Ben Wray – Can the Basque Country Turn the Tide on Uberisation?

Momentum was building against ‘fake self-employment’ in the Basque Country before the Pandemic hit. Ben Wray examines whether the Covid-19 crisis will see Uberisation become more entrenched in ‘Euskal Herria’, or lead to strong Basque worker traditions once again flourishing.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust

Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here:

ImagePicture by ‘InakiLarra’ – General strike in Vitoria-Gasteiz on 30 January of this year

The Basque Country in northern Spain has been known for its strong worker traditions. In the Mondragon Corporation, it has the largest and most-well known worker co-operative in the world. Co-operatives as a whole still today play a significant role in the Basque economy. The Basque trade unions have been known for their militancy, including leading resistance to Franco during the years of the dictatorship. Perhaps the most recognised international symbol of this history is ‘La Pasionaria’, Dolores Ibárruri, the communist fighter during the Spanish Civil War of Basque origin, memorialised in Glasgow with a statue reading “better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees”.

The Basque traditions of co-operativism and unionism now face one of their greatest challenges. The 2008 financial crash and subsequent Eurozone crisis hit the Basque Country hard, and now an even bigger crisis in the wake of Covid-19 has arrived.

While ‘Euskal Herria’ recovered better than Spain as a whole, it has seen a significant rise in precarious work. For instance, the number of workers with temporary contracts has risen since 2013 to one in four workers, 11 per cent higher than the EU average.

Mikel “Betelu” Alvarez, co-ordinator of the Basque union LAB’s new Social section, established two and a half years ago specifically to organise workers in the ‘gig economy’, agrees that while the situation remains better than other parts of Spain, “precariousness and poverty” are on the rise.

The so-called ‘collaborative economy’ is penetrating our country,” he says.

A symbol of the arrival of platforms to the Basque Country is the establishment of the first Amazon warehouse in Bilbao, the Basque Country’s largest city, in the Vizcaya region.

It should be remembered that this region was one of the most industrialised in the country (it was once called the economic engine of the Basque Country) and is currently one of the hardest hit by the crisis and precariousness,” Betelu, who is also a member of ‘Eragin‘, an assembly of young precarious workers in Bilbao, says.

Platforms may not have sunk their teeth into the Basque economy to the extent they have elsewhere in Spain, but the trend towards Uberisation is clear.

Glovo Capitalism

One of the platforms to lay down roots is Glovo, a Spanish firm launched in 2015 as an on-demand courier app which mainly delivers food but aims to be a multi-functional ‘lifestyle service’ to provide “more free time to our users”.

Those who work for Glovo complain of having significantly less time, as the algorithm dominates not just their paid-working lives, but much else besides.

In an undercover investigation for Basque magazine Argia, Paul Iano found that being a Glovo rider involved many hours of non-paid work waiting between service deliveries, as workers are paid per delivery. There are also substantial costs involved in bike repair, which took his pay down to €5.19 per hour, significantly below the minimum wage.

Then there are other forms of control. The “Excellence Scores” limit work to 10-25 hours per week if you only score “medium” in service delivery, adding pressure on riders to take risks to deliver quickly. The financial and health security of riders is at “the whims of the algorithm”.

Iano interviewed a number of other riders to understand why they did this work.

The best answer I was given was a simple, ‘there is nothing else,’” he found. “A huge proportion of riders for Glovo are immigrants who have spent as much as three years without a steady job beforehand. A large proportion of this group cannot work legally in the country and are using other people’s profiles and contract worker papers, taking advantage of the lax oversight on the part of Glovo to find a chance to work.”

Glovo, then, takes advantage of the workers with the least rights and who are most easily exploited, and because they are officially “self-employed”, they have few if any obligations to these workers, while the cost of social security payments fall on the shoulder of Glovo riders, further reducing take-home pay.

One Glovo worker who has successfully organised to defend his rights in the Basque Country is Klemen, in Pamplona (Iruña). Glovo arrived in the Navarrese capital in November 2018, and Klemen began to work for the firm in January 2019. With three other Glovo riders, they soon began to organise to “claim our right to be considered as salaried workers and not as self-employed workers”.

We saw that our work activity depended 100 per cent on what the company and its application of the mobile phone dictated: rates, timetables, orders…We could not choose absolutely anything,” Klemen says.

They joined LAB and connected with the Barcelona based movements RidersXRights, pressing the Labour Inspectorate to carry out a study of 120 Glovo riders in Pamplona.

In December they concluded that we are ‘false self-employed’ and they registered us all in the General Regime of the Social Security,” Klemen says. “Now we are waiting for the final resolution.”

In the same month, the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community (BAC) in Vitoria-Gasteiz expressed its “opposition” to gig economy courier companies like Glovo, Deliveroo and UberEats, and called on Labour Inspectorates in Madrid and Vitoria-Gasteiz to end the hiring of “false self-employed” which makes “workers more precarious through fraudulent formulas”. The vote, pushed for by Basque nationalist left party EH Bildu, was supported by every party in the Basque Parliament other than the right-wing PP, which abstained.

In September, there had also been a ruling in Madrid which found that the firing of a Glovo rider to be “unjustified” and determined that Glovo had an “obligation to readmit him and consider him as an employee, having to receive an ordinary contract”. The ruling also found that Glovo had to pay social security contributions worth €12 million on behalf of its riders.

Covid-19 hits

There appeared to be momentum building in Madrid, Vitoria-Gasteiz and Pamplona to push back against ‘Uberisation’, but the Coronavirus crisis has thrown everything into doubt. Spanish unemployment jumped by its highest ever over a one month period in March, as nearly one million people (around five per cent of the workforce) were fired. Unemployment in the Basque regions of the BAC and Navarre combined jumped by over 14,000, a 9.5 per cent rise in unemployment.

The bulk of workers who work in precarious sectors have been fired or forced to accept measures that are against their interests,” Betelu says.

Couriers are one of those groups that have suffered badly, despite being assigned essential service status by the Spanish Government during the Covid-19 crisis.

The company does not provide us with any personal protective equipment: no masks, no gloves, no disinfectant gel, nor any training on what steps to take to avoid the risk of contagion,” Klemen explains.

From the first day we had to go out to the streets to risk our lives and in an extreme situation, and at the same time suffering all kinds of police controls and harassment by all the different police forces asking us for explanations for being on the streets.

The level of orders has fallen a lot and therefore our income has also fallen… although we have to continue to meet all the expenses, including the self-employed tax, because until the resolution of the labour inspection is final we cannot stop paying.”

The Spanish Government has delivered a support scheme to the self-employed which is highly restrictive, only providing financial support for those who can prove they have seen their income fall by 75 per cent below their average. In the BAC, the attempt by PNV, the Basque nationalist led government, to top up self-employed support has been farcical. A €3 million aid package at a maximum of €3,000 each for 171,000 workers, meaning only 0.6 per cent can access it. If every self-employed person applied for the scheme and the money was shared out evenly, they’d receive €16 each.

Unsurprisingly, the website crashed for four hours after it launched due to the scramble of the Basque self-employed to apply. The Basque Government gave its apologies, but those in dire need want action, not words.

Betelu admits it has been “extremely difficult” for unions to organise in response to this new situation so far, but that they have been doing the necessary work of preparing political demands, co-ordinating networks of activists and developing a virtual consultation platform with members called “Bizilan”.

“I am sure that all this work will be key in the future and more so in the so-called ‘Gig economy’, where communication through the network takes on special relevance.”

Forward to Basque technological sovereignty’?

Covid-19 is not just penury for Basque workers. The country’s large number of small businesses, are also threatened with their very survival. One theory of the crisis is it will accelerate existing trends towards the domination of economies by the data giants like Glovo and Amazon, meaning far from Uberisation being pushed back in the Basque Country as appeared to be the direction of travel in December, it could accelerate.

Forewarning a coming economic crisis in February, Iano wrote in Argia that “the companies that survive will be able to even further consolidate their grip on the infrastructure of our economy and our lives”.

Will the likes of Glovo dominate? In the last week alone, the company has launched itself in five more Romanian cities, and has extended its partnership with French supermarket giant Carrefour to Cepsa petrol stations. It hit the $1 billion ‘unicorn’ valuation in December, but like other platform models, the company is built on huge financial risk – it seeks to garner a monopoly position before achieving profitability, but if service-use declines that strategy could collapse.

The other threat to Glovo, Amazon and the other platform giants is a new politics emerging. Could the Basque Country decide in the wake of this crisis to draw on its traditions of co-operativism and shake off years of neoliberal governance?

Dr Igor Calzada, currently researcher at the University of Oxford and formerly employed at the Mondragon Corporation, has argued in wake of the crisis that an alternative to a platform capitalist future for Euskal Herria is “to start listening to voices and building projects from the political left and in particular by proposing communal governance around data transformation.”

He adds: “Technological sovereignty should raise a new economic policy in the Basque Country on digital data”.

To make that a reality, it will surely have to be driven forward by a reinvigorated workers’ movement. Betelu believes the Basque trade union model of organising, fundamentally different from the big Spanish unions, mean it is better set-up for class struggle.

The majority unions of the Spanish state (CCOO and UGT) bet on a model of agreement and negotiation with the state and the employers, [whereas] the majority of the trade unions in the Basque Country (made up of the LAB, ELA and other smaller unions) are committed to countervailing trade unionism.

This means not participating in the frameworks of social dialogue or bowing to the demands of the employers.”

For the Basque working class to face the coming crisis with strength and unity, it will need to draw on all of the best fighting traditions of its history.

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