It’s lunch-time on a Saturday in Barcelona, and José Maracucho is waiting outside an Italian restaurant in the city centre. His large, squarish yellow Glovo backpack lies next to him, but the order he is about to deliver is from UberEats. For the past few months, Maracucho has been working for both food-delivery apps, because the money he earns from the few hours he is allowed to work for Glovo isn’t enough to live on. Delivery riders like Maracucho have been clamouring for years for better regulations to protect their labour rights. Now regulation is finally coming, even if the change it will bring about is fraught with uncertainty.
In the coming months, Spain is set to approve a trailblazing new law enshrining the labour rights of Spain’s estimated 8,000 delivery riders. In what could set a precedent for other European countries, the law will declare that gig economy riders are wage labourers, and force delivery app companies to open up their algorithmic black boxes to explain to their riders what variables they are using to determine their in-app scores. The labour unions fighting for Spain’s overworked and poorly treated delivery riders see this as a victory. But some worry that the law could have unintended consequences for the many riders who, like José Maracucho, do not have a work permit.
When Maracucho arrived in Barcelona from Venezuela in February 2020, aged 19, he heard that the fastest way to find a job was working as a rider for Spanish delivery startup Glovo. He didn’t have the necessary papers to work, but he found a Spanish local who rented him his Glovo account to work. He got a bike and started delivering almost immediately. “I started working with Glovo because it’s the easiest thing you can get when you arrive without documents,” Maracucho says. With the rented account, Maracucho could work as many hours as he wished, but he had to pay 30 percent of his earnings to the man he rented it from. The account’s owner also rented it to four more people, so that this particular Glovo account was constantly delivering orders.
Last December, Maracucho managed to regularise his situation and also obtained his own account, but his income plummeted. This was because Glovo, apart from decreasing the rates during the pandemic, did not allow him to work more than two hours per day. The app operates using a points-based system, so that when a new rider gets a license Glovo only gives them a score of 90 points out of 100. In order to earn the right to work more hours, Maracucho needs to increase his score – with 95 points you can work between four and eight hours a day, according to riders’ estimates. “You have to work very hard to increase your points and get more hours, and that’s why I combine working at Glovo with working at UberEats,” Maracucho says.
Glovo’s algorithm establishes a rider’s score. To determine the score – and increase it – the company relies on factors such as delivery speed, customer rating or availability to take orders at any time, alongside other factors not shared with riders. And it’s this problem that Spain’s new legislation aims to target. The algorithms that power the gig economy – from Glovo and Stuart to UberEats and Deliveroo – can be tweaked at any moment to be more beneficial to the companies that control them.
“They tell you being a freelance is cool because you can decide when to work. But at the end, you realise you have to work when they ask you. At Glovo, if you don’t accept an order, you lose [points]”, says Núria Soto, who created the Spanish riders collective Riders X Derechos. Alongside lawyers collective Col·lectiu Ronda, Riders X Derechos has orchestrated several court cases in Barcelona arguing that gig economy companies rely on a system of exploitation and unfair penalties that violates workers’ basic rights – for instance by penalising workers for going on strikes, or not accepting an order. “I’ve only been scored badly twice, and I don’t know why,” explains Maracucho. “People don’t understand the implications of this for workers, but when I was scored badly I lost points and therefore working hours.”
The algorithms underpinning these companies have helped their profits soar – Glovo was born in Barcelonain 2015 and now is delivering in 20 countries, with some estimates putting its valuation at £1.2bn. But pressure from organisations such as Riders X Derechos, trade unions, and lawyers have led the Spanish government to regulate gig economy algorithms and rethink the relationship between the companies and workers.
After almost five months of negotiations, in March 2021, the Spanish government reached an agreement with the unions and employers’ associations for the regulation of the gig economy by a royal decree law, to be approved by parliament. The decree establishes the presumption that workers are not self-employed but wage labourers. It also compels these companies to inform the legal representation of workers about the inner functioning of the algorithms that determine decisions “that may affect working conditions, and access to and maintenance of employment, including profiling”.
When the law is approved, Spain’s decision to force digital companies to open up part of their algorithm to their workers could have an impact across the EU, which has already begun negotiations with employers to reach similar agreements.
“Opening algorithms is above all an element of guaranteeing democratic and labour rights,” says Carlos del Barrio, secretary in Catalonia for sectoral policies and sustainability, territorial policy and social action at Comisiones Obreras (CC.OO), one of the two largest unions in the country. The law will begin to claw back rights for riders, who are subjected to intense exploitation, del Barrio argues. “Algorithms discriminate on the basis of sex and gender, along with many other factors,” he claims.
Gig economy companies have not welcomed the agreement. After the new regulations were passed, APS, a trade group which includes Glovo, Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Stuart claimed that having to disclose their algorithms “would without doubt very negatively affect the development of the digital economy in Spain, in addition to infringing on the most basic principles of freedom of enterprise and industrial property”. Neither Glovo nor Deliveroo responded to requests for comment. An Uber spokesperson says the company is “fully committed to raising the standard of work and giving independent workers more benefits while preserving flexibility and control”.
Ulises Cortés, scientific coordinator for artificial intelligence at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center says that the internet’s exponential growth has partly been driven by the lack of strong legislation regulating its use. “No one ever thought of legislating the use of private data; therefore until now, there has been no regulation of the law for digital platforms.” While prising their algorithms open could make companies lose competitive advantage, Cortés says that the rule will finally bring some fairness to a sector that has often wielded its algorithms carelessly, on the presumption that they will never be regulated.
But even that might not be enough to fix the rot at the heart of the gig economy model, which remains fundamentally stacked against the riders. Maracucho says that he, like many other migrant riders who need to earn money, is interested in being able to work as many hours as he can. He worries that if the law is approved, Glovo will hire them for fewer hours and lower wages. At the same time, Maracucho recognises that the current conditions are bad: the company pays very little – according to CC.OO, Glovo currently pays €1.60 (£1.39) per order plus mileage – lowers fees without consultation, and does not cover employee holidays. He believes that the scoring system is unfair and should be regulated.
Unions and lawyers point out that the decree will not force companies to hire their workers – it will just assume they should do it. But even taking for granted that companies will hire their workers, the new law will leave thousands of irregular workers out of the system. These are the workers who have fuelled the growth of the platforms, and that have been exploited by ruthless gangmasters and occasional profiteers hovering on the margins of the gig economy. According to Carlos del Barrio, to rent accounts – as Maracucho used to do – is very common in Spain. In Catalonia alone, there are approximately five riders for each license. “There are people who make money at the expense of others suffering the most absolute precarity, taking orders that no one wants to take, schedules that no one wants to work”, del Barrio says.
Maracucho is clear: “I doubt that Spaniards will pick up a bicycle and start delivering. The platforms work thanks to the people who work irregularly,” he says. “What are they going to do now with all the riders who don’t have papers, who have basically sustained the platforms and raised them up?”
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