Gig Economy Project – When platforms co-opt gig workers to their cause: Understanding Spain’s anti-labour movement of riders

Podcast with José Domingo Roselló of the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT)

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.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Foundation Menschenwürde und Arbeitswelt

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Picture, courtesy of CCOO Servicios

For as long as there has been a labour movement – where workers organise together to challenge their boss – there has also been an anti-labour movement. Bosses organise to weaken and ultimately destroy the power of labour, using an enormous range of tactics to do so. One of the most important tactics is the ability to co-opt sections of the workforce, convincing them that the bosses’ agenda is in their best interest and must be fought for, dividing the workers in two.

That tactic has arrived in the gig economy in Spain, and in a big way. In the battle over rights for food delivery workers (‘riders’), platforms have fostered an important ally among a section of the workforce, who have organised into numerous pro-platform associations. These associations are vociferously opposed to the Spanish Government’s Riders Law, passed last month, which starts from the presumption that all riders for digital labour platforms are employees not self-employed. The Law also gives trade unions access to the platforms’ algorithms.

In opposition to the Riders Law, this movement of pro-platform riders has organised demonstrations in cities across Spain. The ugliest elements of the movement have specifically targeted individual trade union riders and members of the RidersXDerechos movement, including through violent attacks.

Last month, the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) published a report, ’Analysis of the political and social pressure of the distribution platforms’, which was co-authored by riders in the UGT. The report finds that this pro-platform movement has been brought to life by the platform companies themselves to defend their interests, that it is a type of astroturf movement to undermine pro-worker legislation and attack the pro-trade union movement of riders that has developed in recent years in Spain.

To discuss the report, The Gig Economy Project spoke to José Domingo Roselló, an economist at the UGT who was involved in research development on the report. The podcast includes discussion of:

2:09: How did the pro-platform movement of riders emerge and what are its main characteristics?

8:45: Why has this astroturf movement of riders become so important to the food delivery platforms strategy in Spain?

21:22: Why do some riders in Spain support the pro-platform movement?

28:12: The violence against the pro-trade union, pro-workers’ right movement of riders

34:33: Will the Riders Law improve the situation of riders in Spain?


The Gig Economy Project: Where did this movement of pro-platform, pro-self employed riders emerge from?

José Domingo Rosello: We have analysed and we know that this movement – this organisation imposed by the platforms – started as a response to the trade union action among riders. When they started to organise, started to push for their rights through employment tribunals and the Labour Inspectorate started to take action against the platform, as a response by the platforms these pro-platform associations of riders started to act. This was very easy to detect.

The Gig Economy Project: Can you tell us about the main characteristics of these pro-platform associations?

José: These associations are mainly imposed by the platforms themselves. They started to do it in an early phase with the excuse of wanting to be a specific type of self-employed, which in Spain is called ‘TRADE’, which is similar to the labour regime which Emmanuel Macron set-up in France in 2017. A special self-employed supposedly entitled to more rights than the ordinary self-employed, the third labour status. Third because in Spain you have two: you are self-employed or you are employed.

Around this reclamation of this third status they started to form these associations, in principle to counter-act our testimonies in court. They would speak in the court and say that they are okay with the way in which the work is conducted on the platform. There were the people who prefer to act with UGT or RidersXDerechos, the people denouncing and suing the platforms, and on the other hand people who say they fine with being Tradist, with this third status.

The relationship to the platforms is so obvious. For example the constitution of AsoRiders was signed in the same office of the lawyers which represent Deliveroo in court. This association began to manage the workers by promising them special conditions, for example giving the helmet and uniform for free whereas if you are not a supporter of the platform association you have to pay for it. You get preference in terms of working time slots, you get these type of advantages. This is how it started – in a kind of positive manner; ‘we are a group of workers which is happy to be like that’.

And then they began to intensify in the moment when the platforms began to lose the battle in front of public opinion, and the platforms began to perceive that they are losing ground and losing in court, they adopted a more aggressive strategy. They start by saying ‘we prefer to be this type of workers’ and then they move to saying: ‘if you adopt a law [the Riders Law], we will lose our jobs; you are meddling with our way of life’. This was the shift that occurred on the initiative of the platforms.

The Gig Economy Project: The UGT report talks about a meeting between the APRA, one of the pro-platform associations, and the CEO of Glovo, Sacha Michaud, where a UGT representative was present. Michaud said to the meeting that “Glovo had lost the cultural battle because most of society took for granted that riders are precarious. The job of APRA and the other associations was to reverse that opinion through mobilising workers in support of the self-employed model. What do you think was the main reason for platforms to pursue this strategy; to divide the workers, to put pressure on the government, to change public opinion, or all three of those things?

José: I think all three. The strategy of the platform started as ‘we are this cool model of work’. Once they lost ground and society perceived them as providers of precarious work they had to change; they weren’t these nice, modern guys anymore. They started to make these [riders] associations their public speakers. If you have lost the PR battle you have to move, and the workers are presented as the face. They’ld say: ‘It is the workers who suffer the damage if there is any regulation of platform work’. In Spain we have high rates of unemployment, so if you can present yourself as a person or a people or a collective who are going to be unemployed soon because of the Riders Law, this kind of argumentation is going to find support. This is a key strategy.

But it goes even beyond that; there is a long strategy of these companies too. It is not just fighting for Glovo, it is about questioning the employment relationship fundamentally. The idea is: ’In the future no one will work with this standard employment relationship because it is too rigid, it imposes too many costs on the enterprise, and – and this is the new thing – because it doesn’t allow the workers to be free.’ This is the more spectacular idea. ‘I want to work in this regime because I am not unemployed, I’m more free and I have more money’.

The long run aim is to question the employment relationship, because the platform companies which work in the same model as Deliveroo and Glovo – which is very labour intensive – they need to expand to other sectors. Glove loses money every year, Deliveroo loses money every year, with the present business model. So they want to expand. We have seen this in the US, with the passing of Prop 22 in California, immediately afterwards Amazon got a contract with the government to run emergency services. And I think this is what they are pursuing here, to expand to other sectors, because they are consistently losing money year after year.

The Gig Economy Project: Glovo has left the Spanish Employers Association, CEOE, over its support for the Riders Law. Does Glovo represent a radicalised section of capital in Spain, because it has an extreme liberal ideology, it wants to organise separately, and it is mobilising workers in its defence; is it a bigger project than just a company defending its own self-interest?

José: This is a difficult question to answer because I don’t know exactly what Glovo has in its mind. They seem to be on a radical path. In the very same minute they leave the CEOE, they associate with other platforms which have been put into question by the Riders Law. You have now a Law which is enforced, and the CEOE has a connections with politics, especially the centre-right but they have connections with the current government; the CEOE is an institutional force. So Glovo is kind of alone, they have moved themselves in a very strange institutional position, which is why their actions and speech is radicalising.

You can see easily in social media and TV interviews that before the people who spoke in favour of the platforms had more scientific line of arguments. Lobbyists in favour of the platform defended the sort of political action you’d associate with Macron. After we started to win cases in court this line of action was exhausted. They started to use a new type of lobbyist: newer, younger, more aggressive. The main line was that employment is not possible anymore, and in the future everyone will be self-employed and it is terrible to regulate an activity which is newly born, and go against modernity. The political message had changed. It is now very confrontational.

I don’t think they are gaining ground within the society, but I think they are gaining ground in the sectors of society that are very polarised. They are inserting themselves in a way – I don’t want to be too simplistic – but imagine you translate the Spanish situation to the US, you can find some sector belonging to the Trump movement which are more radicalised. And the platforms try to insert themselves in this Trump-like way – confrontational; denying everything; anti-trade union. You could call it anti-system capitalists. In the very same moment that you have a law which is supported by society you are expelled from the centre of the debate and you look to make a strong position and a very confrontational one.

The Gig Economy Project: What is attracting riders towards participating in the pro-platform mobilisations, because there have been some fairly large mobilisations in a number of different cities?

José: I am not in the mind of these workers and I do not want to say anything derogatory against them. They have made their choice, and I think it’s a poor choice and I think it’s a short-sighted choice, but I don’t want to say anything bad about them.

What can the reason be which can compel someone to participate in this? First of all, if you are an immigrant who is not properly regularised and you think working in a platform is the only way to insert yourself in the Spanish labour market. I think that would be the majoritarian group. The other group is people who are not able to find more solid, less precarious work. If you identify yourself with this collective, and feel like you have been rejected by the rest of the market, you will probably find some reason to be sympathetic to this cause. The platform will also give these workers incentives to make them feel like they are privileged. This is a bit simplistic but it works.

The Gig Economy Project: We see in lots of European countries that ethnic minority and migrant workers make up a disproportionate number of gig workers; platforms play on the precariousness which is already there. Is there a task there for the trade union movement to combine contracts for proper work contracts with demands for easier regularisation of migrant status?

José: UGT and CCOO have always been in favour of this kind of process. The trade union movement is very situated in that corner of the political debate. However, in Spain right now we don’t have a massive reservoir of illegal immigrants. Also, the main share of immigrants in Spain is from Spanish-speaking countries, so they can integrate much better than in other countries.

In the early 2000s we really had this perceived problem of immigration and an extraordinary regulation was necessary, but it doesn’t seem to be the case right now. Although, our immigration system should work better and faster. We have published documents analysing how the regularisation path-way creates groups which are not treated as fair as they should be. But it is not a matter of trade union strategy; we don’t need to position in that space very strongly right now.

The Gig Economy Project: Fernando Diez, a UGT representative in Glovo, speaking at a press conference launching the UGT report, stated:They insult me systematically, every day in front of all my colleagues, they have threatened to kill me, they have assaulted me, they contact my friends to get private photos of me, they have chased us to find out where we live… it is not just political or media pressure, but personal pressure”.

How widespread is this violence, is it an isolated case or is it part of wider anti-trade union attacks? Secondly, how worried should trade unionists in other countries be that this sort of division could happen when organising in the platform economy?

José: We should be clear that we are not talking about a strategy anymore; this is a crime. How do you treat a fellow worker who is doing a trade union task in this way? I don’t know. I believe this is incentivised by the platforms themselves. They are pushing them to adopt this kind of confrontational strategy. On Twitter, you can see how there is aggressive messaging against the Riders Law. The people who helped instigate this false organisation and put forward workers to behave as their public relations agents are ultimately responsible for this. The same people who has been making the strategy stronger, more radical, and more confrontational. I have no doubt about that.

What do we say to the fellow workers organising in the platform economy in Europe? Be prepared for the same. Because they will do exactly the same there. In Italy, the only trade union which has made an agreement with a platform has been a neo-fascistic one. The platforms are positioning themselves in this part of the political spectrum. I think it’s a poor strategy, but it is where we are right now.

The Gig Economy Project: Does UGT and the wider Riders for Rights movement have a plan for protecting activists?

José: First of all we have denounced this and presented our case to the Justice system. Second, we have to do our trade union tasks, we cannot be hidden. Fortunately, the vast majority of workers are either pro-riders Law or are not pro-Riders Law, but are not violent. At the moment, our plan is just to be prudent and just denouncing publicly and denouncing before the Justice system; we are not hiring security or anything. Just the usual sensible measures.

The Gig Economy Project: Aspects of the Riders Law have faced criticism from all sides, including from the trade union movement and the RidersXDerechos movement. Platforms seem to be responding to the law by moving to a sub-contracting model, which is also associated with precarity and exploitation. The UGT was part of the Social Dialogue table which agreed the law. Is the Riders Law really going to improve the conditions of food delivery workers in Spain?

José: First of all, the final form of the law wasn’t our preferred law. We were looking for something which contained a specific mechanism to track the platform economy. We didn’t want it to just to be a law for the food delivery platforms, we wanted a law which would affect the whole phenomena of the platform economy to avoid the misuse of the self-employed contracts.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is the product of negotiation and the final form is a little too restrictive, and this span of time in which companies are allowed to work in the same way – they give themselves three months period of time before they have to regularise the worker – this kind of thing we do not like very much.

What we think is the strongest point of this law, and a very important point for the future: to give the trade unions access to the algorithm. We have to get that, it is essential. The companies are not allowed anymore to say that it is their technology, they can have secrecy, no – if you have something which organises the work you have to put it before the trade unions, the justice system, and the collective bargaining negotiation. This is something that will be essential in dealing with the platform economy.

The first version of everything is always unsatisfactory and incomplete; it has happened consistently throughout history. We hope that the little shortcomings are corrected in future developments in other countries or in Europe. The Law is still satisfactory in some aspects. There is much to be consolidated and much to be proud of.

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