For Delivery Riders, 2020 Has Focused the Fight for Employment Rights

Delivery riders have had a demanding year. But, across the world, 2020 has shown that the fight for their rights is far from over.

Delivery riders have had a demanding year. While many of us experienced the pandemic from our home, these guys — working for Deliveroo, Just Eat, or Glovo — spent lockdown crossing cities and delivering meals. In short, they did their job, just like many others, and they were quickly classed as ‘essential’ workers.

Yet, as many have pointed out, essential has sounded a little too much like expendable in 2020. Health workers have been applauded, sure — but they haven’t been given the equipment they need, nor in some countries the pay they deserve. Retail and transport staff, too, have continually raised concerns about their lack of protection. And teachers have been placed in perilous situations, without the testing or safety measures they have called for.

For delivery riders, however, the risk was not only that of contracting the virus — a risk that we at home outsourced to them. Rather, working at the sharp end of an economic system that does not recognise their value, these riders — often of colour, often undocumented, often on zero-hour contracts — faced the threat of ever-worsening working conditions in 2020.

That they have finally made their voices heard is something we should all be celebrating.

While delivery riders are the engine of these companies’ profits, brands like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and Glovo do not appear to take much interest in their welfare.

Even before the pandemic, riders faced physical harm as a daily part of their job. Abuse is common. According to some figures, riders in the US are 44 times more likely to be injured than in the average job. Meanwhile, in Australia, 5 delivery riders were killed on the job between September and November alone.

Despite the danger, riders don’t receive much in return for their labour. While the delivery companies claim that wages are as much as £10 an hour, many voices dispute this. A story in April, for example, told of how an Uber Eats rider in Edinburgh earned as little as £4 over 6 hours of work. While this might be an extreme case, rates elsewhere do not seem much better. In New York, riders have reported making as little as $32 in over six hours’ work.

Yet, the problem here is not just about pay. This year, the news emerged from London in September that delivery companies — Deliveroo and Uber Eats in particular — were working with the Met Police to deport undocumented migrants who were earning money through delivery. Meanwhile, over in California, the electorate voted for the notorious Prop 22 that would prevent delivery riders and drivers from being recognised as employees. This would exclude them from any entitlement to sick pay or holidays.

In Italy, too, delivery companies have sought to bring in contractual changes that the riders say reduce their minimum fees. These changes, coming during a pandemic, strain the credibility of companies who sought recognition for their riders as ‘essential’ workers.

As one rider in Milan told the newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, “This is their way to thank us after calling us heroes? … We took groceries to those who were sick, we took food to those who couldn’t go out. We never stopped, even if companies never gave us masks.”

Riders, in Italy at least, have started to realise that corporate slogans are not always backed by concrete material support. In fact, in some cases, this realisation has encouraged riders to organise — and to demand to be taken seriously as workers.

In Italy, the breaking point for the riders came in early autumn. Negotiations on a new contract for riders had been held between trade unions, the Ministero del Lavoro (the Italian government’s ministry for work), and AssoDelivery — an association made up of the delivery companies, Glovo, Uber Eats, Just Eat, and Deliveroo. Following discussions, in September, a contract was proposed by AssoDelivery and, despite the opposition of the country’s big trade unions — CGIL, CSIL, and UIL — and the Ministero del Lavoro, soon came into force. (It had been supported by one union, UGL.)

What did the deal agree? From 3 November, every rider for the four delivery companies would need to sign or be refused work. In return, they would receive pay per delivery (not the hourly wage that the trade unions had hoped for) — and they would grant the companies the power to decide the value of those deliveries. Meanwhile, Just Eat’s contract stated that riders should “avoid any negative comment on social media about the agreement, the contracts, or the delivery services”.

Denouncing the agreement as a “pirate” contract and pledging to fight the “starvation wages” that it offered, riders took to the streets throughout October and November. Supported by autonomous riders’ groups united under the banner of #RiderXiDiritti [riders for rights] — strikes held across consecutive weekends obstructed food delivery, while spontaneous rallies circulated around Milan, Bologna, Rome, and other major cities.

“The city is our factory and we’ll obstruct it,” Deliverance Milano said in a statement that showed the riders’ growing awareness of their role in the urban economy.

“The metropolis is our warehouse and we’ll picket it. … If we are essential workers, essential are our rights.”

Backed by new unions and working in parallel with the traditional trade union confederations, delivery riders in Italy have found some leverage — and a potential model for rider activism around the world. Despite their structural disadvantages — poor knowledge of Italian, for example — the riders seem to be winning.

Since the protests, Just Eat have left AssoDelivery and agreed to take their riders on as employees — with all of the benefits that this entails. At the same time, a judge in Palermo ruled that Glovo should rehire, as a full employee, a rider who had been blocked from the work app for sharing on social media the difficulties of his work. In both cases, the rights that riders have never been able to take for granted have been affirmed (although, in the latter case, the judge’s decision has not yet been acted upon).

As a result, riders have grounds to be optimistic. 2020 has been the year that riders have realised their strength. If Prop22 and Italy’s contract are the signal of the delivery companies’ intentions for 2021, they are going to need all the strength they can get.

Food stories, recipes, and politics from a Brit in an Italian kitchen.

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