A ruling by a court in Bologna has undermined platforms’ claims to impartial algorithms and autonomous contractors.
Work under capitalism is a story of employers’ attempts to control labour, to guarantee and enhance profitability. A ‘disciplined’ labour force is induced to work more productively for longer.
Today there are forces which pretend to push in a different direction, presenting workers within the digital market economy as free and autonomous from hierarchical structures of control. But are they really?
According to a recent ruling by the Court of Bologna against Deliveroo, one of the biggest food-delivery platforms, in a case brought by three unions, its riders are far from being free or even autonomous workers. The court found it to be the ‘conscious choice’ of management to subordinate riders through a ‘discriminatory’ reputational system.
The Italian court considered the ‘Frank’ algorithm, developed by Deliveroo to allocate orders, as allowing the exercise of control at the expense of workers’ social rights. This is ‘an epochal turning point in the conquest of workers’ and trade union rights and freedoms in the digital world,’ Tania Sacchetti, confederal secretary of the CGIL trade union confederation, commented.
The court affirmed that ‘when it wants, the platform can take off the blindfold that makes it “blind” or “unconscious” with respect to the reasons for the rider’s failure to perform work’. Thus, by considering the anti-discrimination regime to be applicable, it recognised the right of riders not to be discriminated against in access to work—regardless of the definition of their relationship—as also the right of trade unions to seek protection on their behalf.
As is often true of situations such as this, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution and co-ordinating among different strategies, actions and levels is probably the way for workers and their union representatives to respond to the perverse outcomes produced by the digital economy. The Deliveroo case bears this out.
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The case is one of many which trade unions within the CGIL confederation have opened against international food-delivery platforms, also including Glovo and Uber Eats. Litigation is one of the strategies workers in the Italian sector have been pursuing—as in other countries—and quite successfully too.
Systematic recourse to the courts by established trade unions has worked in synergy with the informal workers’ unions, such as Riders’ Union Bologna and its peers in other Italian cities. The traditional unions use the leverage of their established position within the industrial-relations system, while grassroots unions are able to aggregate the voices, experiences and complaints of platform couriers on the ground.
Another aspect of the Italian story has been the favourable attention from the media and public opinion to the ‘riders’ issue’ over the past three years, as a result of massive street mobilisations and online campaigns by the workers since autumn 2017. Taking to the streets and virtual spaces, food-delivery riders have made their unsafe and unstable working conditions visible, quickly becoming the epitome of precarious workers in Italy.
Given this visibility, the government could not shy away. Amid the volatile coalition arrangements of recent years, a concertation table co-ordinated by the Ministry of Labour to ‘solve’ the riders issue took off in 2018 and is still in place, despite a ‘pirate’ agreement crafted between employers and yellow unions.
In other words, riders are making the headlines in Italy. They have drawn the media and public opinion towards their dire situation—as recently when a 50-year-old courier was robbed and violently beaten up by a gang of youngsters in the Naples area (a video went viral and all national media reported the news).
The Bologna ruling puts wind in their sails.
Valeria Pulignano is professor of sociology in the Centre for Sociological Research at KU Leuven (Belgium), where Claudia Marà is a PhD student within the framework of the ERC-funded REsPecTMe project.