Beyond the Spanish Riders’ Law

Employee status for Spanish gig economy couriers is just the beginning, workers need democratic control of oppressive algorithms, writes Edward Anderson

June 3, 2021 · 5 min read
Glovo drivers waiting for work in Valencia. Credit: FaceMePLS

RidersXDerechos, a national collective of delivery drivers in Spain, began 2021 with another victory for workers’ rights. 748 riders were declared ‘falsos autonomos’ (bogusly self-employed) by a Barcelona court and, unless Deliveroo makes a successful appeal, they will be made to pay the €1.3 million in social security payments previously withheld from drivers.

While this result was a welcome victory, the RidersXDerechos collective is well acquainted with success. ‘We are 41-2 [in court rulings]. Results like this aren’t a surprise, it is what we expect,’ commented Felipe Corredor, member of the collective and former Deliveroo courier. The battle through the courts has been an arduous process. Since 2017, it is estimated that the big four of Deliveroo, Uber, Amazon and Glovo have avoided over €25 million in social security payments through the use of over 18,000 bogus ‘autonomos’.

The victory for these Deliveroo couriers is now being rolled out to the masses. On May 11th 2021, the Spanish government approved legislation known as ‘the Riders’ Law’ which gives delivery platforms 90 days to convert their staff from self-employed to employees. For the RidersXDerechos collective, the legislation does not go far enough. As Felipe puts it, ‘this [Riders’ Law] is not a good name because this is not [just] about riders, this is about the future of work via platforms. Riders, cleaners, teachers. We are pushing for a complete law.’

Algorithmic control

The RidersXDerechos collective are clear that proper employment status is just the beginning. They want public access to the opaque algorithms that dictate their working lives. Speaking of his own experience at Deliveroo, Felipe said ‘It’s a very dark form of psychological control and obedience because people don’t know what the algorithm wants. We do whatever [it] wants and still people lose hours without knowing [why].’

For Felipe, without full access to the workings of these apps, it is impossible to hold employers to account. ‘The part that controls the worker should be public. It needs to be transparent how they punish the workers. Giving more hours, fewer hours. Without that information, they can do whatever they want which is what is happening right now.’ Fortunately, the new legislation will also force gig economy employers to open up their apps and explain to drivers what variables are used to rank their performance.

In many senses, this is a very timely ruling. As Spain and other European countries struggle to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, the outlook for workers across borders is bleak. Spanish national statistics have youth unemployment at 39.5% for the first quarter of 2021. In this context, many are forced to turn to low-quality work out of a sheer lack of alternatives. For Felipe, there are obvious similarities to bygone eras. ‘Waiting in front of the factory to work and then [it’s] bye-bye, maybe I call you tomorrow, maybe not. [Today] there are a lot of workers waiting in front of McDonald’s, hoping for some food to take-away. This is not the future of work, this is the past and we should not allow it.’

Capital flight

The Spanish ruling will hopefully set a precedent internationally. The struggle for workers’ rights in Spain is not confined to the borders of one nation. Deliveroo operate internationally and, as such, worker organising must look to do so. Deliveroo couriers in the UK recently took strike action over pay, safety protections and basic workers’ rights. Brazilian couriers have also been making headlines in their strides to develop a co-operative alternative to exploitative employers. Debbie Berendsen was also successful in the Danish Court of Appeals in February 2021. Momentum is building.

And yet, the fact remains that many of these apps have the financial clout to continue their aggressive expansion wherever they can benefit from labour exploitation. Despite having never turned a profit, Deliveroo secured funding worth around £7.6 billion at their disastrous IPO in London earlier this year. Amazon and Goldman Sachs feature amongst their biggest shareholders.

While employment law lags behind the reality of labour exploitation on the ground, unions must double down on the fight at home and abroad. Ultimately RidersxDerechos in Spain and the IWGB in London face the same fight. It is only through synchronised international struggles that labour can contend with the power of international capital.

With Glovo co-founder may claim that ‘it seems people want three jobs’ and workers queuing up outside food outlets for a scrap of work, it is certainly true, as Felipe pertained, that the future of work currently looks a lot like the past. Yet an alternative future of unionised, democratic workplaces is also out there and the Riders X Derechos campaign is just the beginning.

Edward Anderson is a writer based in Madrid.

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