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"The language of the unheard": The French riots and the gig economy

“Hurry up slave. I will give you 1 penny you deserve that.”

This was the message of an Uber Eats customer to a rider in Laval, a town in western France, in 2021. The rider, Yaya, a migrant from Guinea, refused to make the delivery “because these insults are unbearable”. 

"Once we have accepted an order, the customer sees our photo directly on the screen,” Yaya Guirassy explained. "We only see his name and phone number: we don't see his face."

He stopped working as a food delivery courier following the racist insult, saying a week after: "I can't sleep properly, I imagine all the time [the client's words]."

This story crossed our mind this week while reading about the riots, which have spread across France like wildfire since the death of Nahel M on Tuesday [27 June], who was driving away from a police officer who shot Nahel at point-blank range. 

It's predominantly young, black, working class people who are rioting in cities across the country, and it's also predominantly young, black, working class people who make up France's food delivery couriers. As if to make the link, a video has appeared of a rider being violently forced off his moped and beaten by armed police before being thrown in the back of an unmarked van.

This is no coincidence. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, "riots are the language of the unheard", and the gig economy is where many of the unheard go to make a living, due to its low barriers to entry, whilst the lack of rights entailed in this work means the vast majority of people who do have a voice in western society would never consider doing it. 

Access to justice is not equal when it comes to the policing and judicial system, and neither is it equal in the world of work. We could talk about racist facial ID technology and other explicit forms of racism embedded into digital labour platforms, but the bigger point is that you can't separate shoddy working conditions from who it is who is actually doing the work. In the case of riders "sans-papiers", who many believe make up a majority of food delivery couriers in big cities like Paris and Madrid, they literally have no rights.

And where do these riders come from? They "all crossed the Mediterranean," Clara Martot Bacry finds, in an investigation into food delivery couriers in the French port city of Marseille, where they are all using fake or sub-rented accounts.

“We are 99% Algerians, all undocumented," Ahmed, one of the Marseille riders, says. "Otherwise, do you think we would do Uber?"

Ahmed made it across the Med to be doubly exploited, first by Uber and second by those who rent accounts, but many don't get that far. How many of the hundreds of those who died off the Greek coast in the Pylos shipwreck, in what should be the scandal of the year but was quickly replaced in the news by a billionaire exploration gone wrong, would have ended up delivering food in Paris, Berlin, Milan, Madrid? Whether it's those shipwrecked, those brutalised by the police, or those delivering food without workers' rights, they're all "the unheard" Luther King was talking about; young, black, working class people.

MLK went on to add: "And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large sections of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity."

As French President Emmanuel Macron seeks a swift return to "tranquility and the status quo", those who are interested in its causes should talk about the need for "justice and humanity". Just and humane platform work wouldn't be a bad place to start, but we know Macron's not listening.

Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator

Gig Economy news round-up

  • WORK STOPPAGE AND MASS PROTEST IN THESSALONIKI AFTER RIDER DEATH: Riders in Thessaloniki, Greece immediately stopped work and began to protest outside the local ministry to demand health and safety protections after the death of a rider on Monday [26 June]. The 'Unions of Thessaloniki' protested again on Thursday [30 June] with a video of hundreds of riders tooting their horns through the streets. In a statement, the unions said that the tragic death of the 55-year-old rider was not the first and was "the result of the total lack of protection and safety measures, the pressure for rapid ‘service’, intensification and exhausting working hours, which confront workers with daily burnout, increasing the risks even further." The unions added that the platforms' protective measures are "constantly being cut back as health and safety ‘costs’ employers, state controls are non-existent, the relevant services and the Labour Inspectorate are being downgraded, while the Centres for the Prevention of Occupational Risks are under-functioning". They called for "an immediate investigation and a clarification of the causes" of the fatal accident. Read more here
  • COURT FINDS PLATFORM CLEANERS IN BARCELONA ARE EMPLOYEES: The Barcelona social court 15 has found that the 505 cleaners at Clintu Online SL are falsely hired on a self-employed basis. The court's verdict on Monday [26 June] was that the platform must employ the cleaners and pay €1.3 million in back-dated social security contributions. The judge stated that "the workers received orders and indications from Clintu, who is the one who organises the work" and that they "remain attached to the structure and organisation of the platform", including for the duration of service and prices. The complaint was filed by the CCOO union's Catalan section, which said afterwards that "the economy of digital platforms is an economic model that is based on the precariousness of female workers", adding: "These platforms often take advantage of anonymised data or the outsourcing of app accounts in order to take no labor responsibility." The union vowed to "continue to fight and organise new forms of work to guarantee the labour rights of workers." Clintu operates in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, and the union envisages court cases to be brought in the other two cities. Read more here.
  • UK UNION LEADER WINS EMPLOYMENT TRIBUNAL AFTER 8 YEAR BATTLE: James Farrar, General Secretary of the App Drivers & Couriers Union (ADCU) and a former Uber driver, has won his employment tribunal against Uber, which he first brought forward in 2016, but was continually appealed by the company. The judgement found that Farrar was owed £22,960.55 by Uber for unpaid annual leave and non-payment of the minimum wage. Farrar revealed earlier this month that he rejected an offer from Uber for a six-figure out-of-court settlement which the company had predicated on the union leader signing a non-disclosure agreement, stating that "private settlements prevent the courts ever reaching a proper determination" and that "I feel like I would have wasted my time and failed our campaign if I did not push on to a final court judgment that could be used to protect all Uber drivers in future.” Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, the ADCU's president, won a historic supreme court case against Uber in 2021, which found that the company's drivers are employees. Since then, many drivers have made legal claims, the vast majority settling out-of-court. Read more here.
  • GENDER-BASED DISCRIMINATION "COMMON PLACE" IN THE GIG ECONOMY, STUDY FINDS: A major global study published by FairWork, the academic-action project, has found that women suffering from violence and harassment in on-location gig work like food delivery and cleaning is "commonplace". The study took place over four years, 38 countries and 180 platforms, with FairWork researchers across the world conducting interviews with over 5,000 workers. Gig work which takes place in the home, like cleaning, care and beauty treatment, is overwhelmingly carried out by women, raising additional problems around safety, unpaid work and the use of ratings' systems by clients to exercise domination over female workers. and report co-author Anjali Krishan told 'The Guardian' that: “The thing that really came to the fore was the incidence of sexual harassment. I didn’t expect them to have to deal with so much – it was shocking.” Women were less likely to take work in certain neighbourhoods and at night due to safety fears, increasing the gender pay gap. Read more here.
  • IRISH TD CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION INTO DELIVEROO'S POLITICAL INFLUENCE: Thomas Pringle, an independent member of the Irish Parliament for Donegal, has called for a national and European inquiry "into the types of political influence" platforms are exerting, after it was revealed that Deliveroo shareholders had voted in favour of changing its its rules so that it can give political donations. Deliveroo is the largest food delivery platform in Ireland, and Pringle raised the issue at 'the Dáil' during Leader's Questions. Pringle said a constituent who had filed a regulatory complaint about the influence of Uber and Deliveroo was invited to a meeting with two Department of Enterprise officials, accompanied by ADCU General Secretary James Farrar. They called for platform workers to be employed, a legal minimum wage, and increasing the number of legal working hours per week for those in Ireland on student visas, to avoid them having to enter the informal economy to get by. Pringle told the Dáil that minimum payments for deliveries had fallen from €4.39 in 2019 to €2.90 in 2021, down to as little as €1.30 and €0.36 in 2023. Read more here.

In GEP this week

Ridehail bosses call for EU action after Spain declares taxis a ‘public service’

Law comes on the eve of Spain’s General Election in response to the Court of Justice of the EU ruling earlier this month.
From around the web
Bologna’s riders: ‘It’s not for us but for everyone!’

Maurilio Pirone, a founding member of Riders Union Bologna and post-doc researcher in platform labour in urban spaces, writes about the history of Riders Union Bologna in 'Social Europe'.
To Stop the Race to the Bottom, Europe Needs to Recognise Platform Workers as Workers

Nicola Quondamatteo, doctoral candidate in political science and sociology at the Scuola Normale Superiore, writes in Jacobin on the latest twists and turns of the EU Platform Work Directive.
Paper: Why does unpaid labour vary among digital labour platforms? Exploring socio-technical platform regimes of worker autonomy

Valeria Pulignano, Damian Grimshaw, Markieta Domecka, and Lander Vermeerbergen look at why unpaid work is necessary in the gig economy and what drives its extent on different platforms

Upcoming events

- Fairwork's first global report on 'gender and platform work' will be launched at a webinar on July 3rd, 2pm CET. Click here for full details and to register.

- The final hybrid conference of the project 'Don't Gig Up, Never!' by Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini (FGB) & Unione Italiana Lavoratori (UIL) will be held on 7 July, 9.30-12am in Rome, Italy. For full details and to register click here

- The first Platform Work Directive 'trilogue' between the EU Council, the Parliament and the Commission will be on 11 July. 

Know of upcoming events we should be highlighting? Let us know at

Get Involved

The Gig Economy Project is a media network for gig workers and we welcome contributions from workers, writers, academics, activists - anyone who wants to stand up for workers' rights in the gig economy.

If you would like to write for the site, discuss arranging an interview with GEP, or simply have information about developments in the gig economy in Europe you think we should be aware of, get in touch. 

Contact project co-ordinator Ben Wray at or send a direct message to the Twitter: @project_gig.

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