Food delivery couriers have become an increasingly common sight across cities all over Europe and North America, as myriad food delivery platforms have proliferated in recent years as part of the growth of the global gig economy. Even during the global lockdown which followed the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, food delivery was among those essential activities which continued uninterrupted. Yet workers in this sector are mostly underpaid, with a precarious contractual situation, and subject to stringent forms of algorithmic control on their work activities.
These adverse circumstances are often seen as obstacles to workers’ mobilisation. Yet, food delivery has been one of the segments of the ‘gig economy’ where workers have started to organise to protest exploitative working conditions. How so? In a recent article, we investigate what explains the emergence of workers’ solidarity even in this hostile context through analysis of the mobilisation of food delivery couriers in the UK and Italy.
The emergence of worker solidarity in adverse circumstances
Insecurity and control are arguably the two characterising features of work in the gig economy, despite the promises of flexibility espoused by the dominant narratives surrounding it.
As independent or para-subordinate contractors, gig workers generally have no right to minimum wage, paid holidays or sick leave, and are remunerated on a payment-by-delivery basis. In this way, platforms can shift enterprise risk on the couriers: if there is no demand, they are not paid, despite being available for work. Delivery platforms also exercise control over their geographically dispersed workforce through GPS technology, and the data collected is routinely used for performance management through algorithms that workers cannot scrutinise.
Moreover, work is organised as an individual process, where couriers tend to interact almost exclusively with the app. Individualisation, dispersal and pervasive monitoring, coupled with the precarious contractual status, might lead us to think of gig workers as ‘unorganisable’.
So how do worker solidarity and collective action develop in such a hostile context?
We have studied the processes of solidarity formation among couriers who have been organising since 2016 in Turin, Italy, and London and Brighton, U.K, combining semi-structured interviews with gig workers and trade unionists, participant observation and analysis of documentary and social media sources. Through the lenses of labour process theory, we argue that the emergence of active solidarity among food delivery workers is rooted in the inherent contradictions of the capitalist labour process. At the same time, we show how the development of solidarity is a historically specific, evolving process, underpinned by workers’ agentic practices, shaped by different context-specific factors.
The shared basis for antagonism was demonstrated by the cross-case similarities in the ‘trigger points’ behind the initial protests – a shift to piecework payment or a sudden drop in earnings, which provided a focal point for expressing discontent. Couriers expressed other common grievances: arbitrariness of management methods; the absence of safety nets – such as sick pay or adequate injury insurance; excessive work intensification; and perceived dissonance between the rhetoric of ‘flexibility’ promoted by the companies and the experience of control in the labour process.
Beyond the trigger points, we identified three key mechanisms which enabled the emergence of solidarity among workers. First, the availability of spaces free from managerial gaze, both physical – such as common delivery waiting points – and virtual – such as Whatsapp chats – allowed the workers to consolidate social ties and overcome the individualisation inherent to the gig work organisation.
Second, gig workers developed consciousness in action: the experience of protesting in large numbers – outside the company’s offices and in the streets – empowered the participating workers and allowed to develop a further sense of shared identity.
Third, the consolidation of a collective identity was supported by the frames that the riders adopted in the process of mobilisation, seeking to consolidate their identity as workers, to counter the platforms’ rhetoric that sought to depict couriering as a fun activity rather than as ‘real work’. This involved using their work uniforms and delivery boxes as visible props in protests.
Obstacles to solidarity, and how to overcome them
The consolidation of solidarity among gig workers encountered also some obstacles. Strikes and demonstration, despite sizeable, involved only a minority of the workforce. This partially reflected workforce segmentation in terms of attachment to the job, with a ‘core’ of regular riders more involved due to stronger reciprocal social ties, greater reliance on earnings from gig work, and hence stronger grievances.
Italian interviewees also reported difficulties in involving couriers of migrant origins, seemingly more wary of joining the protests due to their vulnerable status. Despite these obstacles, occasional, ‘newer’ or more ‘vulnerable’ workers often expressed their support through less risky forms of action – such as putting protest flyers inside delivery bags for clients, engaging in online ‘shitstorming’ of the company webpages or not logging-on during strike activities.
Platforms also enacted managerial counter- strategies that posed obstacles to the consolidation of solidarity. First, they attempted to defuse grievances and incentivise couriers to work through opaque algorithmic management and the use of targeted bonuses. They also adopted communication campaigns to dissuade workers from unionising and delegitimise demands for more secure contracts by depicting the protesters as a small minority of troublemakers.
The high turnover rate, aggravated by the platforms’ recruitment practices, also posed challenges for long-term organising efforts. As the original core of protesters was diluted, social relations became sometimes harder to sustain, and the companies could more easily apply ‘divide and rule’ tactics.
However, the longitudinal analysis of the cases over 2016-2019 highlights that obstacles to the reach of solidarity were not insurmountable. In both cases couriers have managed to keep up mobilisation and organising efforts over time. This is evidenced by the several strikes and protests held over 2017-2019 led by the riders (now encompassing couriers of several platforms); by the emerging coordination of actions between couriers of different platforms; and by the ongoing legal challenges that couriers in Italy and the UK have been leveraging against the respective companies, supported by collective fundraising efforts.
These findings indicate that while the balance of power between platforms and workers continues to favour the former, managerial counter-action simultaneously reproduces the conditions for new antagonisms, creating a cycle of ongoing contestation. While some elements of the work process that were crucial for the emergence of active solidarity among food couriers, such as the presence of physical meeting points, pertain only to location-based platforms, the capacity of gig workers in the UK and Italy to overcome significant obstacles to the emergence of active solidarity offer cause for optimism for the consolidation of workers’ solidarity – even in the ‘brave new world’ of gig economy.
Arianna Tassinari and Vincenzo Maccarrone. “Riders on the Storm: Workplace Solidarity among Gig Economy Couriers in Italy and the UK”. In Work, Employment and Society 2020. For a free, pre‐publication version of the article, click here.
Image: Leonhard Lenz via wikimedia commons (CC0 1.0)