch of masks to some riders who had to distribute them to the rest of Glovo’s couriers. In Turin, the health kits promised by the British company Just Eat began to arrive on March 30. Their contents: one disposable mask.

On March 18, Deliveroo announced a €25 refund bonus for the purchase of protective equipment. However, the fund was only valid for those who had made at least one delivery in the previous two weeks. If you had stopped working because the virus was starting to worry you and you didn’t feel protected, that was your business.

“The choice between health and income is like blackmail,” says Tommaso Falchi, a rider and another spokesperson for Riders Union Bologna, who decided not to work during COVID-19. “A public essential service cannot be carried out by precarious and exploited workers. It’s a contradiction. As Riders Union, we are trying to convince people that home-delivered sushi or pizza can’t be a right.”

Riders vs. Capitalism

In mid-March, riders from all over Italy began a campaign sending video testimonies and taking photos of themselves holding signs with a batch of hashtags: #PeopleBeforeProfits, #NotForUsButForAll, #StopDelivering. The initiative has been launched by an alliance of different independent unions and grassroots riders’ organizations such as Deliverance Milano, Riders Union Bologna, Riders Union Roma, Riders per Napoli – Pirate Union, and the Turin-based network Deliverance Project.

Riders’ organizations started to show concern toward the end of February when some companies, worried about the upcoming recession, arbitrarily decreased shifts and wages. COVID-19 has exposed the imminent epidemic of precarious work. The #NotForUsButForAll claim reflects riders standing for a wider range of vulnerable workers: health and school workers, entertainment technicians, domestic workers, employees in catering and tourism, agriculture day laborers, and many others.

Addressing the government, the unions demand the interruption of the food delivery service, access to a social security cushion, actual distribution of personal protective equipment by companies, and the suspension of tax obligations for the whole of 2020. They have also joined the “quarantine income” campaign: a political demand fostered by a national network of precarious workers who are asking the government for an ongoing support measure to ensure a dignified and self-determined life.

“The emergency didn’t stop the dialogue between the various groups scattered throughout Italy — on the contrary, it has helped them to find points in common despite their differences, on work safety issues, for instance,” notes Paolo Borghi, a postdoctoral fellow at the department of social and political sciences of the University of Milan.

Weighing the new “contactless” delivery recommendations the companies gave to riders, Borghi says the rider’s work is everything but autonomous. Prescribing how the rider must behave in the outbreak, such as dropping off deliveries without human contact, digital platforms aren’t only communicating a bunch of technical issues — they’re establishing relevant work organization rules, imploding the “be your own boss” charade.

“Platforms have been forced to reposition because of the media battle carried out by the riders’ organizations,” says Borghi, referring to the announcement made by Deliveroo that riders who have contracted the virus or been placed in medical quarantine will be eligible for financial support for up to fourteen days.

Organizations are also denouncing how various apps took advantage of the crisis, advertising themselves as ethical enterprises. This is the case with the donations by Just Eat: for each order delivered on March 26 and 27, the company gave 50 cents to the “Papa Giovanni XXIII”  hospital in Bergamo, one of the most infected towns of the peninsula.

“It’s a sheer speculation strategy: companies make riders work in a risk situation and on this risk they get rich. Moreover, in Italy they don’t pay half a euro in taxes and thus contribute to the Italian welfare and health crisis,” explains Gabriel.

In Latin America, Colombian giant delivery Rappi is going down the same path. As the epidemiological emergency extended, the start-up distributed five hundred thousand free meals to medical personnel working on the front lines of the outbreak. But the app hasn’t yet supplied its riders — the people that actually carry out these “solidarity” deliveries — with the two hundred thousand hand sanitizers and protective masks announced in a press release during the last week of March, nor does it say when this equipment will be delivered. 

For Angelo Avelli, spokesperson of Deliverance Milano, challenging the platforms requires patient, strategic work. “We couldn’t shut down the delivery service, but we’ve managed to get some intermediate objectives: creating more awareness among people, extending our contact network among riders, and also communicating to other workers that protection devices must be provided by companies,” he comments.

These results weren’t achieved overnight. In recent years, grassroots organizations have struggled to show that riders are neither “their own boss,” nor delivering as a hobby, but full-fledged workers who deserve the same labor rights as anyone else.

Several of these organizations have a mixed component: before the pandemic, they gathered riders, activists, precarious researchers, students, and people who recognize the battle for riders’ labor rights as a symbolic scope that exceeds the delivery food sector. They constitute a new sort of “urban-based informal unionism,” as researcher Marco Marrone argues. In Milan and Bologna, they meet periodically in self-managed leftist social centers. They organize periodic assemblies, direct consultation desks for workers, and share the management of ciclofficine, do-it-yourself bike repair places based on mutualism.

It’s a Social Bomb

“We live this tragedy in anguish. We see what’s happening in the north of Italy and a kind of mass psychosis is spreading now in the south,” explains Antonio Prisco, spokesman of the Neapolitan grassroots organization Riders per Napoli – Pirate Union.

Even if in Italy’s south the outbreak has claimed fewer victims than in the northern regions, people are experiencing the pandemic with bated breath. In the regions of Campania, Calabria, Puglia, and Sicily, health care facilities are much more precarious than in the wealthy north, and a massive infection could collapse the health care system in a record time.

Before the pandemic, Antonio was working for two apps: Deliveroo and Glovo. But this wasn’t his only job: for three months a year, he works as a tour operator; with deliveries, he can make extra money to hold him over until the following summer. Antonio has been politically involved since high school; this passion led him to fight for riders’ rights and to organize meetings, informative campaigns, and protests with the aim of unionizing them. Companies, he points out, gained economic benefits but workers’ rights did not improve.

“Ninety percent of Neapolitan riders used to work off the books at factories for six or seven hours a day, earning €100 to €150 ($108-163) per week. We’re talking about factories settled in basements, where employees had no rights. The arrival of the so-called gig economy was like a blessing to them,” says Antonio.

Contrary to richer northern cities like Milan or Bologna, in Naples, most riders are Italian. And as is the case with many migrant workers, food delivery is not an occasional gig they do in their spare time.

The Campania region has the highest coronavirus toll in Italy’s south: according to the Civil Protection Agency, by May 5, 369 people had died from COVID-19 while 2,530 positive cases had been reported. Campania was also the first southern region to implement restrictive measures at the beginning of the outbreak: president of the region Vincenzo De Luca — dubbed “the sheriff” for the series of draconian orders he applied when he was the mayor of the city of Salerno — enforced the coronavirus lockdown like no one else did.

In advance of other Italian regions, Campania strengthened restrictive measures, suspending restaurant and bar activities, apart from delivery service; supermarkets and other shops selling basic necessities can still make home deliveries. Regional ordinances prioritized public health, but have also reduced the possibility for most riders to get a minimal income: without a compensatory financial plan, the figures don’t add up.

“Behind a Delivery Order There Is a Human Being”

In order to help the most needy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced, on March 28, a €4.3 billion ($4.7bn) solidarity fund for all municipalities and an additional €400 million ($434m) for mayors and local administrators to be used on food vouchers for people affected by the economic fallout. As Conte said, the benefits, in particular the unemployment insurance, are to be delivered to citizens by April 15. But in many houses, especially of small shopkeepers or of those who live out of low-paid and occasional jobs, pantries are already running empty.

The first tensions burst in different southern cities at the end of March. In Bari, the capital of the Puglia region, a small shop owner protested in front of a bank: she demanded, implored, and then cursed for a down payment of her pension. Her son kicked the bank’s fence and shook it with fury. A passerby approached the pair, handed them over some banknotes, and hurried along. The scene became viral as, from the balconies, people record their blood-curdling cries filling the street — now, an empty space.

In the capital of Sicily, Palermo, a group of people tried to leave a local shop without paying; now, in front of some malls, you can see police patrolling, protecting pasta, tomato sauce, and bread from hungry people.

Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has urged the government to establish as soon as possible an emergency fund for the poorest citizens and those who lost their jobs: “There is a new poverty: coronavirus poverty; and there is an uneasiness that can turn into violence,” said Orlando in a video message.

“If within a month the government doesn’t supply the most needy with a serious contribution, many riders won’t take too long in dropping their jacket and bag and putting on a balaclava. They have to feed their families, to pay their rents,” says Antonio.

Riders could also be the target of increasing tensions. In Palermo, a twenty-four-year-old rider for the steakhouse Zangaloro was attacked and robbed while delivering an order in the Zona Espansione Nord (ZEN) neighborhood on March 28; he had €80 ($86) cash with him. Also, in Naples, riders who work with cash are robbed frequently. Before COVID-19 overshadowed the rest of the job complaints, Pirate Union was demanding compensation for this kind of incident. Now, according to Antonio, there are more serious problems: What kind of financial support will the government give? When will it arrive? How long will it last?

“For customers, we are like a drone that brings them groceries or pharmaceuticals. They don’t understand that behind a delivery order there is a human being with a life, a family: someone that has problems to deal with,” says Antonio.