How responsible is ordering your food online?

Not very, judging by the news that Italian courts have just demanded that food platforms pay €773m in fines, regularise 60,000 gig economy workers with standard rights — pay for their bikes, for example — and face legal proceedings if they don’t comply within 90 days.

This is just the latest in a series of confirmations that, as many gig economy workers put it themselves, their working conditions are close to “modern slavery”. And whilst Deliveroo & co’s profits have boomed worldwide thanks to Covid-related confinement, and more and more underprivileged people jump at the chance of easily-found employment, regulation would seem to be the only way to improve these workers’ status. Starting, of course, by imposing the right to be considered as actual workers…

For example:

  • A recent Dutch appeals court decision declared Deliveroo deliverers are not freelancers, and should as such qualify for formal contracts, holiday pay and sick pay, according to DutchNews.nl
  • A UK Supreme Court ruling last month similarly declared Uber (‘taxi’) drivers as “workers” rather than self-employed contractors, “which means they are entitled to benefits like a minimum wage, working time protections and holiday pay. The decision could open the floodgates to a wave of cases already lined up in British courts”, said Politico. And if Uber drivers come first, Uber Eats deliverers should surely come next…
  • The EU has opened a six week consultation aimed at “protecting people working through platforms“. “We need to make sure that these new forms of work remain sustainable and fair,” said Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age and renowned anti-Big Tech campaigner, having previously imposed massive and historic fines on Apple and Google, for tax dodging and abuses of dominant positions. Are Uber and Deliveroo next?
  • The UN has just called for “urgent international regulations ensuring fair conditions for workers paid via digital platforms such as food delivery apps“, according to AFP. Whilst the number of these platforms have grown fivefold in the past decade, says the UN’s ILO, average hourly income is $3.40, with half of online workers earning less than $2.10/hour. Whence the need for international cooperation to regulate these often-global platforms.

Would the gig economy in general, and food delivery in particular, be under such severe examination if they treated their workers properly? Well, have you seen Ken Loach’s seminal “Sorry We Missed You“, an edifying tale of how a gig economy delivery driver can’t survive without sick pay, holidays or other basic workers’ rights? Do you think paying $2-3 per delivery, as Uber Eats does in the US, is fair?

7 days a week, 7 hours per day, with a three-hour break in the middle of the day, for €1200 (per month)… that’s what a deliverer I talk to earns. He tells me he’s feverish when he gets home. What with the physical effort (of riding a bike all day), the weight of the bag, the stairs to climb, the infernal delivery rhythm, the pollution and traffic stress, I’m not surprised. He says at the beginning, the platforms pay well to attract new deliverers; but the more candidates apply for the jobs, the more their pay goes down

The above is an extract from the tale of Jules, a Parisian food delivery biker, from Jerome Pimot’s blog on French news website MediaPart. Jules argues that, given the immense precarity of many deliverers, he wouldn’t be surprised if the standard current rate of €5 an hour could end up at €1 in the not-too distant future. The platforms’ exploitation is further confirmed in this incredible short documentary (also in French, top photo), in which we learn that deliverers — who earn €400 for 60 hours’ work per week — are encouraged to take extra risks for extra money when platforms like Uber Eats offer €40 bonuses to those who can make 15 deliveries in three hours. That’s 12 minutes per delivery. I.e. impossible without running red lights, speeding and so on.

Fortunately, in France, the impact of accounts like this documentary, or Jules’ 2019 blogpost — which also affirms that French startup Frichti treats its drivers even worse than the UK’s Deliveroo or the US’ Uber Eats — was such that some platforms decided to reply. And the reply of FoodChéri, a platform belonging to catering giant Sodexo, was particularly surprising. It affirmed, in short, that:

  • FoodChéri deliverers are paid per 3 hour shift, not per delivery, with a base rate of €36 per shift (4 times more than the average rate identified by the UN, then)
  • Crucially, they are paid for these shifts even if they make no deliveries. A unique case in a sector which predominantly pays per delivery
  • Deliverers’ only incentives to work more are a system where 39 orders handled in a week gets a €10 bonus, 65 gets €20, and so on
  • Since 2016, FoodChéri no longer offers as “on demand”, as-fast-as-you-can delivery service; rather, it sets 30-, 45- or 60-minute time limits, based on distance
  • FoodChéri employees no deliverers under 18 (should we really congratulate them for that?) and affirms that “some” (without saying how many) have gone on to get ‘proper’ jobs in the company’s HQ.

So yes, FoodChéri’s deliverers still have independent worker status (“auto-entrepreneur”), which means they have to give 25-40% of what they earn to the government. Yes, FoodChéri claims to be a service for “alterfoodists”, “100 eco-friendly” etc etc and yet still provides plastic knives and forks with its (100% recycled) dishes. And yes, we’d be surprised if *that* many deliverers work their ways up to snagging jobs in their snazzy startup-style offices. But no, we’re not sure any other food platforms pay per shift, and not per delivery; or make their dishes in a dedicated venue just outside Paris, rather than using “dark kitchens” (restaurants without tables, for tax-dodging purposes), as Deliveroo and co do.

So, to answer our initial question, ask yourself this before ordering for your next lunch break:

  • Can’t you make it yourself?
  • Can’t you fetch it yourself? McDonald’s restaurants are everywhere, and yet always have deliverers teeming outside them. Why?
  • Are you sure the company you’re ordering from treats its deliverers responsibly? If not, why not ask them how they pay their staff, before you place your order?
  • Did you know 30% of deliverers admit to trying food from their orders? (who can blame them in these conditions?)
  • If you must get food delivered, does your town have a responsible, independent alternative to the majors, like Rennes Coursiers in France? Do the research!

Bon appétit!

PS: if you’re still not sure about Uber Eats’ bad faith, its latest ad campaign says deliverers consider themselves as “basically CEO”. With zero benefits, security or holidays? 🤔

PPS: it looks like a new breed of even-cheaper delivery services are launching, cf this from London; cheaper usually means more exploitative 🤦🏻‍♂️

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