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May Day, otherwise known as International Workers' Day, was sparked by a struggle over working time. At a national convention in Chicago in 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions proclaimed “eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after 1 May, 1886”. Two years later, more than 300,000 workers took strike action across the US on 1 May, starting the tradition which is now celebrated by workers all over the world.

Time is as relevant as ever to labour struggles, and no more so than in the gig economy, where time is both very precisely monitored by the app in the execution of an order, but not tracked at all when it comes to the overall time a gig worker spends at work per day. Gig work can be understood as the hyper-commodification of time.

Suffice to say, the impact of rising fuel costs eating into take home pay is stretching the working day in the gig economy. In March, the Gig Economy Project spoke to a striking Stuart Delivery driver in Sheffield who said he had been pushed to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, just to pay the bills. Just five days later, Barbara, a striking Just Eat courier in Belfast, told us she had recently been working 15-17 hours per day: "my son never gets to see me," she explained.

What this speaks to is the desperate situation many gig workers find themselves in as the cost of living crisis bites, but also the determination of some gig workers to do something about it. Since May Day 2021, we have seen many high profile labour struggles, from the longest strike in the history of the gig economy in the north of England at Stuart Delivery, which has passed its 125th day and is still spreading, to a wave of wildcat strikes at Gorillas in Berlin, to the remarkable victory of the E-Food strike and consumer boycott in Greece. And that's just to name three disputes.

There has also been significant political progress. The Rider's Law may be fraught with enforcement problems, not to mention that it only includes food delivery couriers, but it still represents the first time a government has passed a law for employment status in the gig economy. The EU Commission's platform work directive is not yet law and could still be amended, but it would have not have got this far without the energies of the platform workers' movement. Court cases continue to find in favour of workers' rights, most powerfully in the first criminal trial in France last week which saw three former Deliveroo executives receive suspended prison sentences for "concealed work".

We shouldn't exaggerate. Any honest assessment of the balance of forces has to acknowledge that the vast majority of workers in Europe's platform economy (about 12 million people in the EU) remain entirely unorganised, and until that changes governments will largely continue to respond more to the platform lobby than to the gig worker lobby. But history shows us that it is heroic victories which build the confidence and belief in wider groups of workers that collective economic and political struggle is in their interest, and force employers and governments to come to the table. 

It only takes a spark to start a fire. If workers are to resist being made to pay all the costs of the inflation crisis we will need a blaze. We hope that by May Day 2023 the Gig Economy Project is still around and can reflect on 12 months of gig worker infernos across Europe.

Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator

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Gig Economy news round-up

  • FRENCH PRIVATE HIRE DRIVERS DEVELOPING CO-OP "ALTERNATIVE TO UBERISATION": Ben Ali Brahim, General Secretary of the INV union which organises Uber drivers in France, is developing a driver co-op owned private hire app as an "alternative to Uberisation". The app is still in the development phase but already 600 registered private hire drivers have joined the co-op, paying €300 in pre-registration fees, with a waiting list of 2,000. Ali Brahim said they want the co-op, which is currently untitled, to "open gradually", and are soliciting the help of tax, tech and training experts in developing the project. The project is set to go live in September. Read more here.
  • COURT RULES SACKING OF WORKER FOR GORILLAS WILDCAT STRIKE INVALID: A labour court has ruled that it was invalid for super-fast grocery delivery platform Gorillas to sack a rider for participating in a 'wildcat' strike. The verdict of the 19th chamber of Berlin's Labour Court, which was delivered at the end of March but the details only became available on Thursday [28 April], is the first time a German court has sided against an employer dismissing an employee in the context of an unofficial strike action, according to lawyer Martin Bechert. It is "by no means a guaranteed right that a call for a so-called wildcat strike constitutes a violation of contractual obligations," the judge found. Bechert said the judgement means "that we need a new, supreme court assessment of the right to strike." A series of wildcat strikes by Gorillas riders in 2021 over concerns about safety and not being paid on time ended when the company fired hundreds of the strikers on mass in September. Read more here.
  • JUST EAT FINED BY CATALAN LABOUR INSPECTORATE FOR "ILLEGAL" SUB-CONTRACTING: Just Eat, Europe's biggest food delivery platform, has been fined €187,515 by the Catalan regional government's labour inspectorate for an "illegal" sub-contracting of 183 riders. The sub-contractor, Fleet Delivery Solutions, has also been fined €62,503, taking the total sanction to a quarter of a million euros. “The Labour Inspection considers it proven that the Just Eat company is the real company of the 183 workers of Fleet Delivery Solutions and, therefore, that this subcontracting company illegally supplies labor to Just Eat,” the Department of Labour said in a statement. They added that the sub-contracting had led the workers to have "lower economic conditions" than if they were directly hired. Just Eat said in response that they "include clauses and other protection measures" to ensure sub-contractors protect workers' rights, and pointed out that they are the only union to have a collective bargaining agreement with the two big Spanish unions, UGT and CCOO. Read more here.
  • COURIERS BOYCOTT RESTAURANT OVER LACK OF SAFE WAITING AREA: Food delivery couriers in the IWGB union in London are boycotting a restaurant over a lack of a safe waiting area. The boycott of the Wingstop restaurant in the Dalston area began on Friday [29 November] with 30 couriers picketing the restaurant, and is the latest escalation in a long-running dispute. The couriers say they are forced to wait on Ashwin Street where they face order delays, parking fines and police harassment. In September they launched a campaign calling on the local council to make Bentley Road a safe waiting area for couriers. Wingstop previously allowed couriers to wait inside but since the pandemic began it has refused to let them in. Negotiations with the council and Wingstop have not brought a breakthrough, leading to the courier boycott.
  • SUB-RENTING OF RIDER ACCOUNTS CONTINUES DESPITE RIDER'S LAW: Facebook group chats show that owners of food delivery platform accounts are still sub-renting their account to others in exchange for a commission, despite the Rider's Law - which was intended to ensure employment rights for all food delivery couriers - coming into force last August. The investigation by 'El Espanol' shows one account holder messaging: “You can work from Monday to Thursday, on the weekend I use the account. From what you bill, we subtract 19% of the personal income tax that I am obliged to pay for being self-employed. Of what is left over, you keep 70% and I 30%." Sub-renting is particularly used by asylum seekers and refugees who do not have the legal right to work, but can be used by anyone who for whatever reason wants to avoid an official record of their work. José Antonio Pasadas of the UGT union said sub-renting has been reduced by the Rider's Law as platforms now have to "worry that nothing serious happens", but Franz Morales of the CCOO union said that “for riders who work outside of a warehouse, there is always the possibility that accounts will be exchanged. Even if they are contracted through a [sub-contractor], they can rent their profile, but it is not the most normal thing”. Most platforms employ their riders either directly or through a sub-contractor after the introduction of the Rider's Law, except the largest platform in Spain, Glovo, which still hires workers on a self-employed basis. Read more here.

Have we missed important news on the gig economy in Europe this week? E-mail Ben at [email protected] to help us improve our news round-up.

From around the web

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How algorithmic automation could manage workers ethically

S A Mathieson writes for 'Computer Weekly' about whether it is possible to have ethical algorithmic management of workers.

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'Bossware is coming for every worker': the software you might not realising is watching you

Zoë Corbyn writes in The Guardian on how computer monitoring tools to surveil workers' performances are quickly becoming widespread and might become the new normal.

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Documentary: Livrer Bataille

The Belgian media project ZinTV tells the story of the collective struggles of food delivery couriers in Belgium, France and the UK (in French).

Upcoming events

- Worker Info Exchange and the ADCU union are back in the Amsterdam Court on 18 May in their case against Uber and Ola Cabs over algorithmic transparency and protection from robo-firings. See here for more information.

- The Bonavero Institute of Human Rights at Oxford University is hosting a conference on "the race to regulate AI: Global comparative perspectives". The event will be both in-person and online on the 30 June. For full details and to register click here

- The 2022 Re-Shaping Work Conference will be held in Amsterdam on the 13-14 October. The call for papers is open until 1 June. Read more here.

Know of more events we should be highlighting? Let us know at [email protected].

Get Involved

The Gig Economy Project is a media network for gig workers and we welcome contributions from workers, writers, academics, activists - anyone who wants to stand up for gig workers' rights.

If you would like to write for the site, discuss arranging an interview with GEP, or simply have information about developments in the gig economy in Europe you think we should be aware of, get in touch.

Contact project co-ordinator Ben Wray at [email protected] or send a direct message to the Twitter @project_gig.

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The Gig Economy Project is a Brave New Europe production. If you want to help GEP expand our work, visit BraveNewEurope.com to make a donation.

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