Behind the apps: lessons from the European Riders’ Assembly

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The platform economy is part of our everyday life. Who hasn’t occasionally (and depending on how digitally savvy they are) surfed on Facebook? Bought a book on Amazon? Travelled with BlablaCar and searched for accommodation via AirBnB? Ordered a takeaway delivered by Deliveroo or a taxi using Uber? Platforms offer multiple and varied services for eating, sleeping, travelling.... but what lurks behind these apps?

By Anne Dufresne (Gresea)

This text is the editorial of the quarterly review : Gresea Échos, "Riders of the world, unite! The fight against platform capitalism", Number 98, June 2019.
Available for order in French here: and soon in English.

This issue of Gresea Échos will start by briefly examining the economic and social model that goes hand in hand with the technological innovation behind these platforms so as to have a better understanding of the opposing forces. Their model raises several questions: who are the employers hiding behind the algorithms that only they truly understand? How are the EU, governments and judiciaries encouraging and participating in what is now being termed the “uberisation” of society? But also, what radical changes to employment and labour have they set in motion? Because if, to employ the jargon of platforms, we are no longer talking about “working time” or “salaried employees” but rather “shifts” and “rates”, is this not with the aim of circumventing labour law? Is it not to accentuate the current trends of increasing precariousness and deconstructing the welfare state that have already been well underway for 40 years? And beyond these issues, do the daily connections of “start-up providers” (riders, in other words) not entail riding bikes so much as they do producing information flows on their smartphones, which greatly benefit the platforms? Is that not the true innovation of this “new economy”? Is it the additional charge of exploitation that makes the difference: harvesting of personal data and commercial control of private and working life?

There are so many questions in dire need of answers. In the face of these rapid developments and this laboratory of widespread social regression of social and human rights, another laboratory is opening up: new forms of resistance. In 2016, the working group entitled “resistance 2.0” as part of the Alter Summit (European network of trade unionists and social movements from a dozen countries) began grappling with the questions raised by these new forms of labour and the struggles linked to digitalisation. The following year, in 2017, a wave of couriers’ strikes against Deliveroo & Co. platforms erupted in a large number of European cities: London, Turin, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and many others, all raising their voices against “Slaveroo”…

This active social movement then inspired the Alter Summit to put words into action, starting with ReAct, the organisation of the first General Assembly (GA) of couriers in Brussels, held on 25 and 26 October 2018. The main objective of the meeting was to “create a space of trust” for workers’ collectives already set up at country level, and to attempt to converge the national struggles of delivery workers into one united struggle on a European scale.

Spurred on by this event and having coordinated with Sebastian Franco (Alter Summit) and Marielle Benchehboune (ReAct), it seemed important to me, when compiling this issue of Gresea Échos, to delve into both the reasoning behind and the success of this event which was hailed as “historic” by the media as well as the participants. Retelling the events of this first European general assembly of “uberised” workers, i.e. couriers, offers the ideal common thread for better understanding the possible sources of resistance to this wave of apps.

We shall therefore turn our attentions first to those on the frontlines of these new struggles, who are not always easy to identify. Who are they? How do delivery worker collectives, scattered across the large towns and cities of Europe, get together and organise, on a local, national or even transnational level? What links are being created (or not created, as the case may be) with trade unions, given how varied they are? And finally, how do the responses of these different stakeholders differ according to country? If it sometimes proves difficult to align the objectives of these multiple stakeholders, it is because a social movement is a dynamic concept. And the whole point of taking a close interest in the riders’ movement is precisely to seek out conflicting collective identities and associated strategies.

This is why we will examine the direct action being taken (strike/switch off, blockade, occupation, etc., that often comes with some creative ways of raising public awareness via the media. We are seeking to understand how the stages of mobilisation cause collectives to grow. We will then see how these mobilisations link up with legal action to reclassify self-employed workers as salaried workers. In fact, whilst there are salaried workers in the sector in a small handful of countries, the vast majority of riders are currently riding as bogus self-employed workers, without any social protection whatsoever. Until this year, the many court cases brought by riders had failed, with the criterion of “the freedom to open up the app” contradicting the subordinate relationship linking the employee to the platform. Since then, there have been some instances of judges recognising the work as salaried work, which suggests there may be some sort of taking back of salaried work for “uberised” workers occurring, or even reinventing of social rights.

To conclude, we will seek improve our understanding of the possible avenues opened up by the GA regarding creating a social movement at European level or internationally. What are the possible alliances between the stakeholders fighting in different countries, and what about cross-border mobilisation? This will allow us to point to the many common demands put forward at the GA. On the one hand, there are the age-old demands of the labour movement in terms of employment status, wages and working conditions and, on the other hand, some brand new demands are emerging at the beginning of this 21st century: the transparency of the algorithm and the taking back of workers’ data that is accessed through the app! This is a key challenge in the digitalisation era but one with which trade unions do not seem to have fully got to grips yet.

One final question: why choose to focus on bicycle couriers? The hot meal delivery sector and the “on demand” platforms from Deliveroo & Co admittedly are only the tip of the platform capitalism iceberg, which sees many other types of platforms lurking below the surface. The sector does, however, bring out into the open both the mechanisms of this “new economy” and the inevitable sources of resistance that are constantly being generated. The “IT pieceworkers” performing micro-tasks on the internet or the workers under scrutiny on rollerblades in Amazon warehouses are hidden away from the public eye and find it difficult to mobilise. Given their visibility, riders make up part of the urban landscape and have already decided to stand up against underpaid and under-protected work. Their methods, with increasing levels of creativity, have been systematically garnering media attention. They are golden opportunities to raise awareness and invite criticism of this new model from as many different sources as possible.

Summary: soon available in English
Study by Anne Dufresne
-  Editorial: Behind the Apps: lessons from the European Riders’ Assembly
-  Platform capitalism. Stealing lives and breaking the social model
-  People leading the struggle: collectives and trade unions. A move towards new collective identities?
-  Forms of struggle: from the wave of national strikes to the challenges of salaried work
-  Beyond borders: the birth of the Transnational Federation of Couriers