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Spain’s Elections Pit Gig Workers Against the Far Right

Jul 20, 2023 2:00 AM

Spain’s Elections Pit Gig Workers Against the Far Right

A coalition including the right-wing Vox party wants to dismantle protections for workers on Glovo and Uber Eats. If they’re elected, they could change the gig economy across Europe.

A courier for the food delivery service Glovo walking on a street in the center of Madrid Spain

Photograph: Marcos del Mazo/Getty Images

It’s 8 pm and Madrid is broiling under a heat wave. The sun has dropped below the horizon, but it’s still 34 degrees Celsius (93 Fahrenheit). Fernando García has just finished a long day cycling the streets, carrying groceries for Glovo, a Barcelona-headquartered delivery platform. García says he’s one of the lucky ones. He’s a contracted employee of the company, which means he gets to go into the warehouse he delivers from to escape the heat.

“For the restaurant delivery riders, they are out there all day, and many restaurants won’t even let them inside to use the toilet. The worst is those who work on motorcycles. When they are on the road and get stuck behind a bus, the heat is unbearable,” he says. “You can die out there, seriously. This is why riders need rights.”

The question of what rights riders have in Spain has been at the center of a rolling dispute between workers, unions, lawmakers, and big tech companies for the past four years. Companies have contorted themselves to try to meet—or skirt—rules that demand they treat workers as employees. Glovo, which is owned by the German multinational Delivery Hero, has accrued over €200 million ($225 million) in fines for allegedly breaking the law, and more could be on the way.

In Spain’s highly polarized political environment, platform workers have found themselves at the center of an ideological struggle. For the left, the riders symbolize the need for strong labor rights to prevent work from becoming ever more precarious. For the right, food delivery is a case study in the freedom that technology can bring for workers to be their own boss, as long as government bureaucrats and old-fashioned labor unions keep out the way.

Elections on July 23 will pit the ruling coalition of center-left and radical left parties, supported by Basque and Catalan nationalists, against a potential alliance between the country’s conservative and far-right parties. If the right-wing parties win power, the rights that platform workers have campaigned for are likely to be taken away in Spain. But the election could also have ramifications for gig workers across Europe, as the EU negotiates a regional law governing platform work.

“What we want is to have work that is secure, safe, and dignified, with rights that are contained in a contract, like any other employee,” says Felipe Corredor Álvarez, a former Deliveroo rider in Barcelona and member of the RidersXDerechos (“Riders for Rights”) campaign group. “I think if the right and the far-right get into power, a lot of the work that has been done to take us in that direction will be reversed.”

Just as in California, where Uber and Lyft spent big to support Prop 22, which classifies gig workers as contractors, Spain’s platform work debate has centered around whether riders and drivers for companies like Glovo, Uber Eats, or Just Eat are employees. In September 2020, the Spanish Supreme Court ruled that they were. The government’s labor minister, Yolanda Díaz, swiftly backed this up with legislation that became known as “the Riders Law.”

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The Riders Law put into legislation that gig workers are employees, and it gave workers’ representatives the right to be informed of the typically opaque rules behind the platforms’ algorithms, which match workers to tasks and manage rewards and incentives. The law was the first of its kind in Europe.

“The wording of the Riders Law leaves very little scope for anything other than the employment of the riders,” says University of Valencia labor law professor Adrián Todolí.

The law went into force on August 12, 2021. Spain’s three big food-delivery platforms all responded differently. Just Eat had already begun employing its riders in 2020, as part of a Europe-wide policy. The company signed a collective agreement with Spanish unions UGT and CCOO in December 2021, the first of its kind in Spain. Uber Eats began hiring riders exclusively through subcontractors, which meant the riders were employees—just not employees of Uber Eats.

Glovo tweaked its model. It scrapped scheduled time slots for riders and allowed them a little leeway on pricing, so they could set—within limits—how much they were willing to accept for each delivery they were offered. The company claimed that these changes gave enough autonomy to the riders that they could be legally considered self-employed. Glovo does employ the riders who work in its Glovo Market grocery-delivery section, where the business model is different, as all deliveries take place from the company’s mini-warehouses (more commonly known as “dark stores”), but that only makes up about 20 percent of its overall delivery workforce.

Initially, the Riders Law seemed to be working in Glovo’s favor, as the company’s market share grew at the expense of its two main rivals. The advantage Glovo had was that it could have a larger supply of labor registered on its app at no extra cost, since it did not have to pay for riders’ waiting time and equipment, nor social security benefits like sick leave and pension contributions. Having more riders on the streets, available for orders, means faster deliveries and happier customers.

For Uber Eats, Glovo’s competitive edge was intolerable. On the first anniversary of the Riders Law, the company announced that riders could once again work on the platform on a self-employed basis, although it kept the option to be a full-time employee available. Blanca Zayas, communications lead at Uber Spain, says just 26 percent of riders chose the latter.

With four in every five riders in Spain working for Glovo or Uber Eats, the Riders Law seemed to be losing all credibility.

Iñigo Barea, country manager of Just Eat Spain, says that “an unequal playing field” exists because “the enforcement of the law is not a reality.” Asked if the company would also revert back to a self-employed model, as it has done recently in the UK, Barea says that it operates “within the legal framework of the markets in which we are based. In Spain, the law is very clear.”

The problem for the labor minister was that proving that Glovo’s and Uber Eats’ riders were falsely self-employed was time-consuming. Investigations by the Labor Inspectorate dragged on, and the appeals process delayed sanctions. In March, a new employment law gave the agency more enforcement powers and changed the appeals process so that a platform company found to be falsely hiring a worker on a self-employed basis has to pay fines and employ the worker before appealing the decision, meaning that it can’t endlessly delay the sanction by taking its case to court after court.

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Felix Eggert, Glovo’s head of global PR & Communications, says the company is still pursuing its case through the courts.

The €200 million-plus in fines that Glovo has racked up so far relates only to labor inspections before the introduction of the Riders Law, which were based on the Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling. Inspections are now ongoing for the period after the law was introduced, and thus more fines are very likely to be on the way. Delivery Hero has earmarked €258 million in its accounts to pay Glovo’s fines over the next three financial years, but this may not be enough if the sanctions keep rolling in.

While the food delivery platforms and the government have been battling over the Riders Law, workers groups have also been divided. RidersXDerechos—along with trade unions—advocated for the Riders Law, arguing that only employment contracts would end poverty wages and precarity. They pointed to the pandemic as a case study in the risks of self-employment, as riders were classified by the government as “essential workers,” but those with Covid-19 had to either stay at home and not get paid or continue working, putting their health and the health of others at risk.

In 2020 a movement of riders called Sí, Soy Autonomo (“Yes, I Am Self-Employed”) emerged, specifically aimed at stopping the introduction of the Riders Law. The movement, a coalition of other riders’ groups, held protests across the country, some with hundreds of riders in attendance, arguing that they enjoyed the flexibility that comes with being autonomous and that Díaz’ law would lead to platforms reducing the size of their workforce and thousands of riders losing their jobs.

The UGT, Spain’s largest union, which counts a small but growing number of riders among its members, published a report which argues that the Sí, Soy Autonomo movement was an astroturf campaign backed by Glovo. Eggert denies this, saying they “had conversations” with Sí, Soy Autonomo, but that it was “independent from Glovo and self-organized.”

Gustavo Gaviria, a Colombian migrant and Glovo rider, was one of the spokespeople for Sí, Soy Autonomo and remains the figurehead for one of the movement’s key organizations, Repartidores Unidos (“Riders United”). “The Riders Law has, in the best-case scenario, caused an increase in precariousness in the sector,” Gaviria says.

That’s disputed by Alberto Riesco Sanz, one of the coordinators of Fairwork Spain, an international academic/action project on the platform economy. “Just Eat is actually applying the Riders Law, and our research has identified an improvement in working conditions on the platform, which are significantly better than on the other platforms,” Sanz says. “These are still very low-paid jobs, but I think this should be recognized as a step forward.”

Inevitably, debates over the Riders Law have been drawn into Spain’s political discourse. Díaz, the labor minister, was almost a complete unknown before she became a minister for left-wing Podemos (“Yes We Can”) in Spain’s new left-wing coalition government in January 2020. Now, opinion polls say she’s Spain’s most popular politician. Her battles with Glovo have been part of her appeal as a woman of the people. She is now the leader of Sumar (“Joining Together”), a new umbrella coalition of the left for the general election.

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The election sees Sumar and center-left PSOE facing off against the Popular Party, the traditional party of the right wing in Spain, and Vox, a new far-right party whose fiery anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric—including a promise to expel all undocumented migrants—has seen its support soar in recent years. That’s a threat that many riders will fear, since in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain’s two largest cities, riders themselves believe that more than half of all food deliveries are done by couriers without the legal right to work, although there are no official estimates.

Vox has promised to scrap the Riders Law if it comes to power.

Repartidores Unidos’ spokesperson Gaviria recently appeared in a documentary-style interview with Vox leader Santiago Abascal. Gaviria says Repartidores Unidos is politically independent but that he himself is supporting Vox in this election. García, the UGT member, has spoken alongside Díaz at Sumar events.

Pre-election opinion polls are very tight, but they slightly favor a PP-Vox right-wing coalition government. If that happens, and they scrap the Riders Law, it wouldn’t wipe out the riders’ rights at a stroke.

The 2020 Supreme Court judgment would still have legal effect. The Labor Inspectorate is technically independent from the government, meaning it can pursue any cases that fall within its legal purview. However, the government does have influence over which cases are deemed to be important. “The new government could decide not to prioritize the platform economy,” Todolí says. “That is definitely a possibility.”

If that happens, Glovo’s and Uber Eats’ positions would unquestionably be strengthened. A change in government “can obviously work in Glovo’s favor,” says Giles Thorne, head of European internet research at investment advisory firm Jeffries. “Glovo will be very excited about the end of Yolanda Díaz.”

The result of the July 23 election could have ramifications for platform work beyond Spain. The EU is finalizing its Platform Work Directive, an ambitious law that tries to regulate all work on digital labor platforms, not just riders, across all 27 EU member states. The directive is at the final stages of its long march through the EU institutions, where the issue of employment status has been fiercely fought over. It just so happens that Spain currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council, the body which represents member states in the EU. Spain, therefore, is in charge of negotiating the council’s position on the Platform Work Directive with the European Parliament.

Negotiations officially began on July 11 and are expected to be very difficult. If the Spanish government changes later in the month, the presidency will move from being one of the most supportive of employment rights for platform workers to one of the most hostile.

Whatever is decided in Brussels will reverberate globally, as the European Union will become the first major economic bloc in the world economy to have comprehensive platform work regulation. Spain’s fractious politics may well prove decisive in shaping the future of platform work far beyond its borders.

The EU’s machinations over the finer points of employment law can feel a long distance away from the daily realities for riders trying to survive a heat wave. But what’s derived from employment status is a set of rights that are very practical in the context of scorching temperatures: Will you get paid if you take more breaks from the sun? Will you get paid time off if you get sick from heat exposure? Is the company you work for legally responsible for your health at work?

The Spanish government introduced a new law in May for outdoor workers in extreme weather, which includes a prohibition on working if there is an official weather warning alert. While the law applies to Spain’s riders, it does not apply to those at Uber Eats and Glovo who operate as independent contractors.

“We have an occupational risk assessment because we are employees,” García says of those at his Glovo Market grocery warehouse. “But 80 percent of Glovo riders are not, and the algorithm doesn’t care if you are suffering with the heat.”

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Ben Wray is a freelance journalist based in Spain.
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