Interview. Valerio De Stefano, a lawyer and expert on the gig economy, spoke with il manifesto about the latest battle in the new frontier of workers’ rights.

Delivery workers strike in latest flare up of gig economy conflict

“The protest by Foodora bikers has aroused a great uproar because these workers have come together and have presented their claims. The messengers did not do anything new: When there is a conflict at work, you need to get together,” says Valerio De Stefano, a visiting professor in labor law at Bocconi University, one of the first Italian jurists to focus on the new economics of online services. He’s the curator of an issue of the journal Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal on the “gig economy.”

On Monday there was another protest in Turin. A delegation of seven workers spoke in a conference call with Gianluca Cocco, the CEO of the food delivery company Foodora Italy. “We work under borderline legal contracts,” they said, and called for an increase of pay “that amounts to little more than €2 per delivery, well below national and international compensation standards.”

Why then this surprise?

The widespread opinion is that anybody who takes this job does it for fun or as a hobby. They actually do a real job that involves all the contradictions of the case: respect for professionalism, responsibility and physical fatigue. And they have said it openly, posing a problem to the organization of production determined by the company. It happens in any working environment. The gig economy must not be allowed to create a parallel dimension where the rules of work do not count, because it makes use of the technology and the laborer is young. In many cases the managers are young, too. This economy is part of a transformation of labor into casual work and fragmentation of labor relations that has been going on for some time.

What does that entail?

It’s like if you were hired and fired every 10 minutes and you were paid only for each occurrence. This takes place in catering, distribution or logistics, areas where there is a trend to deconstruct the employment relationship. If before the employer bore the risk that in certain periods there was less work and absorbed the cost of illness or holidays, he is now trying to get rid of anything that does not generate an immediate benefit.

In August, the London Deliveroo messengers also protested. In September, their Parisians counterparts did. What is going on?

These are normal social conflicts at work. Workers come together to have more bargaining power. Most live mainly off the remuneration they receive from the platforms. Their activity is not secondary or marginal. In my opinion, there is not a general and universal response to these protests: It depends on the companies and their productive organization. But we have to start from one fact: If there are no workers to carry the parcels, there is no Foodora or Deliveroo business.

What is the distinction between the sharing economy and the gig economy, and why are they superimposed?

I’m not a big fan of these labels. There is the labor market and this is a part of it. The ‘sharing’ and ‘gig’ economy are confused because they are based on the exploitation of a technological tool: a smartphone or PC. The first brings together people to share costs for a car ride. The second provides for the payment of a car and driver to take the customer wherever he wants. We are certainly talking about work in this case: a service for a fee. In the case of Foodora, there is nothing to share: There is someone who needs a meal delivered and hires a company that organizes a workforce. The reference to the sharing economy is misplaced.

Uber, Deliveroo or Foodora workers consider themselves employees because they claim expenses and are inserted in a hierarchy. Are they hired?

There is no single model, but there are many ways to pay for a job in a casual system. In some cases, it is possible to identify the relationship of subordination, in others performance can be more independent. Not all companies are working in the same way. There may be a timetable control or a different relationship with the consumer. You cannot give a single answer because there is a risk not to protect those who need it and vice versa.

The problem has been debated in recent years by Uber drivers in the U.S. What is the situation?

At this time there are many cases, particularly in ridesharing. In California, there is a class action on the requalification of Uber drivers as employees and not as independent contractors. They had made an agreement with the company, but the judge did not find the amount of the transaction reasonable. The case is ongoing. The problem of the categorization of workers goes far beyond the gig economy and is affecting the whole labor market. In the U.S., there has been a controversy over express courier services. The courts have made divergent decisions.

In the United States, some jurists have proposed recognizing these new workers in the category of “self-employed.” Do you think it is a solution?

In my opinion, they must be recognized in their corresponding category: either dependent employment or self-employment. What matters is the reality: If one worker says he is independent but actually behaves as if he were employed, then the protections of dependence apply. And vice versa. There is no single model.

Should it be decided by a judge or by a policy?

At the beginning, judges may decide and politics can decide whether to intervene or not. Until now in Italy, we have not seen disputes on the point and it is likely that the policy would be acting prematurely. We’ll see if these disputes will result in lawsuits or if the parties decide to come to an agreement without resorting to the courts.

Amazon or TaskRabbit call their workers “mechanical Turks,” “rabbits,” “human services.” Why do we see this dehumanization?

There’s a will to do so because either they are bad bosses or do not want to acknowledge their humanity. It is an organizational model that goes to the disintegration of the working relationships: The worker is not paid for his time but for his output. Beyond that, companies do not take any responsibility. This is a way to commodify labor: Consider work as a simple activity in exchange for a fee and consider it as a hobby. However, labor cannot be split from the worker, who may get hurt and not be able to work. Actually, the idea that the worker has a second job is completely irrelevant. There is no relation between the reason why one gets down to work and the protection one should receive. Everyone must be protected.