Getty Images / WIRED
It was the winter of 2018, and Rex needed a job. He had travelled to Italy from Nigeria as a political refugee three years earlier, and after stints in Umbria and on a farm outside Rome, he had decided to settle in the northern city of Turin. He was 25-years-old and looking for work. A friend from church said they could help: they knew an Italian man who was offering work as a courier.
Rex says he met the man, who introduced himself as Leonardo, in Turin’s Piazza Statuto. Leonardo said he needed couriers to transport food from restaurants to customers. Rex says Leonardo offered him a flat rate of €3 (£2.60) per delivery, and later presented him with a handwritten scrap of paper with the terms of their agreement scrawled on it. He says he told Leonardo €3 was too low, and Leonardo said he could stretch to €3.50. Rex didn’t have any other options. He took the job.
Rex says the scrap of paper had one company name on it: “Flash Road City”. So he was surprised when he was given an Uber Eats backpack and login details for an Uber Eats account, and instructed to start fulfilling orders on the takeaway app.
The conditions of the job were punishing. Rex would often get home at one or two in the morning, and had to work in all kinds of weather for no extra pay. Once it snowed so hard that people stopped in the streets to take pictures of him toiling through the blizzard. The work was also be dangerous. On one journey he got into a car accident which destroyed his bike and left him unable to walk for two months. Rex says the couriers were sometimes paid late, and less than they had been promised, and that those who complained found themselves periodically locked out of their Uber Eats accounts.
Things came to a head when some of the riders, many of whom were migrants applying for residency permit extensions, asked Leonardo for proof of their status as taxpayers, and he kept putting them off. At a meeting of the Turin-based delivery riders group Deliverance Project in late 2019, not long after Rex’s accident, someone suggested they go to Giulia Druetta – a lawyer with a reputation for representing workers in major court cases against food delivery platforms.
A small group of the riders went to Druetta’s office and told her their story. They showed her text and voice messages and what documentation they had. “Listening to all these recordings over Christmas between 2019 and 2020, it was terrible, I was disgusted,” says Druetta. “I was incredulous that something like this could happen, right in front of everyone.”
Druetta went with a small group of the riders to file a report with the Turin prosecutors. But when she got there, they already knew all about it. They referred her to the prosecutor’s office in Milan, where an investigation was already well underway.
Prosecutors had conducted a months-long investigation involving wiretaps, stake outs, and the bugging and GPS tracking of four cars, culminating in raids on an office and three private residences. In May 2020, the Milan tribunal released an explosive 60-page court order laying out their findings. They alleged that a senior manager for Uber Italy, Gloria Bresciani, working in collaboration with Flash Road City managers – including Leonardo Moltini – and another intermediary company called FRC, had systematically exploited hundreds of delivery riders working for Uber Eats across multiple Italian cities.
The allegations echoed much of what Rex had told Druetta. Based on confiscated business documents, text messages, and interviews with riders, the prosecutors alleged that the managers had paid workers an average of €3 per delivery, regardless of time of day, weather, or journey length; docked the pay of workers who had accepted less than 95 per cent of orders; arbitrarily punished those who complained by locking them out of their accounts; and withheld up to €21,000 in tips.
The document also alleged that the Flash Road City and FRC managers had recruited migrants “in conditions of such social vulnerability” that they had applied for residency permits for humanitarian reasons. “We have created a system for desperate people,” Bresciani was heard saying in a recording of a wiretapped call in which he urged a colleague not to tell outsiders.
Based on the prosecutors’ findings, the court placed Uber Italy under special administration, which gives a court-appointed commissioner oversight of its business. Some of the managers were being investigated for tax fraud. But mostly they were under investigation for the crime of caporalato.
Caporalato, or gang mastering, is the practice of recruiting workers as a third-party broker via exploitation and intimidation, and is heavily associated with small time mafiosi in Italy’s agricultural south, where a seasonal migrant workforce harvests crops in brutal conditions. Applying the law in relation to a multinational company is “very unusual”, says Antonio Aloisi, an assistant professor of law at IE University Madrid. But Yvan Sagnet, founder of the anti-caporalato organisation NoCap and the man largely responsible for getting the practice criminalised, says he isn’t surprised.
Caporalato has existed in Italy for decades, but only became a crime within the past ten years, thanks in large part to Sagnet’s efforts. Sagnet came to Italy from Cameroon in 2008 to study engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. In 2011, needing to supplement his university fees, he travelled to Nardò in the southern region of Apulia to pick tomatoes. When he arrived, he was appalled. The workers lived in a gigantic slum. The caporali – the gang masters – would pay as little as €20 for 14 hours of work. “It went beyond exploitation – it was a kind of slavery,” says Sagnet. He led a strike that ended up lasting several weeks and attracted national media attention. Lawmakers amended the criminal code to criminalise illicit brokerage and labour exploitation later that same year. Another law passed in 2016 broadened its scope and increased sanctions.
NoCap is mainly focused on the agricultural sector, but Sagnet says that they have seen instances of caporalato in other industries, including the app-based gig economy. Letizia Palumbo, a research fellow at the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Centre, says that because harvest work is seasonal, migrant workers often travel north to work in other industries, like tourism, logistics, domestic work, and the gig economy. “For us, the caporali are the little fish,” says Sagnet. “The true caporalato is the big distributors, the supermarkets, the multinationals.”
Druetta and three other lawyers are now representing Rex, along with a growing group of delivery riders, as civil plaintiffs against Uber Italy. Criminal proceedings against Bresciani and the managers from Flash Road City and FRC are expected to start later this year. No criminal charges have been filed against Uber Italy, but if the judge finds against the managers accused of caporalato in the criminal case and FRC (accused of corporate liability) , the company could be ordered to pay damages as the civilly responsible party. As of February 2021, the case is in preliminary hearings, and Uber Italy can still apply to be removed from the proceedings. Druetta has also filed a separate civil suit against Uber Italy in Turin, claiming back pay and other compensation for the riders. In the meantime, Uber Italy remains under special administration until at least May 2021.
An Uber spokesperson says the company is working with the court-appointed commissioner to provide Uber Eats riders with a “safe, rewarding and flexible work environment”.
When Rex first learned of the prosecutors’ investigations, he says he felt “very, very happy”. He hopes the court proceedings will bring him and his friends justice. “I cannot find the words to explain what he did to us,” he says. “We were used. We were used in many ways.” Moltini’s lawyer declined to comment. According to the Italian news outlet Il Sole 24 Ore, Moltini is expected to take a €5,000 plea deal.
Uber is an extreme case, but delivery workers in Italy say the entire sector needs reform. Under Italian law, as of November 2020 delivery riders should receive the same rights as other employees – including hourly pay and sick leave. But the law contains a crucial loophole that lets companies offer worse pay and working conditions if groups that say they represent the workers in their companies agree to them. “This was a real mistake,” says Angelo Avelli, a spokesperson for the riders’ collective Deliverance Milano.
In September 2020, a small, right-aligned union called Unione generale di lavoro, or UGL, signed a contract with AssoDelivery, the association that represents delivery companies in the sector, allowing them to continue paying all workers per delivery, rather than per hour. Italy’s Ministry of Labour condemned the contract as “very problematic” and said one small union could not be considered sufficiently representative of all the workers in the entire industry. Druetta describes it as “illegitimate” and Avelli calls it a “scam”.
UGL spokesperson Vincenzo Abbrescia says that the agreement is “absolutely legal”, that its benefits include minimum wages, insurance and incentives for workers, and that objections tend to come from people “who do not have a real understanding of the work of riders”. Avelli, who works as a rider for two major delivery platforms, says that once the deal was agreed the average national rates went down from €5 per delivery to around €4.30. Riders say they plan to organise a series of national strikes, asking for hourly pay, sick leave, holidays, and the right to unionise.
Rex has a new job now, the details of which he wants to keep private, but Druetta says the majority of her clients are still working as delivery riders for Uber or for other food delivery companies. In many ways, the day-to-day make up of their lives is unchanged. They get paid a small bonus for working certain times of day or weather conditions, and receive tips. But they are still paid a fixed rate per delivery, and work without sick leave or other significant employment protections.
The first few weeks of 2021 have been brutally cold in northern Italy. With restaurants closed and people unwilling to brave the cold to stand outside waiting for takeaway food, it is once again the gig economy workers who had to step up. When a storm hit, the riders pushed through the squalls, gathering snow as they went.
More great stories from WIRED
🌌 A rebel physicist has an elegant solution to a quantum mystery
🍪 Google is rewriting the web. Here’s the impact Chrome’s plan to kill cookies will have
😷 As more Covid-19 variants emerge, attention has turned to N95 and FFP2 face masks
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.