Gig Workers Are Losing Their Hard-Won Rights

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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