By Pablo Agüera and Tatiana López
During the past weeks, there have been multiple protests in Spain by gig-workers working for the platform Glovo. Glovo is a Spanish courier platform founded in 2015 and operating in more than 20 countries. The Fairwork project spoke to Carmen Juares Palma, responsible for the secretary of New Realities of Work and Social and Solidary Economy at Comisiones Obreres (CCOO) of Catalunya, who was involved in organising a nine-day strike at Glovo’s ‘dark supermarkets’. During the interview, we also spoke about the new ‘ley rider’ which recognises delivery workers as employees. Even though the law has been in operation since May, Glovo is still keeping most of its workforce as independent contractors. Shortly after the supermarket strikes, these ‘freelance’ delivery riders also organised mobilisations to demand their employment rights and oppose recent drops in pay.
Can you speak to CCOO’s engagement in the gig-economy?
At CCOO, we are aware that not all platforms are the same. There are some in which the workers are truly autonomous, but there are others that market themselves as “intermediaries”, “innovative” and part of the “sharing economy” to hide labour exploitation practices characteristic of the 19th century. These platform companies use regulatory gaps to elude their labour responsibilities.
These platforms have large proportions of migrant workers, a significant part of which has an irregular residency status. Bogus self-employment and black markets are predominant features of the sector. Furthermore, the ways work is organized in some of these platforms creates barriers for female workers to participate in platform labour and perpetuates violence against women. This is why, from our side, it is of strategic importance to organize these workers within the union to promote their rights. At the same time, we think it is important to promote a global legislative framework for platform work.
Currently, the scope of platform labour is relatively small in terms of overall employment. But it does worry us a lot that these companies have the capacity to enter markets rapidly and that they represent a new model to externalize labour costs and risks to the workers themselves. We are also worried about the threats that platform labour presents to traditional sectors that are more organized, and to our social security system and welfare state.
Could you tell us a bit about the gig-economy in Spain. Recently there has been a wave of worker protest against one of the biggest Spanish delivery platforms, Glovo, which is by now present in more than 20 countries. What were these protests about?
Delivery platforms are the most visible platforms and the ones that have been subject to frequent worker protests against harsh labour conditions. In contrast, there is much less visibility of the lack of workers’ rights on other platforms that provide care, cleaning or multiple services.
Glovo workers have been protesting because they are still considered self-employed, despite the approval of the ‘ley rider’ which presupposes their employment status. By upholding the independent contractor model, Glovo continues to transfer the costs and risks of work to their workers. Since August, workers’ protests have also been fuelled by a major discontent with the drop in pay rates per order. The pay for most orders does not exceed 3€ before taxes, and some orders are even advertised as paying only 1€. At the same time, workers only get paid by the order, time spent waiting for new orders is not compensated. Additionally, workers have to bear costs for freelancer fees, taxes, vehicle, gas and bike repair costs.
There were also protests from the delivery riders at Glovo’s supermarkets, who are subcontracted through temporary work agencies. These protests were called by the CCOO in Catalunya, the biggest union in Spain. The decision to strike was taken by workers who were fed up with exploitative working conditions at Glovo. The demands of these workers are so basic that they reflect the level of abuse and lack of rights on the platform. Some of their demands include access to toilets, water fountains and a place to charge their bikes, phones and scooters. Workers’ are also demanding direct employment by Glovo and bonuses for working at night, on holidays and under dangerous conditions. Furthermore, workers are demanding a space to wait for orders, as they currently have to wait on a curb, on bus stops or street benches, where they are exposed to the sun and excessive heat during summer and to rain and cold during winter. With no proper recreational space available, workers also lacked the infrastructure to ensure personal hygiene during the pandemic, increasing their risk of falling ill. The lack of access to toilets also poses a problem for women during their period.
How is the situation of ‘dark supermarket’ drivers different to that of other delivery riders at Glovo? What are the specific demands raised by this group of workers?
The situation for these workers is different to those working for Glovo as independent contractors, who have to pay freelance fees, taxes and admin costs with earnings that sometimes fall under the national minimum wage. Workers at Glovo’s supermarkets are hired by temporary work agencies, with part-time contracts and earn the minimum wage. However, they have to provide the phone, data and the vehicle to make the deliveries, without being compensated for any damages, repairs or gas.
Glovo supermarket workers are therefore demanding access to the same rights that any other worker in Spain has: being hired directly by the company (Glovo), preventive measures on workers’ health, preventive measures against sexual harassment and for the company to take on the costs of the vehicle, phone, data and to offer bonuses for night shifts, holidays and work-related risks.
Why do you think the strike was successful in making Glovo sit at the table to negotiate? Has Glovo so far been willing to listen to the workers’ demands?
In my opinion, the success of the strike was due to the participation of 100% of the workforce. Thanks to that, the workers, with the support of CCOO, managed to force Glovo to turn off the app and close the operations of the seven supermarkets for three days. I also think that the surprise element of the strike caught Glovo unprepared. They were not expecting workers to organise a nine-day strike, and even less with the support of a union.
Like some platform work researchers have pointed out, this is the first official strike in the app-based delivery sector in Europe. This reflects the difficulties of organising workers who do not know each other, who have precarious contracts with low salaries and who know that the company can fire them due to minimal complaints. This generates a lot of fear among workers of losing their job – a job that, even though is precarious, provides them with a source of income.
Before the strike, Glovo was not willing to listen to workers’ demands. Only after the strike, did Glovo start to offer workers direct employment contracts and to implement some of the workers’ demands, like access to toilets, water fountains or places to charge their phones.
Currently, there is a roundtable to follow up with the new direct employment policy and Glovo is updating us on the progress. To this day, it has not been possible to reach an agreement with Glovo regarding the conditions of the contract or improved labour conditions for the workers. This is why our union has filed five complaints to the Labour Inspectorate to claim the recognition of the employment status for those workers who up to this day continue to operate as independent contractors. We have also filed complaints about the infringement of the right to strike and about issues linked to the prevention of labour risks, collective bargaining and wages.
Over the past months, we have seen workers from other grocery delivery companies holding similar strike actions outside warehouses, such as Gorillas’ riders in Germany. Is there any advice you would have for these emerging groups based on the experience of the past weeks in Catalunya?
My advice is that workers should organise, unite and fight for their rights in this long-distance race. They should not forget that platforms need them to perform their basic activity, which is the delivery of goods. But platforms will not improve the conditions of workers on their own, this why workers need to fight. The company will try to divide and exhaust them, this is why they need to be organised and have a structure, something that unionism can provide.
All over the world, we have seen big unions struggling to organize workers in the gig economy platforms. Instead, these workers have often decided to organize in independent unions or collective associations. Based on the experience of CCOO during the Glovo strikes, what do you think should be the role of large, national unions in the gig economy sector?
They should continue doing what has been done so far within the union movement: to facilitate a space for the working people to organise. But it is true that it is necessary to innovate organising strategies and to get to know the social and labour conditions of workers very well to provide an answer to their needs. Only then will workers see unions as a useful tool for improving working conditions.
We must be ready to face the flexibility, immediacy and demands of organising workers in the platform economy. The first ones to stop Glovo’s activities were the workers. Once the activity stopped, before the strike was announced, they contacted us for help. We had to organise the strike at record speed – with everything that is needed for it, like preparing pickets, communication materials, etc. And for many of these workers, it was their first strike. Many were scared of standing on the picket line and being identified by the police since they only have temporary residence permits. The platform economy is a sector with low levels of union membership and to access some services of unions these workers have to pay a fee, which can be a significant burden due to their precarious wages. At CCOO Catalunya we have adapted our membership fees for delivery riders. We have also opened spaces with toilets, water fountains and resting spots, and we go out over the weekend to talk to these workers and inform them of their rights and how to claim them.
Since the announcement of the ‘ley rider’ we have seen platforms react in many different ways. Some are looking into a subcontracting model, others, like Glovo, are trying to keep most of their workforce under an independent contractor model. Do you think the law will be successful in ensuring fairer standards for delivery riders? And if not, what else is needed to hold platforms accountable?
I think the ‘ley rider’ sets the grounds to ensure labour rights and social protection for delivery riders on digital platforms. But these rights will only be achieved if they are supported by mobilisations and complaints to the labour authorities from workers and unions. Furthermore, it is also necessary to improve the human and financial resources of the labour inspection services, so they can take strong actions against platform companies. Equally important is the participation of a general public that is critical of these companies that base their business model on labour exploitation.
The debate around working conditions in the gig economy has been at the forefront of public discussion over the past couple of years in Spain. Do you think the public is now more aware of the challenges faced by these workers? What can consumers do to improve working conditions of gig-workers?
It is true that over the last few years there has been significant interest in the working conditions of delivery riders on digital platforms. There are numerous articles calling out the harsh labour conditions in the sector. But in our current society of immediacy and individualism, there is little interest in stopping to reflect on the precarity hidden behind the cheap order that a rider brings to our home. Companies like Gorillas offer groceries in 10 minutes for 1.80 €, and Uber and Glovo even offer the first orders for free.
Customers on these platforms should be more critical and demand that these companies ensure fair working conditions for their workers or instead use fairer alternatives. But in reality, the majority of people will order from the cheaper platform, without thinking that behind that low price there are situations of major labour exploitation.