Laura Carrer: “A system for the desperate” – How Uber Italy worked with intermediary firms to exploit riders

Journalist Laura Carrer examines a Milan trial of Uber Italy and two intermediary companies which revealed the “double level of exploitation and subjugation” that a hired group of riders were subjected to in Milan, Rome and Turin.

The article is one of a series of by investigative newsroom IrpiMedia into gig work in Italy called Life is a Game

This article has been translated into English and re-published with permission. To read the original on the IrpiMedia website click here (in Italian).

Picture by Ivan Radic

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FOR riders, working with brokerage firms meant having the guarantee of shifts that “independent” users of the Uber app might not have had. At the same time, this allowed two Milanese intermediary companies to create a double level of exploitation and subjugation, directly endorsed by the platform. 

In fact, if Uber is not clear in defining how the figures for each delivery are calculated, nor what the parameters are for why deliveries are entrusted to some riders and not to others, the intermediary firms sanctioned those who did not comply with the fake agreement signed before starting work. This agreement, signed on loose pieces of paper, provided for €3 per delivery, as the investigation of the Milan prosecutor’s office and the local ‘Guardia di Finanza’ (financial crime authority) found.

The Milanese companies involved in the judicial investigation opened in 2020 by the Milan prosecutor, ‘Flash Road City’ and ‘FRC srl’, required the riders to accept every order proposed by the Uber platform. If they did not accept, money was subtracted from the bi-weekly pay depending on the percentage of acceptance or cancellation. If the riders accepted less than 95% of the orders they received a penalty of €0.50 for each order; the same penalty if they cancelled more than 5% of delivery orders. Additionally, the intermediary also subtracted the tips riders earned during deliveries.

In May 2020, the Court of Milan found that Uber Italy’s commissioner was guilty of illegal hiring to the detriment of the riders, a decision then revoked in March 2021 by the prevention measures section of the same court. In fact, the judges recognised the “virtuous” path undertaken by the company following the investigation.

But in the 200 pages that the Milan judge Tiziana De Pascale deposited at the beginning of January 2022 to justify the first sentence against the owners of the two brokerage companies, the scheme is clear. De Pascale sentenced the three defendants to between one and three years and provided for compensation of €10,000 to more than 40 riders, on the basis of ”conditions of exploitation and taking advantage of the workers’ state of need” which was “facilitated by the absence of a specific regulation of employment relationships characterised by ‘dematerialisation’ and management through IT and digital applications”.

Perhaps through a ‘new market’ such as that of food delivery it is possible to see old practices of exploitation in the world of work. As the migrants, who declared themselves a civil party in the process, have themselves said: ”[this] is a unique opportunity to work, especially for those without documents”.

“Hiding behind a semblance of legality”

According to the court, 321 riders in Milan, 119 in Rome and 97 in Turin worked via the two intermediary companies. The dialogue between intermediaries and Uber Italy managers was constant, and the latter could not be unaware of the real condition of the workers. In the words of De Pascale, these actions are to be traced back to the “caporalato grigio” (loosely translated as ‘a sort of illegal hiring’) which, unlike those “para-slavery forms of exploitation of labour that are consummated in the most complete illegality…hide behind a semblance of legality of the relationship of work and which do not imply the total subjection of the worker”.

There was no contract, except some papers with no legal value, seized by the Guardia di Finanza during the searches of the two companies in February 2020. These stated: “occasional collaboration agreement. €3.75 gross on delivery, €3.00 net. Payment every two weeks”. The ‘deal’ was different on the basis of the means the delivery person would use. 

Like any other digital food delivery platform, Uber Italy defines a delivery price for each order on the basis of some indicators (not contractually defined) such as distance in kilometres. However, the brokerage companies, which recruited migrant workers in the streets or directly through word of mouth from Uber, ignored the payment indications of Uber’s application, paying €3 per delivery as an arbitrary amount. Those who asked for an account of the difference between the remuneration received and the more favourable figures indicated on the application were told that “the prices on the application are wrong”. Some riders decided to notify Uber about what was happening, but without success.

Although digital delivery platforms stress that the rider can work “when he wants”, the truth is another. If the delivery of meals is more likely in the hours close to lunch and dinner, it is obvious to conclude that the deliverers are obliged to work in competition with each other at exactly those times. In this specific case, the defendants required workers to be present at each set work shift (practically every day), and also at additional times (the so-called ‘supply hours’) when this was requested by Uber Italy itself.

Penalties and account blocking

As can be learned from the papers of the trial, the communications between Uber Italy manager Gloria Bresciani and other colleagues, including the then general manager, are particularly explanatory of the modus operandi that the platforms adopt towards the riders. One of the defendants and administrator of Flash Road City, Giuseppe Moltini, urged the messengers through the WhatsApp group created ad hoc to be online even in rainy conditions, without any safety device and in order to guarantee the greatest possible number of deliveries.

It is not only that the two companies knew whether the rider was at work or not. Uber Italy also knew that, as written in one passage of the sentence, “through the application, [Uber Italy] had the possibility to access the personal data of the worker, to monitor their position and to verify the methods and times of performance of the service.”

The functioning of the algorithm of Uber Italy’s platform is unknown, just like the algorithms of all the others on the market. Consequently, while the riders carry out their work, they are subjected to decisions imposed from above for which they do not know the reasons nor any variations over time. The algorithm is therefore the master on the platforms. 

The norm currently is that the algorithm is basically defined as a points system where the more you deliver the more you have the possibility to deliver. Little else. A game, in fact, where the rules are designed by those who don’t play. In this case, in addition to the penalties that the defendants, the owners of the brokerage companies, imposed on the riders for not accepting all the orders proposed by the application, the latter were also subject to penalties by Uber Italy, including the blocking of their accounts. For riders, not having a working account, or not having access to it, literally means not being able to work.

If the delivery person was slow or did not have good relations with the intermediaries (often due to demanding basic rights such as pay and access to work shifts) the rider was to be put “under observation” by Uber managers, who arranged to suspend him or her for a period of two weeks at the end of which the choice was between blocking the account and returning to work. For the first time, what many riders and trade unions have been complaining about for some time is written in black and white and can also be attributable to other companies operating in the food delivery market.

This can be seen in the email sent by an Uber Italy manager to the defendants, in which the performance of some riders in various Italian cities are shared: “If the table shows TRUE, it means that the courier has not met the requirements and is receiving a notification that will start the two-week grace-period (period following the reporting of the account in which the rider can still meet the requirements)”. From what is possible to know from similar cases that have occurred on other platforms, often the notification sent by the app is not clear and does not allow riders to have real knowledge of what will happen next. It is only made clear that they are temporarily unable to work.

It was possible to glean from the WhatsApp chats viewed by the investigators that ‘UBER BV’, based in Amsterdam and sole shareholder of ‘Uber Italy Srl’, has a dual rider quality control system. One part is managed directly by local Uber managers (and therefore by those cited in the sentence), while the other is centralised and in the hands of the Dutch headquarters. This centralised system is “capable of autonomously blocking the riders based on the data provided by the dashboards”. 

From the WhatsApp conversations between the defendants and the managers of Uber Italy it also emerges that to be reported it is sometimes enough just to have a smart phone that would not allow you to connect to the Internet in an optimal manner, and therefore to accept delivery proposals. In other cases it has been demonstrated that the riders were disconnected directly from Uber Italy because they were on duty during working hours which had not been previously agreed to.

What now?

In October 2021, the trial of Uber Italy manager Gloria Bresciani began. Temporarily suspended from her post in the American multinational, she was also accused of exploitation of riders in vulnerable conditions. She will have to answer for her involvement in what she, in a February 2019 wiretapping with the other defendants, called a “system for the desperate”.

In the trial which ended last October with a conviction against Giovanni Moltini, owner of one of the two intermediaries, De Pascale had already provided for a compensation of €10,000 for 44 riders involved. However, on Friday 25 February, as reported by the Corriere di Milano chronicle, one hundred riders who became a civil party in the process with ordinary rite against Uber Italy and the two brokerage companies Flash Road City and FRC Italy, accused of digital hiring and tax crimes, were compensated with the sum of €5,000 each and will exit the process.

The Panasiti judge of the Ninth Criminal Section also acknowledged that further negotiations are underway to compensate the last two civil parties on trial, the CGIL and the Milanese Chamber of Labour. The next hearing in the ordinary trial is set for May 20.

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