Carlos Díaz and Lucía Aliagas – Spain’s Glovo: Exploitive capitalism with an algorithm

Carlos Díaz and Lucía Aliagas from trade union CCOO Catalunya takes a look at Spain’s biggest food delivery company, Glovo, arguing that the company has a mission of “pure economic extraction” and is willing to confront the state through direct insubordination to achieve its aims. If they win, the impact on the working class as a whole will be dramatic.

This article was first published in We re-publish it with the permission of the authors.

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It’s Saturday 25 May 2019, we are in Barcelona, it’s probably already starting to get hot in the city. The 22-year-old Nepalese Pujan Koirala is killed in an accident by a municipal rubbish truck. The incident took place at the junction of Balmes and Gran Via streets, in the heart of Barcelona. The boy was carrying a backpack from the company Glovo on his back and was working with an account rented to another colleague. He was not even registered in the delivery company’s records, nor in any social security system. Pujan, in the eyes of our socio-labour system, did not exist. The company offers the family a total compensation of 23,000 euros.

Pujan’s accident will not be recorded as an accident at work, nor will Glovo’s compliance with the Law on Prevention of Occupational Risks be investigated. Pujan, in fact, is not entitled to any rights, he is not even self-employed, although with his bicycle races he has contributed to the profit of a company that today is valued at more than 1 billion euros.

Days later, some riders rally in front of Glovo’s headquarters, burn some of the company’s iconic yellow backpacks and call for justice. Glovo condemns the violence of the demonstration.

Now, as in the movies, it’s time for a flashback: we go back to the spring of 2015. A company that presents itself as innovative, technological and that comes to revolutionise the world of delivery lands in Barcelona: in a few minutes you have your order at home. It could be food from your favourite restaurant, a product from a pharmacy or any other product from your favourite shop. All delivered straight to your door. It’s called Glovo.

What happened between that night in 2019 and that spring in 2015, how did an initiative that presents itself as an innovator and facilitator of everyday solutions end up connecting with such a dramatic event?

The answer is the following: Glovo came to pose a business of pure economic extraction, with little or no will to build a stable social project. It had not come to generate employment. It made it very clear from the beginning: our delivery drivers will be self-employed. And they have acted accordingly. In the face of everything and everyone. In the face of the very material reality, in fact, which tells us that the people who deliver for this company, conditioned to the point of having their working hours and time slots limited, permanently geolocated and subjected to spontaneous facial examinations and constant qualifications, are, in reality, employed workers, and should be protected by all the rights that derive from this condition and under the application of the Workers’ Statute and the appropriate sectoral Collective Bargaining Agreement.

This has been the understanding of the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate on many occasions. This has also been understood by our Supreme Court. However, Glovo’s attitude is defiant to the end. So much so that the startup has already announced that its delivery drivers will continue to be self-employed despite the entry into force, on 12 August, of Royal Decree Law 9/2021, by virtue of which, through a reform of the Workers’ Statute, the employment status of this group is presumed, although as we have already said, with the previous regulations, the courts themselves had determined the status of these people as workers.

There is a very important difference between the classic offensives of the traditional employers’ organisations and the strategy of this company: while the former proposed, through parliamentary mechanisms, successive liberal reforms of our social system and labour relations, Glovo is directly insubordinating itself against this system.

Glovo and other companies such as Deliveroo are challenging the very concept of labour, offering no value to work and completely devaluing its role. Their strategy is clear: if we do not recognise collective labour, we will save costs in social security, occupational health, wages, and tiresome union negotiations. We will only have to worry about one thing: controlling the margins between the cost of delivery and the price of the service. And marketing, yes, a lot of marketing.

The consequence of this business logic is frankly dramatic. Thousands of riders are travelling around the city in exchange for a few euros per kilometre, subjected to working days without the minimum legal breaks established by the Workers’ Statute. Even if the sun shines in the middle of a heatwave, even if it rains or there is a snowstorm, they go out to deliver without any labour rights or protection. The self-employment contracts that the company makes its delivery drivers sign stipulate that temporary incapacity and maternity leave may lead to the termination of the relationship. There are even cases of sexual harassment that are not addressed and recognised as such by the companies, as they do not apply any occupational health policy or have any protocols in this area. Finally, these situations are suffered by delivery workers without any support.

Moreover, all these people have to assume the cost of their own contributions, and do not pay contributions for the contingencies for which any employee would pay contributions, as they are formally integrated in the Special Regime for Self-Employed Workers. They do not contribute, for example, for unemployment. Obviously, they do not have the right to paid holidays either, nor does the company assume the obligation to justify the dismissal of the delivery driver or to compensate him with 33 days’ salary per year of service in the event of unjustified dismissal, as would be the case for any other worker. They make it much simpler, as easy as disconnecting the delivery person from the platform and that’s it.

On the other hand, the simulated status of self-employed workers makes trade union penetration in the sector difficult. They cannot form a Works Council or legally call a strike, which is a fundamental right of any working person under Article 28 of the Constitution. To put the icing on the cake, these companies are known for developing anti-union policies towards workers who, despite the immense difficulties arising from their own legal status, try to organise: from threats for trying to contact trade union organisations to spying.

Of course, Glovo does not assume any responsibility for occupational risk prevention either, since it understands that the delivery drivers are, in themselves, employers responsible for their own safety, so it does not feel obliged to observe the Law on Occupational Risk Prevention.

It happens, moreover, that the rot tends to spread like oil stains spread on the tablecloth. This is the problem and the irresponsibility of promoting precariousness and the “every man for himself” model to such savage extremes. For a long time now, it has been observed how some individuals, taking advantage of the flexibility offered by the company to jump on the delivery bandwagon and quickly create operational accounts, are making a killing by re-renting accounts. In other words: riders subcontracting riders. This was, in fact, the case with Pujan.

Glovo, in its staunch defence of uncompromising work, has in fact provided the ideal breeding ground for the creation of a field of reciprocal exploitation. Exploitation among the exploited. And he is not interested in finding out too much, because every kilometre, whoever runs it, rings in the piggy bank.

In short: the company that presented itself to the world in the spring of 2015 as the innovative, technology-based Catalan start-up brought with it, hand in hand, a production model that devalues labour, more typical of the 19th century than of our times.

The star argument of these platform companies to continue acting with total impunity is the defence of their workers as true self-employed: but how can we explain the situation of dependence and subordination of the riders towards Glovo, Ubereats or Deliveroo without recognising their labour status? Even the most vocal defenders of this model have, in recent weeks, fallen into the mental framework presented by the so-called Rider Law: the moment Deliveroo threatens to leave Spain and there is talk of “workers becoming unemployed” or “job destruction”, it is implicitly assumed that they were not acting as freelancers or entrepreneurs, but as real employees.

If one takes a closer look at the composition of the delivery workers, one can see that these companies take advantage of the vulnerable situation of certain sectors of society, from which they recruit the vast majority of their delivery staff. It is no coincidence that the majority of riders are young people, migrants or women, three sectors that are extremely precarious and therefore potentially prone to exploitative labour practices. The characteristic instability of the riders’ activity makes it impossible to build stable life projects, always under the Damocles sword of uncertainty. Some of the migrants who work as riders are also in an irregular situation, which intensifies their dependence on the income they obtain from these platforms, which does not even challenge them as interlocutors.

This model is a threat to the working class as a whole. Its willingness to expand into other sectors of activity, such as health and education, is already a reality. The process is popularly known as uberisation and implies a full-scale assault on our understanding of work and its social function.

Fortunately, however, there are many of us who are clear that work plays a central role in people’s lives. We cannot allow any startup to sabotage one of the most fundamental values of any social state. Work is a factor in social integration and in sustaining life and family projects, as well as being crucial in the system of provision for multiple contingencies and old age. We must defend it with dignity, rights and protection. This is where we must stand firm.

To this end, Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) has filed two complaints against Glovo with the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate of the Province of Barcelona. One defends the labour rights of its riders, the other denounces the illegal assignment of some riders put at Glovo’s disposal by third party companies. The commitment to defend labour as a central social value in people’s lives is maintained.

In law schools it is customary to explain something: labour law is the product of hard social struggles. Struggles that germinate in a workers’ movement that forces the public authorities to legislate with the aim of protecting the weaker party in the relationship between the employer and the worker. Technically speaking, we call this the protective function of labour law, and it is high time that this function embraced the people who work in the delivery of goods via platforms.

During this last pandemic year, social inequalities have worsened and the poverty rate has increased in developed countries, including Spain. While this was happening, at the same time, the main big tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Google have doubled their profits with the digital boom. The pandemic has accelerated digital progress and with it the irruption of practices that are dressed up as modernity, as we have seen with the case of the riders. Digitalisation cannot become a factor of precariousness; it must serve, in any case, as a tool for emancipation. It must make it easier to manage the problems and needs of everyday life.

The management of Glovo, Deliveroo, Uber Eats and others, in an exercise of respect and social responsibility, must understand that their model of supposed technological innovation cannot be based on the extreme depreciation of labour, with the sole aim of increasing their profit margins. In reality, this does not imply any evolution whatsoever, but rather an irreparable deep charge on the waterline of the social state that neither ours nor any other people can afford.

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