Deliverance Milano: The “union-on-demand” for riders

As riders’ strike in Milan this week, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator Ben Wray finds that Deliverance Milano, a grassroots collective launched eight years ago, remains in the thick of the struggle.

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A riders’ strike in Milan in 2020 (Picture from Deliverance Milano Instagram)

YOU don’t have to spend much time with Angelo Avelli to know that he is very well connected among Milan’s community of riders. Over the course of our conversation, at a café picked at random, we are interrupted twice by food delivery couriers who have spotted Avelli and want to talk to him.

Avelli is one of the key activists in Deliverance Milano, a grassroots group of riders and activists formed in 2016. Deliverance Milano was the first to organise a riders’ strike in Milan in 2017. Seven years later, it is still going strong. 

As this article goes to publication, a week-long Glovo strike ha entered its third day. A month ago, Deliveroo and Glovo riders took strike action over a weekend. Deliverance Milano has been in the thick of it with all of these disputes. 

Activist longevity is something that is very difficult in food delivery due to the rapid turnover of riders. Groups tend to pop-up and shutdown over a very short lifespan, sometimes less than a year. How has Deliverance Milano managed to break the mould?

Avelli, who is responsible for the group’s communications, says they have been able to sustain themselves due to a model of organising that is adaptable to the changing needs of the riders.

“We are like a union-on-demand,” he explains. “Because we have been working on this fight for a long time, we are now recognised by the workers for our activity. When they are not happy with something, they call us.

“We offer legal assistance for free, and a communication and information service. We also have a big community of workers from all the platforms on Facebook, where we can share information. We give news about riders’ accidents. So we are like a microphone for the riders.”

READ MORE – The urban dimension in food delivery struggle: The story of the Riders Union Bologna

This ability to understand how and when to intervene, built up from years of experience, is a key tool in successful rider organising, Paolo Borghi, a researcher of platform worker movements at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, tells the Gig Economy Project.

“Deliverance Milano succeeded because it understood that the riders’ struggle goes in waves,” Borghi says. “With riders you have to restart again every six months. The waves of protest are short. But Deliverance Milano is always present when workers need something.”

Deliverance Milano is a child of the San Precario movement, which organised May Day parades for precarious workers in the 2000s, “in a period when these workers were totally outside the plans of mainstream trade unions,” says Borghi.

“San Precario and Deliverance Milano have given a visibility and shaped the imaginary of precarious workers.”

The changing face of food delivery in Milan

Having your finger on the pulse is only possible if you know the riders, and Avelli, who previously worked as a Just Eat rider and now works part-time in a shop, is in contact with all of the rider communities in the north Italian city. He says the demographics have changed a lot.

“When we started, the majority of riders were Italian, young and white. There were very few migrant riders. Then the platforms began to change many things about their operations. Now about 90% are migrants. 

“There’s a mix of countries but the two big groups are African, especially Nigerian and sub-Saharan, and south-east Asian; Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian.

“Many migrants come here with no expectation of a formal job, because they come from a situation where the informal job is the rule, not the exception. At the start, these workers were not interested in claiming their rights, just to work.”

That attitude has changed as working conditions have consistently worsened. Avelli says that pay is now down to under €4 per delivery, and the strike in September was due to trips going down as low as €3 per delivery. That strike was led by a group of south-east Asian riders, who went to CGIL, Italy’s largest union, and Deliverance Milano to ask for their support. 

READ MORE: ‘Life is a game’: Laura Carrer and Luca Quagliato discuss making a film on being a rider in the city

The Italian unions have become actively engaged in the food delivery sector over the last few years. In September, CGIL won an important court victory in Milan which revoked the sacking of 4,000 Uber Eats riders and required the platform to negotiate a collective redundancy. Uber Eats announced its exit from the Italian market in June.

“You could say there is a division of labour,” Borghi says. “Unions are used to operating in institutional contexts, whereas the grassroots collectives are comfortable organising on the street.”

While tensions have and do exist between these unions and grassroots collectives like Deliverance Milano, they have developed ways of collaborating together effectively.

Luca Quagliato, a Milanese former rider who recently co-directed an award-winning documentary on food delivery in Europe, called ‘Life Is A Game’, says that while the unions have a crucial role to play, there is still things that they struggle with that Deliverance Milano can do better.

“The unions are member-organisations and it is much easier to recruit members when the workers are employees, like at Just Eat,” he says. “But with the rest of the platforms, they are changing all the time, with new methods and usually hiring freelancers. It’s Deliverance Milano which will be the first to know how riders are responding to this.”

Fake agreements and Meloni’s Government

Deliverance Milano’s activity is not confined to the local level. They have joined forces with grassroots collectives in Bologna, Turin and elsewhere to lobby the Italian Government for rights for riders at the national level. In the debate over whether riders are employees or self-employed, Avelli couldn’t be clearer about where Deliverance Milano stand.

“The platforms want to make workers believe that if you are freelance you are free, if you are freelance you can make more money – but it’s bullshit,” he says.

In 2019, after a wave of strikes in various Italian cities which caught the attention of the press, Deliverance Milano and other groups were invited to meet the labour minister at the time to discuss plans for legislation. A negotiating table was established and the riders’ collectives presented detailed proposals. 

The new law, Legislative Decree n. 101/2019, provided insurance to all riders, and workers who earned over €5,000 per year on the platforms got the full rights of a dependent worker. But there was a catch. The platforms were given one year to come to a collective agreement with the unions, which if agreed would supersede the law. 

Just as the negotiations were coming to an end, the platforms – which came together in an association called AssoDelivery – presented an agreement with hard-right wing union UGL. The agreement committed the platforms to almost nothing. 

“Just as they announced the fake agreement with UGL, they cut the riders’ pay,” Avelli says. “In response, there was the first big demonstration of riders in Milan and five days’ of strikes. It was a national strike organised alongside UGL. There were strikes in 20 cities.”

Two Italian courts have since found that the AssoDelivery-UGL agreement is not legal, but it still remains in place. However, the agreement expires on 3 November. It’s not clear what will happen at that point, but with a far-right government now in place, Avelli does not expect anything good to come from Rome, with the Labour Minister having close links to the UGL.

“If [prime minister] Georgia Meloni does something on platform work it will be to take the situation backwards,” he says.

READ MORE: EU member-states agree Platform Work Directive position

More positively, Just Eat, which did not join AssoDelivery, negotiated a collective agreement with a coalition of unions and grassroots collectives known as ‘Riders for Rights’ in 2020. That agreement remains in place and Avelli says the per hour pay of Just Eat riders is substantially higher than at Deliveroo and Glovo, it’s two main rivals, but problems remain.

“The company started to employ the workers with only a part-time offer,” he says. “Most of the workers expect 30 or 40 hours. It’s okay to have part-time contracts for some workers, like students, but for most it’s not enough money, because they can’t work with the other platforms as well as Just Eat. 

“We have tried to speak to the unions about this problem but they are not interested. We are considering a campaign against Just Eat’s abuse of the part-time contract, because there’s too many riders on just 10 hours a week.”

Deliverance Milano also has an eye on the EU Platform Work Directive. Under Meloni’s government, Italy has switched camps on the Council of the EU, from being in favour of a Directive with strong employment rights for platform workers to joining with France and other states in favour of passing a platform-friendly Directive. The current state of the ‘trilogue’ negotiations between the Parliament and the Council suggest Meloni’s side appears more likely to win out.

If Brussels is not going to provide a gig economy game-changer, who will? Avelli still has faith that the workers themselves can do it.

“What it would take to rebalance the power in this sector would be to strike together and across all of the big cities in Italy,” he says. “If you could stop it everywhere for a weekend the platforms would be in trouble, because they are not profitable, they are very fragile. 

“If you resist, if you tell a different story from the company, I think you can change this system.”

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