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The Case 20 July Jul 2020 0625 20 July 2020

Riders, the ongoing debate about delivery workers in the wake of the Covid-19 emergency

They were among those essential workers who were still active during the lockdown. In Italy, for several years now their fate has been decided in the Courts, but the 2019 ‘Salva Imprese’ decree is seeking to bring order. Many answers are still needed, and the first is about their safety.

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For years, they have been the subject of debate the world over. Not just because of the service they provide, but also because categorising one of the best known jobs in the gig economy has become a complex matter. They are the riders, the delivery people on bicycles who, with the rise of Apps like Deliveroo, Glovo, JustEat and others, have become a hit among people of all ages. For some, it is a way to make some extra money while others have made it their full-time job, whether out of choice or necessity.

Why is it still difficult to define the employment status and labour protection rights of these workers, the very symbol of the gig economy? Enabling them to carry out so-called piecework without being exploited, leaving them the freedom to choose when and how long they work but without the worry of having no sick or holiday pay for instance. Regulating the work of all delivery people, not just bike riders, requires a very fine balance.

During the lockdown and the peak in home deliveries, the need for this fine balance became even clearer as riders were among those essential workers who carried on with their jobs. Questions arose about whether the platform-based food delivery companies should provide them with safety equipment and take steps to safeguard their health, which also led to protests by the workers themselves.

The idea is to prohibit or limit the variable percentage of piecework, whereby workers are paid based on the number of deliveries they make, and instead stipulate that they receive a fixed hourly rate.

The central issue is still how to classify the employment status of these workers. Are they employees or self-employed? And if they are self-employed, then should they be paid a minimum salary and receive greater protection in a similar way as employees?

The first answer to this question came in January 2019 via an important ruling by the Courts in Turin. A claim brought by a group of riders against the company they delivered for was accepted by the Court, which ruled that they be granted the same protection as employees. This decision was confirmed by the Supreme Court in January 2020, which established once and for all that delivery riders are not employees, but that they should be granted some of the rights of employees. As their work was defined as being ‘etero-organizzato’ (employer-organised freelance work), the judges decided that riders should not be classified into a third category somewhere between self-employment and subordinate employment. They went further stating that “it is meaningless to question whether these forms of collaboration, the definition of which will continue to shift within a rapidly evolving economy, should be categorised as being employees or self-employed. What is important is that as they belong to a middle ground with indistinct borders, the law has clearly established that employee-related regulations apply to them.”

The first problem that emerges, however, is the economic sustainability of the sector. Francesco Seghezzi, President of the Adapt Foundation, commented in Italy’s financial daily ‘Il Sole 24 Ore’ that “considering riders to be workers covered by all the protection of subordinate employment is reassuring, but the consequences this could have on the whole sector may go unnoticed.”

The debate has been going on for some time. In 2019, following a prolonged exchange between the platform-based companies and trade unions the ‘Salva Imprese’ decree introduced new legislation, classifying the work “organised also by digital platforms” as being a subordinate employment relationship. So, riders have been classified as employees unless this is casual work for which they earn less than 5,000 euro per annum. This confirms the abolition of piecework, with the exception of casual workers.

Before the Italian government issued this decree, the rights of delivery workers had been defined in the Courts case by case. This being unsustainable, the legislature took it upon themselves to deal with the issue. However, this “created confusion because there is no understanding of how the work is carried out or organised,” Seghezzi explains. The law prohibits or limits the variable percentage of piecework, whereby workers are paid based on the number of deliveries they make, and instead stipulates that they receive a fixed hourly rate. “But if I earn five euro per hour and three euro per delivery, there is no incentive to deliver more, it keeps salaries low because there are two daily peaks in a rider’s work - lunch and dinner time,” says Seghezzi. “A set schedule would be limited to just a few hours per day, so those who manage to make four deliveries an hour will be constrained.”

Trying to classify these workers within the traditional categories stretches the definitions because piecework is not illegal as such.

Though being a rider still offers little employment protection, it can be well paid as they go higher up the App’s rankings. Riders who have been working the longest can earn up to 2,000 euro a month before tax. Many platforms already do pay a minimum wage so the introduction of a ceiling could be detrimental to them. Indeed, one group of riders has rebelled against the measures outlined in the decree with five hundred of them signing a letter widely criticised by other riders.

Although at least one of the points raised in the decree confirms elements in the bill of rights already adopted by certain groups of riders and gig economy workers, including the obligation for platforms to provide insurance cover by INAIL (National Institute for Insurance against Accidents at Work), the thorny question of the ceiling on earnings remains. “Trying to classify these workers within the traditional categories stretches the definitions because piecework is not illegal as such and this could seriously upset the market,” Seghezzi explains. Legislation aims to reach a collective contract where some provisions can be waived, though little progress has been made so far.

Confusion still remains then, and contradictions became even more evident during the coronavirus emergency. From Milan to Bologna, riders protested and demanded gloves and masks.

Once again, it was the Courts who made the decisions. First in Florence and then Rome, they established that food delivery companies were obliged to provide their workers with gloves, face masks and hand sanitisers. That was until the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Milan opened a fact-finding enquiry to clarify what constituted suitable safety equipment. They also investigated potential cases of illegal work by constantly monitoring road accidents involving riders, while the department responsible for prevention at the Court in Milan ordered the appointment of a judicial administrator to oversee Uber Italy.

The judicial administrator for Uber Eats has met with the workers group ‘Rider per i Diritti’ (Riders for Rights). This national autonomous trade union of delivery workers was formed on May 1 and aims to reach an agreement on a series of guidelines and proposals to broaden the protection of workers and, ultimately, regulate the whole food delivery sector.

During this process it will be key to cooperate with Assodelivery, the first association of companies in the food delivery category comprising representatives of Deliveroo, Glovo, JustEat, Uber Eats and the Italian company Social Food. “If a collective contract were drawn up, this type of work could be better defined,” Seghezzi says. The time has come to put theory into practice.

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