How do undocumented workers make a living in the food delivery sector? How can trade unions recruit migrant gig workers and ensure decent working conditions for all riders? The Gig Economy Project spoke to Paola and Frank, Venezuelan migrants who have worked for food delivery platforms in Spain without work permits and are now union activists, at a trade union conference on the platform economy in Madrid to find out.
AN open secret of the food delivery sector in Europe is that the platforms rely on the labour of those without the legal right-to-work. In some of the continent’s largest cities, undocumented migrants are thought to deliver at least half of all food deliveries.
Paola and Frank are Venezuelan migrants in Spain, Paola in Madrid and Frank in Barcelona. They both have their papers now, but when they arrived in the country they worked undocumented as riders. Today, they are leading trade union organisers in the platform economy.
The double-exploitation of undocumented riders
“I had no idea about working on platforms before I arrived in Spain,” Paola tells the Gig Economy Project. “In Venezuela, if you wanted someone to take food to your house it was by phone. There was a website for ordering taxis, but it wasn’t an app.”
Undocumented workers access food delivery platforms by ‘sub-letting’; the owner of an app account rents it to the rider, in return for taking a percentage of the earnings, sometimes as much as 50%.
“When I arrived here in Spain there was a WhatsApp group of Venezuelans,” Paola explains. “I asked if anyone had an account to rent, someone recommended me to this person, he gave me a motorbike and told me ‘it’s €10 daily to rent it, you have to pay for your clothes and your fuel costs, and I take 25% of the wages’.”
Frank’s story is slightly different. His brothers were already in Barcelona before he joined them, and before leaving Venezuela Frank had already planned to work undocumented as a rider while his work permit application was ongoing.
“The app is very easy to access,” he says. “You get someone to register as self-employed with the tax office and the application is ready, you send the self-employed papers and that’s it, a week later you get the Glovo bag. Now it takes a bit longer, more like 15 to 20 days.”
Glovo, Spain’s largest food delivery platform, claim that they have put in place ID checks, including facial recognition technology, to crack down on illegal working, but Paola and Frank say that riders still find ways around the controls.
“It is harder now,” Paola says. “They ask all the time and if you fail three times you get blocked from the account.
“So what riders do now is they take a picture of the account holder’s face with them and they use that picture to open the app.”
“I have heard of a rider who pays €150 a month to a hacker to make sure they are not asked for the facial recognition,” Frank adds.
Undocumented riders’ double-exploitation – first by the platform, second by the account owner – means it should be no surprise that they tend to work the longest hours, at all times of the day not just when it is busy, to try to scrape together enough money to live on.
Paola worked for Glovo from November 2018 to October 2019, from first thing in the morning until late at night. She recalls the conflicts she had with her account owner.
“It’s changed now, but before with Glovo you had to look for hours of the day that were open to work, and there was one day that I didn’t get any hours.
“The account owner wanted to charge me that day for the use of the motorbike, even though I hadn’t used it. I told him ‘but what am I going to pay you with if I didn’t even work?’
“Also, I almost got hit by a car, I fell off the motorbike and hurt my leg. That was an accident at work and [the account owner] was my boss, as far as I was concerned. He didn’t even give me a paracetamol,” she says.
Paola got married and is now a Spanish citizen. She still uses the Glovo app infrequently, but no longer has to rent it. She joined the CCOO union after becoming an Uber ridehail driver in 2022 and experiencing “abuses by the bosses”, and was elected as a union delegate in June.
“My grandfather and mother were trade unionists in Venezuela,” she says. “I was always listening to her talking to her colleagues in the union.”
Frank joined CCOO when he was still working for both Glovo and Uber Eats as an undocumented rider through the pandemic, from 2019 to 2021. He gave up riding when he got his work permit and now works for CCOO Catalunya as its ‘secretary for the new realities of work’.
“A woman from the union approached me and said they are doing training and bike repairs, if I am interested,” he recalls. “Then the union used to call me when they had a journalist looking for an undocumented rider to speak to, and these sort of things. They saw that I was very committed, and from there I have ended up working for the union.”
Paola and Frank’s paths are very different to the many Venezuelan riders who participated in the ‘Sí, Soy Autónomo’ movement, which was linked to Glovo and held protests against the introduction of the Spanish Government’s ‘Rider Law’. The law is the first in Europe to require food delivery platforms to employee their riders, and is backed by Spain’s unions. Frank understands why many of his compatriots participated in the movement.
“If you are undocumented, you think: ’It feels like they are closing the door on me to have the opportunity to earn a living’.
“With the employment model, those of us who come from abroad are not going to be able to work as riders without papers, because of course everything has to be regularised completely.
“It’s normal to think ‘I am not going to be able to rent the account from someone; either I pay to work or I don’t work and I die of hunger.’ So of course they see the Rider Law as a threat to be able to continue making a living, until they have the work permit.”
The other aspect of many Venezuelans’ antipathy towards the Rider Law is political. Venezuela has been in a deep economic crisis for about a decade, and many of those who have left the country blame the socialist Venezuelan government for its woes.
“We are traumatised,” Frank says. “So of course when I arrived here and the one who governs is the socialist party, it’s ‘hostia!’
“And the unions are leftist by nature and as a Venezuelan, we all arrived here with a bias that the left in the world is bad.”
While Frank and Paola have shaken off their anti-leftist bias, many of their compatriots have not.
“Many Venezuelans here like Vox [the far-right party],” Paola says. “I have a very close friend who is backing Vox and I tell him, ‘but are you crazy or what?’”
What’s the solution for undocumented riders?
Vox’s hard-line against the Rider Law has attracted some riders to its cause, but the irony is that the self-employment model in the food delivery sector that Vox defends is the same one that opens up the space for undocumented riders to work illegally, which the party hates. Vox’s policy is to repatriate all undocumented migrants.
The Rider Law has been in place for more than two years now, and still the vast majority of riders are self-employed, as the two largest platforms, Glovo and Uber Eats, refuse to comply with the law. But the legal net appears to be closing in on these companies, as potential criminal penalties are now being added to the government’s multi-million fines for fake-self employment. For now, undocumented riders can continue working in the food delivery sector, but for how much longer?
Frank and Paola acknowledge that there are not many other opportunities for undocumented workers to earn money. The other jobs that female undocumented workers typically do are “taking care of the elderly, taking care of children and cleaning houses”, Paola says, while for men it is “construction, agricultural work, or removal jobs,” says Frank.
The risk is that while working conditions for undocumented riders are terrible at the moment, an employment model could exclude these workers and push them deeper into the black market. So what’s the answer?
“They should improve the Foreigner Law,” Paola says. “There is a problem here that you can apply for asylum or humanitarian aid as soon as you arrive, but they give you an appointment in nine months time.
“What are you going to do for nine months? You are going to get on a bike and cycle like crazy. If you want workers to be working legally with an account, then the solution would be to change and modify the immigration policy.
“I am not asking the government to allow access and give residency to everyone, I think they should do a study to see who you are and ask you for your background. At the end of the day you are entering a foreign country, but what I am saying is that they should change their immigration policies and also speed up the process.”
Frank agrees, and thinks that the regularisation of undocumented workers is also a key step towards unionisation.
“There is real fear of doing something bad or being fired. When you arrive here, you don’t want problems, you want to live in peace,” he says.
“But if you can be part of the labour market just like anyone else, you can see that there is no problem in joining a union.”
There is a long way to go to integrate the food delivery sector’s predominantly migrant workforce into the trade union movement, but if it is to be done it will be trade-unionists like Frank and Paola – who know what it’s like to live and work as a migrant gig worker – who will be leading the way.
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