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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Gig Workers Are Losing Their Hard-Won Rights

It was 2020 when, in a bold challenge to industry orthodoxy, one of the world’s biggest food delivery apps announced it didn’t need to rely on gig workers—people who are paid per job and typically receive no benefits like pensions or sick pay—to make its business work. European executives at Grubhub parent company Just Eat Takeaway reveled in being the first major delivery platforms to use employees as couriers. “This is our key point of differentiation,” said Méleyne Rabot, the managing director of Just Eat France. "We are just focused on doing what we believe is right as an organization,” said her UK counterpart, Andrew Kenny. “For us, that is providing couriers with as many benefits and protections as we can.” When Just Eat CEO Jitse Groen got into a Twitter spat with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, he delivered the retort: Pay your workers minimum wage.

Despite that, Just Eat is now attempting to U-turn on previous promises. Just Eat couriers based across France received an email on July 18 outlining a coming company restructure, which would mean that riders’ status as employees would change. “Just Eat Takeaway has been a major advocate of the salaried delivery model in continental Europe and France. However, we cannot continue to do it alone,” the email read, blaming regulators for not forcing its competitors to stop using gig workers. Riders in Paris can still expect to be paid per hour, but local unions say around 350 couriers working in 26 other French cities, from Lyon to Nantes and Marseille, risk losing their jobs.

French unions say this is an existential moment for the global gig economy, and for the future of platform workers everywhere. If Just Eat is able to backtrack on its commitments in France, they say, it would send a message to other delivery platforms that employing people and giving them benefits doesn’t make financial sense. “That’s one of the reasons we can’t just let Just Eat fire us like this,” says Ludo Rioux, a Just Eat courier in Lyon and a representative for the French union the General Confederation of Labor (CGT).

“This will have a big impact, and we think that other delivery platforms [such as Gorillas and Getir] will follow Just Eat and turn to self-employed workers,” says Jérémy Graça, a Just Eat courier in Paris and representative of the union Workers’ Force. As the economy slides towards a recession, these unions are fighting to prevent a gig workers’ rights rollback.

Delivery apps across Europe are bracing for an economic downturn and wrestling with increasing investor skepticism that they can ever turn a profit. Just Eat, which declined to provide a named spokesperson to comment on this story, reported a 1 billion euro loss in 2021, and its shares are down 61 percent so far this year.

Investor funding might be drying up in the sector, but Just Eat’s about-face is also the result of regulators leaving the platform economy to self-regulate, says Matthew Cole, a researcher at Fairwork. “Voluntary agreements are great, but unless they’re institutionalized in legislation or with collective bargaining agreements, companies can just suddenly change their mind,” he says.

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Not all of Just Eat’s orange-clad couriers were switched to salaried contracts, and the company did continue to use self-employed gig workers hired via outsourcing companies to fulfill some of its orders. Under French employment law, workers and unions have four months to fight the Just Eat restructure. If they lose, Rioux expects the contracts that are lost to be replaced by gig workers who technically work for Stuart, a French outsourcing company. To go from being a Just Eat employee to a gig worker for Stuart would be a major change, he says. “Stuart couriers basically have no rights whatsoever, they get paid per delivery, and access to social protection is very low.” Stuart declined to comment.

France is not the only country where the gig workers’ rights rollback is taking place. Gorillas—a grocery delivery app that pledged not to use gig workers from its outset—is shutting down its operations across large parts of Europe. In places like Belgium, Gorillas’ retreat means its couriers are losing access to the company’s fixed employment contracts and insurance, and instead going back to work as self-employed gig workers at Uber Eats and Deliveroo. The same happened when another German delivery company, Jokr, which hired couriers as employees, pulled out of the US in June.

In countries where the employee model survives, workers are coming under intensifying pressure to do more. Just Eat couriers in Paris, who do not expect their employment contracts to be affected by the restructure, have already started to experience changes. “Before December, Paris was divided into zones: Paris southeast, southwest, northeast, northwest, center,” one Paris-based courier told WIRED, asking to remain anonymous. “In January, everything merged. Everything has become ‘Paris.’ That means since January, I receive orders from the other side of the city.” Now he says he can cycle more than 50 kilometers per day and end up 20 kilometers away from home by the end of his shift.

In Gorillas’ home country of Germany, the company has submitted a proposal to the local works council to give its fastest 25 percent of couriers access to better shifts.

Europe is ahead of other countries, such as the US, in terms of platform worker protections, and the European Commission is preparing new rules that would govern the platform economy. But even if riders do win guarantees that they will earn a minimum wage, the dynamics of the rapid delivery sector make it difficult to hold on to those gains, says Katie Wells, who researches platform workers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. “There are such fine margins in this workplace and the companies are so impossibly unequal with their distribution of power that workers have no capacity to retain any of the protections they’ve been given,” she says.

Instead, the contradictions of the gig economy persist. While investors doubt that it’s possible to employ couriers and tally a profit, some workers rights advocates wonder whether the economics of the delivery sector mean good working conditions can ever exist there. Wells says she’s yet to see an example. “Is it possible? Sure,” she says. “Lots of crazy things happen in the world.”

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