We’re Not Self-Employed, We’re Workers

The gig economy is notorious for using bogus self-employment to skirt around labor laws and evade collective bargaining. But in Italy, strikes by couriers have forced major food delivery firms to recognize their employee status — a success that also shows how we can revitalize the wider labor movement.

Protest and national strike of riders from Glovo, Just Eat, and Deliveroo to ask for more rights and better regulation of their work, in Rome, Italy, March 26, 2021 (Samantha Zucchi / Insidefoto / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

Angelo Avelli knows Milan better than most milanesi. These last three years, he has sped down the Corso Buenos Aires, hauled his bike over the canals of the Navigli, and felt the clambering of the cobblestones surrounding the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana countless times. He is a courier for food delivery platform Just Eat — what Italians call a “rider.”

On March 26, he pushed off from Porta Ticinese, once the gate to a walled city, and headed north toward Porta Garibaldi. Bypassing tourists on Via Dante, this time, he wasn’t in a rush to deliver sushi or a Big Mac, and there was no worry about veering around the city’s buses or taxis. Instead, he was surrounded by a sea of around two hundred of his fellow riders, shouting, “We are not slaves, we are workers!”

“The pedestrians were applauding us, showing us solidarity, and marveling at how large of a crowd we were. We started a spontaneous picket, blocking restaurants from making deliveries. The procession got larger and larger, and a lot of workers left their shift and joined us,” Avelli told me. He emphasized that the strike, which took place in thirty-five other Italian cities, was broader than food delivery, aimed at the gig economy at large. “One of our other slogans is ‘Not for us, but for everyone,’ because the struggle of riders is not just about getting a contract, it’s resistance against the new norms of work that abuse the independence of people, against the absence of rights for precarious workers.”

Avelli is one of the founders of Deliverance Milano, a grassroots, worker-led union created in 2017. Inspired by protests in Britain and then among riders in Turin in 2016, Deliverance is part of a national network called Rider x I Diritti (Riders for Rights). The network coordinates actions and strikes between informal worker associations and officially recognized union confederations, calling for hourly salaries, fixed schedules, access to collective bargaining, and social protections for the more than sixty thousand riders. It is part of a Europe-wide groundswell of organizing among platform workers who are demanding basic recognition that they are, indeed, employees of companies where there is no boss but only an algorithm.

A Real Job

“We have to acknowledge that we are undergoing a paradigm shift. It can no longer be said that [a rider] is a casual job where you take your money and run, having no social protections. This is a real job, and these companies are having to face that,” said Maurilio Pirone, a researcher on labor and the platform economy at the University of Bologna.

“This is the frontier of the future of work, and we have to think and organize beyond the traditional ways.”

This is far from just a local problem. The United States has recently seen a series of setbacks on rights and benefits for platform workers, with the passage of Proposition 22 in California and similar legislative efforts underway in Illinois and New York. But in European countries, including Italy, there has been headway in reclassifying rideshare and delivery workers from self-employed to employees.

In February, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled that seventy thousand Uber drivers must be considered workers, eligible for vacations, pensions, and a minimum wage. In September, Spain’s Supreme Court gave employee status to  couriers with the Barcelona-based company Glovo, and the government is set to pass new national regulations classifying all delivery riders as workers. At the EU level, the European Commission is considering drafting new regulations on the status of workers in the gig economy, proposing its own initiative if negotiations with labor unions and digital platforms are not reached.

The first legislative protection in Italy for riders came unexpectedly through former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s 2015 Jobs Act. Lambasted for making it easier to fire workers, it also created new protections for lavoro etero-organizzato, work that wasn’t until then defined as part of an employer-employee relationship and was thus not protected under labor law.

The labor minister under Giuseppe Conte’s first government in 2018–19, Luigi Di Maio, tried to include further protections for precarious workers under his decreto dignità. But he then folded after platform companies threatened to pull their operations out of the country. The first substantive legislative reforms that explicitly offered protections and a minimum wage to riders was passed in November 2019, under Conte’s second administration. The law opened the door for legal action on various fronts, and in part forced Just Eat to leave AssoDelivery, the association of food delivery companies in Italy, and negotiate a contract with riders.

The first contracts, recognizing riders with Just Eat as employees, are being signed in Monza and other cities across northern Italy. After negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the country’s main union confederations, Just Eat has pledged to hire four thousand employees by the end of the year, offering a preliminary glance at how durable traditional labor protections and unionism will be in confronting new and expansionist tech companies that are exploiting a labor force with high turnover and high levels of social precarity.

The Ideology of Autonomy

Sandro doesn’t identify as a rider but sees the job only as the means to another end. “Right now, I can make a living. I’m not able to save anything, but as long as I can survive, work on personal projects, and study, I’m okay. If you consider my internship, I was paid the same, about €500 a month.” Since February, Sandro has been working for Deliveroo about twenty hours a week, using his bicycle to deliver food around the city of Bergamo, thirty miles east of Milan. He has a bachelor’s degree in tourism management, a master’s in economics, and was working in hospitality before the pandemic took his job, along with almost five hundred thousand other Italians. “I want to work only when it’s convenient for me . . . if Deliveroo told me, you have to have a contract where you’re paid hourly, and you have to be on the job from six to midnight, it wouldn’t be good for me.”

While there are still many platform riders like Sandro, who prize flexibility over fixed hours and view the job as a temporary stopgap in between other careers, the composition of the rider workforce has changed dramatically since the apps first began to be widely used in the early 2010s. “In the beginning, they weren’t considered workers,” said Vincenzo Cesare, regional secretary of the Unione Italiana del Lavoro (UIL), one of the largest Italian union federations and a party to the Just Eat contract. “There has been a rapid expansion of the platforms over the past several years, and we began asking, who is doing this work? We noticed that an environment of exploitation was developing, populated mostly by immigrants.”

The growth of app services in Europe coincided with an increase of immigration into the EU, beginning with the 2015 migration crisis and continuing political and humanitarian crises in North Africa, West Africa, and the Middle East. This has also had a significant effect on the makeup of their workforce.

Extracomunitari, or non-EU citizens residing in Italy, are much more likely than the average population to be in poverty, and have very low rates of naturalization and social integration. Only 10 percent of immigrants in Italy are naturalized after ten years of residence, compared to 74 percent in another EU country like Sweden. Platform companies do not release information on the demographic makeup of their workforce, but a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Milan found that only 34 percent of couriers in the city were born in Italy, and 55 percent had been born either in Asia or Africa.

A 2018 study by the Istituto Nazionale della Previdenza Sociale (INPS), Italy’s social security administration, found that only 10 percent of Italians aged eighteen to twenty-nine were in the gig economy, meaning the vast majority of riders are out of university and using the job as their main source of income. As well as denouncing the industry’s flagrant safety violations and riders being hurt on the job, critics have singled out caporalato (work under the table), where immigrants without work permits are irregularly paid on a systemic scale for far below what average couriers make.

When the apps were first launched, the couriers were offered hourly wages, high rates per delivery, and maximum flexibility. Gradually, the benefits vanished as the workforce expanded and the companies’ profits grew. “Around 2015, piecework was introduced, and the minimum wage was cut. You had to struggle with the other workers to get shifts, as there was this ranking system,” said Pirone.

For riders, this ranking system is the difference between being able to make ends meet and destitution, given that many of them don’t have access to any social safety nets. The algorithm platform companies use for their ranking systems has never been disclosed, but Spain will soon force them public. “The platforms spread the idea that you are an entrepreneur. If you’re not able to do the work, if you can’t get shifts, they close their eyes. The whole system is predicated on the success of one being the failure of ten.”

The platforms argue that their riders aren’t workers due to the flexibility of their schedule, their at-will employment, and the use of their own bikes and motorcycles for transportation. In the United States, companies like Lyft even claim through advertisement and outreach campaigns that driving for them is akin to starting a small business.

“Platform workers tend to be much more similar to employees than to self-employed people, something that should be determined by how they actually perform their work, rather than their contractual agreement,” said Valerio De Stefano, professor of labor law at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. “Flexibility of work schedule is not the only criteria by which you define an employee. And since platform workers are subject to so much control, it doesn’t make sense to claim that they are self-employed. They are followed by GPS, don’t set the fee charged, don’t set their compensation, have no autonomy to choose their route or select the tasks they have to complete.”

It’s difficult to see how Souleymane Seydi could be considered an entrepreneur or self-employed. He left Senegal in 2016 and has been a rider in cities north of Milan for the past two years. “If I could find another type of work, I would do it. My hours and my salary completely change week to week. Some weeks I earn nothing, and another, I can earn 200 euros. I don’t have children or a family, so it’s okay. But if I had to support others, I couldn’t do it.” Talking outside the main train station of Monza, the city where Just Eat began hiring its first employees in March, Seydi, who works for Glovo, had no idea about the worker benefits or protections in a contract.

Many riders with Just Eat are upset at the quick implementation of the contract without their input or fear they will not earn enough under a fixed part-time contract. Eduardo Antivalle of Milan had worked for Just Eat for over a year and a half and, despite applying for the new contract, was rejected via email by the company. “In the national contract, it’s written that everybody that already works for Just Eat has a right of precedence,” said Avelli. “We are asking for someone to monitor the situation, but this contract overall is a revolution in our job. Finally, we are paid for the availability of our time and have protections, instead of piecemeal work without any consistency.”

The Future of Labor Organizing

Just Eat wasn’t the first platform to recognize riders as employees in Italy. In 2018, two food delivery services, Sgnam and Mymenu signed an agreement with the city of Bologna and the main union federations to recognize their three hundred riders as employees. But the size of the company and the legal pressures being weighed against the other platforms are creating pressure for collective bargaining agreements to be signed for all riders across Italy. In February, the head prosecutor of Milan, Francesco Greco, leveled a €733 million fine against Just Eat, Glovo, Uber Eats, and Deliveroo for not adequately following health and safety regulations, and has mandated that all riders be hired within ninety days as parasubordinati, or pseudo-subordinate workers, who gain access to rights as employees.

From Italy to France, Britain, and Spain, it is now clear that legal systems across Europe recognize, to some extent, the falsity of the self-employed category. But the way ahead isn’t just to wait for the courts to decide. “There should be coverage of labor protection beyond the scope of employment. We should definitely make sure that, no matter your employment status, your fundamental rights to work are protected,” says Professor De Stefano. In a 2019 report for the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), De Stefano and Nicola Countouris (a professor of Labor and European Law at University College London) argue that, both at the national and EU level, countries must expand the scope of their labor law to include anyone providing labor, unless they are genuinely self-employed. “One of the reasons why this is important is because the gig economy risks becoming an experiment for other sectors. If platforms manage to get away from obligations that stems from the fact that people aren’t employees, many other employers will try the same.”

The enormously heterogenous mix of people who become riders presents a number of problems for traditional organizing, but also unique opportunities for reinvigorating labor movements that have become ossified and balkanized. “We build bridges between riders,” says Avelli. “We offer legal counseling for free, started social clubs after work, and create social opportunities for people out of work. We have info points between riders and are continuously going around the city checking in on riders and hearing about their needs.” The Rider x I Diritti network has allowed activists across Italy to coordinate actions and share information, with other countries like Spain building similar groups.

For union leader Cesare, it’s an opportunity to shake up the status quo and return unionism back to the majority of workers, whose membership in recent decades has been decimated by offshoring, privatization, and digitalization. “The union must win this fight for the riders. As the pandemic is ending, many people want a return to normality, but the pandemic has changed and will change everything about work. Business will only respond to pressure, and the cry for justice from these workers inspires me and makes me recognize the necessity of this fight.”