Laura Carrer and Luca Quagliato speak to the Gig Economy Project about their upcoming film on the reality of being a rider in the city (interview available as a podcast and in text form)
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.
WHAT is it really like to be a rider in the city? Laura Carrer, freelance journalist on tech and its implications for digital and human rights, and Luca Quagliato, freelance video maker and photographer who previously worked as a rider, explore this theme in an upcoming documentary, which will include footage of riders explaining their reality across Europe and an animation depicting the experience of being a rider.
The film will be released early next year on IRPI Media, an Italian investigation news room which has published a series of investigations on platform work in Italy in its ‘Life is a Game’ series.
In this podcast, Ben Wray, co-ordinator of the Gig Economy Project, met with the two Milanese in Berlin, one of five European cities where they have been filming riders.
01:08: Why food delivery?
04:58: The reality of food delivery in Italy
12:08: What they learnt from speaking to riders all across Europe
16:22: The animation part of the documentary, gamification and the role of riders in the city
25:57: How can people see the documentary?
The Gig Economy Project: What made you interested in the topic of food delivery?
AN ABBREVIATED TEXT VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW IS AVAILABLE BELOW
The Gig Economy Project: What made you interested in the topic of food delivery?
Laura Carrer: I was interested in the topic because I think that in the journalistic panorama of Italy, there aren’t so many journalists that talk about this big topic in Europe. Also, in Italy we read about riders in a polarised way, so they are the best people or they are the worst people, they earn a lot, or they are the new poor and exploited people. So we want to tell people that riders have a human side because they are human and that they are involved in a market that is mostly unknown to most people. We started to search for information about this topic, also using the information that a lot of trade unions and collectives in Italy gave us. And we started to think about explaining this topic to people using both journalism and our film.
Luca Quagliato: I was involved in this topic first as a worker, because I was a rider back in 2015 and it was actually the beginning of gig economy stuff like food delivery in Milan. I was working as a photographer too, but as a freelance it wasn’t so easy at that time. So I was in need of having a job, but I was also an activist and was interested in learning more and I thought at that time that working for the platform was the best option to know more, extract some data and start to realise something about this job. After some years I was in trouble again with my job, so I started again as a rider in 2020 during the pandemic and at that time, I realised that I wanted to make a documentary movie about it. So I got in touch with Laura, she was working on this topic and we started thinking about it and we finally came up with this idea of the ‘Life is a Game’ project. Actually, the first idea was about the gamification of gig work. That was the beginning.
GEP: Let’s talk about food delivery in Italy. Laura, we translated one of your articles from Italian into English and published it on the Gig Economy Project. The article is about a trial in Milan involving Uber and two other companies. Can you tell us a bit about that and what that trial showed you about the reality of this sector?
LC: The first thing to say is that in Italy, most of the riders are freelance, so they don’t have a real contract like in other cities of Europe. The companies are more able to exploit them. And a lot of the riders are also migrants, so they are most of the time undocumented. And so they are really vulnerable to this situation.
This trial in Milan was a real first step in order to understand how the platforms exploit the riders, also using other, small, intermediate companies. And they found out that thousands of riders in Italy, but mostly in Milan, were exploited by Uber without contracts and without any health insurance or any kind of protection in doing this work.
Maybe now the riders are more visible in a way, but they still are invisible also because a lot of people think about them like they are simply doing work and they don’t question it. We found out that our reality in Milan and in Italy in general is, I think, the worst because they are really without any kind of protection in doing their work.
There are trade unions that are doing some kind of work with them, but they are not able to really understand their situation. And I think that there is a real good work that collectives and movements are doing with them in order to make them understand things that they don’t know related to the job or to the labour market in Italy. Because as I said, they are mostly migrants, so they don’t know almost anything about our labour market.
This is a starting point and we hope that this movie and this investigative journalism can discover new things and maybe make people discuss this issue more.
GEP: My understanding is that the trade unions have been getting more active in this sector in Italy in the last couple of years. Do you think there’s potential for things to improve, or are you quite pessimistic about the situation?
LQ: As a former rider I touched with my hands exactly what was happening in the street, what the people were thinking. For the majority of the riders there’s a kind of unconsciousness about workers’ rights. Historically, in the past 30 years, Italy was going down and down and down with rights related to working conditions. So now we have got used to it.
I think the riders are a new generation of workers who still don’t know that things like health insurance and pension are really important. A lot of riders really aren’t convinced that trade unions can help them, also because in Italy we have a history of trade unions that sometimes were too close to the employers, and this put the union far from the workers. But now, workers’ collectives are starting to make this connections to the unions. So in coming years I think we are going to see the development of unions who can understand this sector better. Also, to understand that riders want the freedom to choose, to work in the evening and on a Sunday, but you need to put some regulatory limits on that.
This is what the unions need to understand: to listen to the riders and put limits on the exploitation of this work, because the companies just look for the profit.
GEP: For the documentary, you have spoken to riders in five different cities – Milan, Barcelona, Brussels, Athens and now Berlin. What are the stories you have heard and are they different from city to city?
LQ: I saw similarities, because the job is more or less the same, and you have similarities in their daily routine, for example. There are some key topics which came through. One is the loneliness of the riders. They feel lonely a lot of the time. This is something that newspapers and the media doesn’t talk about too much; the feeling of a person riding in the streets, maybe during the night, during the pandemic in the worst weather condition, and they stay out waiting for an order. So loneliness is common with the riders.
Another thing is the need for dignity. A lot of times the riders ask to be treated as humans. They ask to us: they say ‘I want to send this message to the people’. It’s bad of course because they feel they are not treated well by the clients and also by other workers and other users of the street: cars, police, etc. So they feel they do this job and don’t have the dignity they deserve. Even the most protected riders, who have a contract and these things, they feel bad when the client doesn’t say ‘hello’, for example. When you work eight hours a day and no one says hello, you feel like a machine, and they want to be human.
LC: What I saw was that a lot of riders don’t want a real contract because they don’t want to have a boss. They are okay with their conditions, they can work alone, they can work in groups without a boss, they are okay with that. But they do ask for health insurance and more general security in the job. Also, they are conscious in some way about the technology and the impact this technology has on the work and on their conditions, but they don’t know how this technology works. The algorithm and the black box entity that they have with them is something strange and they realise it is not so positive but they don’t know how to figure it out.
GEP: The animation part of your documentary – why did you decide to do that and how does it fit in to the story you are telling?
LQ: We realised in the first meetings for the movie that there isn’t just one story for a rider. It was impossible to fit enough riders into a short movie to tell this story of how technology can influence your psychology and daily life. We decided to use a lot of data which came from years of observation and talking with riders. Stories circulate, some are true some are false, and we choose the stories that came up often.
So we decided to make up this fiction part, with a fake rider named Emma, but this fiction is based on true fact. I think that if a rider sees this part of the movie, everyone that has done this job will be able to recognise particular things that happened to them. So we took a lot of little stuff, chit-chat outside a restaurant for example, and we just condensed these things into one rider’s life.
LC: And we also try to explain to people how much the technology impacts on the job, how it is to work with an app which is consequently beeping, the gamification side of this work, which is the use of some things you see in a game, like ‘go faster and we have a bonus for you’, ‘if you deliver a lot of orders or do a lot of kilometres you get a prize’. This is something very difficult to understand when you interview a rider, because a lot of them are not so conscious of this.
LQ: It’s also about the user interface of the application. The design of this app is like a video game. I have been near designers a lot in my life and I speak a lot with them and we realised that actually the app uses some particular effects of graphic design which pushes you to do some action. Like the sounds that the app uses, stupid emoticons, a map which reminds you of a map on a video game like GTA. And I think with this it’s possible that a person doesn’t realise they are working.
LC: When I ask riders, ‘do you think that this job is like a game?’ Someone said to me: ‘Yes, but some people have died or have been really badly injured doing this job’. So this is a game, but also this is not a game, because the impact on their life is something very serious and very real.
GEP: I found it interesting that you ask the riders what their role is in the city. How do they understand themselves in the urban setting?
LC: They all answer this question in a very different way, because I think it’s a very personal question. Some of them see themselves as a rider like a bike messenger or someone that moves in the city to give a service but also to give a smile to people and to share some words with people who can’t go outside of their home. So they see themselves in a positive way.
Others are not so optimistic, they see themselves in a very bad way because they feel like they are invisible to everyone in the city. One rider told us that his son looked at him one day and said: ‘You are working for Uber Eats?’ And he said: ‘Yes, do you know this company?’ And the son responded, ‘yes, it’s the sponsor of my favourite football team.’ So it was interesting because you have the perception and interpretation of a child who doesn’t know anything about the platforms, but these children in the city they see the riders, and maybe they are also their parents, but they don’t connect that to the platforms. The platforms are involved in football, they deliver food charity, so there is no boundaries because they are really everywhere in most of the cities we visited.
GEP: When is the documentary coming out and how can people access it?
LQ: We have to work hard on the editing, because we have hours of interviews, so three months of editing minimum. And then there will be the animation part, which we have started now, but it is hard work, because we are a really small independent crew of five people in total. So I think we can release in February 2023, and we are going to publish the documentary online, because we have the partnership with IRPI Media.
One thing that we want to do, we think this will be the most important part, is to make public screenings in the cities that we have visited and other cities. To stimulate some debate and to have some experts or some trade unionists or some riders to have a public moment of discussion about it.
GEP: Do you have a name yet?
LQ: No, the project title for the journalism is ‘Life is a Game’, but the title of the movie…it needs a lot of beer, actually!
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