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Contesting the Gig Economy: Food Delivery Riders in Italy

The future-oriented narrative developed by digital platforms has been key in creating a halo of inevitability. Depicting themselves as smart and dynamic, innovative and liberating, they succeed in constructing a desirable imaginary where technological developments will naturally lead to ‘platformized’ societies. Nonetheless, technology is neither natural nor neutral. Just as with previous waves of technological change, society plays a central role in moulding work in the digital age.

After an initial sense of bewilderment, political and public awareness around challenges stemming from platform work has increased remarkably. While we are still far from observing fair working conditions in the gig economy, we are encountering moments of intense contestation in which platforms can no longer proudly claim to merely intermediate services. The wall of ‘inevitabilism’ is gradually – if with difficulty – vanishing. Beyond it, whilst distant, we can see working conditions in the gig economy being negotiated and not unilaterally imposed. Not only is this important in the here and now, but it also conveys a clear message for the coming years: we can decide what digital work will look like. This is why contestation should continue.

The Assodelivery-UGL Agreement

Over the years, a high youth unemployment rate and extensive use of atypical employment has rendered Italy attractive for platforms. The issue of gig work first emerged in 2016 with Foodora riders demonstrating in Turin and Milan. Platforms – particularly food delivery platforms – became a salient political matter as soon as former Minister of Labour Di Maio took office, defining ‘riders’ as “the symbol of an abandoned generation”, and announcing he would grant them employment protection. Various truncated attempts to ameliorate riders’ working conditions followed.

After the collective bargaining solution failed due to the platforms’ opposition to social dialogue, the so-called ‘Riders decree’ was adopted in November 2019. The latter distinguished between ‘para-subordinate’ riders – autonomous workers whose activity is organized by the platform and to whom employment protection is applied – and self-employed riders. The decree also called on social partners to agree upon specific remuneration levels within one year starting from the date the law entered into force.

On 16 September 2020, almost a year later, a questionable agreement was signed between Assodelivery – a platforms association bringing together Deliveroo, Glovo, Social Food, Just Eat, and Uber Eats – and the right-wing trade union Unione Generale del Lavoro (UGL). The text amounts to a considerable step back – compared to the ‘Riders decree’ – for riders’ protection, classifying riders as independent contractors and maintaining a de facto piecework pay system. As soon as it entered into force, hundreds of riders received an email containing a proposal they could not refuse: sign the new contract or no longer deliver with us. Contestation ramped up again.

Riders’ demonstrations promptly began. The Ministry of Labour swiftly condemned the agreement for i) specifying the legal work classification of riders, which is out of the scope of collective agreements; ii) the lack of a fixed hourly wage; and iii) the non-representativeness of its parties. Major trade union confederations (CGIL, CISL, and UIL) noted that the agreement completely disregards the ongoing discussion among parties seeking a consensual solution and visibly worsens riders’ working conditions. While unions have threatened to take legal action against such a move, their dialogue with the Ministry of Labour has started over again with some optimism. In the meantime, Just Eat announced it will start employing workers from 2021, which caused a considerable fracture in the platform front. The agreement tipped the scale in platforms’ favour, but contestation around it is unlikely to end soon – let alone the more general concern with riders’ working conditions. In other words: the set has finished, but the match has not.

Two Lessons from the Italian Case

The Italian case shows that the struggle is difficult and long, but open. Political action, court rulings, and riders’ union demonstrations have all contributed to problematize food-delivery platforms thereby putting a brake on their business strategies. On the other hand, we should also note that the exclusive focus on riders has inadvertently overshadowed other forms of platform work. This reminds us that food-delivery platforms are but a segment of a broader ecosystem with variegated challenges. While couriers are visible, most individuals working via digital platforms – e.g. crowdworkers – are not. We ought not to forget that invisibility does not mean inexistence. To the contrary, as Antonio Casilli points out, the former is a constitutive characteristic of digital labour. The next step in invalidating ‘inevitabilism’, then, should be developing a broader public discussion that problematizes and politicizes invisibility as well.

Commenting on the Assodelivery-UGL agreement, a Glovo manager wrote that it consists of a “pragmatic and not ideological” solution to support platforms while protecting workers. This is false, representing yet another attempt to naturalize platform business models and flexibility-first work in general. Platforms epitomize a historically specific form of capitalism: one that extracts value from data and thrives on network effects, degrades labour and labour rights in the name of flexibility at all costs, defines itself as forward-looking but all too often brings us back to the past. In fact, the agreement is plainly ideological – just like the Prop. 22 recently adopted in California. What we are going through is not a confrontation between the defenders of labour and the forces of nature, but a struggle between those who value labour and those who consider it no more than a cost to minimize.

 

Matteo Marenco is a PhD student at Scuola Normale Superiore (SNS), Faculty of Political and Social Sciences

Image credit: Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay