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Coronavirus pandemic leaves gig economy workers exposed
While the streets of European cities are empty, Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers have no choice but to continue working.
3/19/20, 6:00 AM CET
Updated 3/19/20, 2:14 PM CET
A man working for the food delivery company Deliveroo looks for an address during the Paris lockdown | Philippe Lopez/AFP via Getty Images
PARIS — Countries are making unprecedented sacrifices in the fight against the coronavirus — but the luxury of getting burgers and sushi delivered is not one of them.
As more and more countries impose lockdowns to stop the spread of infections, urban consumers are still ordering food online and resorting to ride-hailing apps to get around.
The result is that on the empty streets of Paris, Milan and other European cities under lockdown, drivers and couriers are among the last group of workers to be going about their duties as normal. Many feel they simply have no choice but to keep working to sustain an income in the absence of social protections afforded to most traditional employees, according to drivers interviewed by POLITICO in France and Italy, two of the countries most affected by the outbreak.
“We clearly did not expect a pandemic that would leave us behind, all by ourselves,” said Brahim Ben Ali, who runs a union of Uber drivers in France. “I run a Facebook group with 15,584 Uber drivers, and they are all concerned.”
Over the past year, courts in several European countries have re-classified some Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers as employees, and the European Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — is set later this year to present a plan to improve working conditions for drivers and couriers.
“Deliveroo did not make anything available to us. There are no gloves, no masks, no gel, no wipes. We have to pay for everything ourselves” — Vincent Fournier, Parisian courier
But such progress is of little comfort to drivers and couriers today. Because of their status as independent contractors, those on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis cannot benefit from unemployment compensation or sick leave. And they are economically incentivized to keep working despite the health risks for them and for customers.
“While recognizing that some platforms are already adopting measures, we also need to acknowledge that the present situation shows that we will need to rise to the challenges to ensure that platform workers benefit from sick leave and social protection,” European Commissioner for Jobs Nicolas Schmit told POLITICO in a statement.
Open for delivery
In Italy, France and Belgium, drastic sanitary measures have seen restaurants shut down for indoor dining. But food delivery is allowed, and companies such as UberEats have cut delivery fees to attract customers in countries such as Portugal.
To ease the concerns of clients who might be wary to order food and to avoid a PR backlash, Deliveroo has implemented so-called “contactless deliveries” — which is of little comfort to couriers who argue the firm is not taking their safety seriously.
“Deliveroo did not make anything available to us. There are no gloves, no masks, no gel, no wipes. We have to pay for everything ourselves,” said Vincent Fournier, a Parisian courier. “We’re basically cannon fodder. Deliveroo’s motto used to be ‘ride safe,’ now it’s ‘stay safe,’ that’s pretty much all.”
He compared Deliveroo couriers to bees who, instead of flying from one flower to another, bike from one contagion zone to another.
A spokesperson for Deliveroo France reached out to POLITICO to say the company would provide couriers with hand sanitizer and, in the meantime, reimburse up to €25 of protection material.
In neighboring Italy, the struggle is similar.
“Home deliveries of sushi, pizza and hamburgers are not an essential public service like hospitals, firefighters and public transport,” said Lorenzo Righi, a Deliveroo courier in Italy, arguing that the government had failed to think of the stark choices workers like himself are faced with.
“We have to choose between staying at home and protecting our health but also without a way to pay rent and bills, and on the other to keep working but jeopardizing our health,” he added.
Uber has said it would provide drivers and couriers around the globe who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine with compensation for a period of up to 14 days | Denis Charlet/AFP via Getty Images
According to Antonio Casilli, a professor at Telecom-Paris University and platform workers specialist, the situation in southern Europe is symptomatic of a wider poverty crisis.
“In Italy or Spain, the platform workers’ issues are intertwined with precarity and mass unemployment issues that affect people under 35 years old,” he said.
Sick leave and lost income
Platforms have responded unevenly to the crisis. Uber has said it would provide drivers and couriers around the globe who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in quarantine with compensation for a period of up to 14 days. The ride-hailing app has also halted its car-pooling service UberPool in France and the U.K.
However, Estonian ride-hailing firm Bolt will only provide sick leave for its U.K. drivers, the company told POLITICO, despite operating in other European countries such as France and Portugal. Deliveroo said it has set up a “hardship fund” for sick and quarantined couriers, but unions are not satisfied.
Making matters more dire for platform workers, there is no guarantee that drivers and couriers will benefit from government-mandated stimulus measures due to their status as independent workers.
“I decided to work to accumulate as much revenue as possible in case the government imposes restrictions later. Then, I will live off my savings, but I have some fixed expenses,” a French Bolt driver who spoke on condition of anonymity told POLITICO, two days before Emmanuel Macron announced France’s confinement measures.
In France, self-employed people are eligible for payments from the government’s solidarity fund. But they must prove that it is their main activity and that their income for March is 70 percent lower than last year’s, meaning a majority of couriers and drivers might be ineligible.
In Italy, Riders Union Bologna, which represents couriers, is calling for quarantine income guaranteed by the state. In the recently adopted “CureItaly” decree, the government foresees some income support measures for autonomous workers, but couriers often fall outside the social safety net.
“This regime of autonomy to which companies oblige us does not protect the health and well-being of the individual,” said Righi, who is a member of the union.
Uber did not reply to a request for comment on whether the company would provide compensation for lost income because of government lockdowns.
In the meantime, the outbreak is fueling arguments that platform workers around Europe need greater social and health protections.
“This crisis brings the debate back to the forefront — there will be a before and an after [coronavirus],” said Salwa Toko, the head of the French Digital Council, a government advisory body.
Toko added that in the future, governments would have to make sure that platforms respect labor law, but also set training for labor inspectors so they can understand and analyze algorithmic management.
The European Commission is planning an initiative later this year to improve their working conditions at a conference in September. Commission Executive Vice President for Digital Margrethe Vestager repeatedly said drivers and couriers should be allowed to unionize.
When asked how the health crisis could feed into its work, a spokesperson for the Commission said the institution was “committed” to ensure platform workers are protected in case of illness, work-related accidents or unemployment.
According to Antonio Casilli, the Telecom-Paris professor, there needs to be a cultural and political shift. “Our culture must change by acknowledging that those workers are exposed to precariousness instead of considering them as flexible and independent workforce,” he said.
Aitor Hernández-Morales, Mark Scott and Melissa Heikkilä contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with additional comment from Deliveroo France.