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Spain’s New ‘Rider Law’ Could Change the Gig Work Game

After more than four years of worker organising, Spain is the first EU country to legally recognise delivery riders as the employees of digital platforms – the next step is stamping out bogus self-employment entirely.

‘A young person on a bike with an app is not an entrepreneur.’ So insisted Spain’s Labour Minister Yolanda Díaz last month as the country’s government became the first in the European Union to pass legislation recognising delivery riders as workers of digital platforms.

The new Rider Law comes on the back of last September’s Supreme Court judgement that ruled couriers working with Spanish platform Glovo could not be considered self-employed due to the degree of control the company wields over them via its mobile phone application. Far from operating as a simple intermediary that connected consumers with independent couriers, as Glovo claimed, the court ruled its digital platform was used to organise, direct, and even penalise workers – thus meeting the definition of ‘legal subordination’ between employee and employer.

Now, under the new law, platforms such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats, Glovo, and Amazon Flex—which have been making huge profits through false self-employment practices—have three months to regularise the status of an estimated 17,000 delivery riders. For workers, this will mean an end to the extreme precariousness of piecemeal per-delivery pay, and access to formal employment rights like sick pay and paid holidays.

The law also establishes the right of trade union representatives to access information on the algorithms used by digital platforms (as well as by all other companies in Spain) in order to get a clear sense of how they affect working conditions. As Díaz explained: ‘All people must be able to know the way in which technology affects their work. This is the first legislation internationally that establishes this type of transparency… [and] will ensure that workers know the mathematical formula which organises their labour, in all its parts.’

The European Trade Union Confederation heralded the new legislation as ‘setting the standard for forthcoming EU action on platform companies’. At home, however, the country’s largest unions were more muted in their response, with Comisiones Obreras acknowledging that the law represented ‘a step forward’ but adding that it was ‘not sufficiently ambitious’.

In particular, a massive lobbying campaign from the tech sector ensured that the final text failed to extend employee status to gig workers other than couriers. The law also leaves open the possibility that companies will resort to subcontracting out their services rather than employing the riders directly.

But whatever the limits to the legislation, the advances contained in the Rider Law should be seen as the result of more than four years of organising among delivery workers in Spain – in particular, their determination to take on the digital platforms in a long-running judicial battle.

Taking on the Platforms

‘I started working as a [Deliveroo] courier in 2016 but was sacked in 2017 for trade union activity,’ Felipe Corredor Álvarez tells Tribune. ‘We were demanding better conditions and when the company refused to engage with us, and we organized the first riders’ strike here in Barcelona. That’s when we were let go [or ‘disconnected’ from the platform], but we took Deliveroo to court over the terminations and won.’

Corredor Álvarez is a spokesperson for Riders x Derechos, a nationwide association of delivery couriers that has been at the forefront of the struggle to secure employee status for those in the sector. Working first with smaller alternative trade unions such as IAC in Catalonia and then later with UGT (one of country’s largest unions), Riders x Derechos have organised a series of work stoppages and protests over the last four years, while at the same time mounting a successful media campaign to force the issue of gig workers onto the political agenda.

‘We initially organised ourselves so as to negotiate with the companies, but this hasn’t worked,’ Corredor Álvarez explains. ‘They just continued to ignore us and sought to divide us. But through our actions we have gained a lot of media coverage while building up alliances with gig workers in other sectors. We have also worked with lawyers to continually denounce the companies in the courts.’ Indeed, out of the approximately fifty cases brought by riders across Spain over the last four years, the courts have ruled in their favour forty-seven times, including last September’s historic Supreme Court victory.

‘At the end of the day, this is not a new form of work,’ insists Oriol Alfambra, another prominent activist in Riders x Derechos. ‘What we are doing is logistics, and there already exists a sectorial agreement covering such work, which we want access to.’ In contrast, the digital platforms claim their self-employment model offers riders greater flexibility of schedule to work when and where they want, as well as greater on-the-job autonomy —  a message which at least initially was packaged in the Silicon Valley-style rhetoric of individual empowerment and the new ‘sharing economy’.

The reality, of course, is quite the opposite, with riders subject to a mix of extreme informality and strict discipline as the stress of per-delivery work with no minimum hourly wage is combined with the pressure of being under constant surveillance by their mobile phone app. According to Corredor Álvarez, ‘You always feel like you are in competition with your co-workers and with yourself as you try to please the almighty algorithm. It is always measuring your productivity, your delivery speed, controlling and monitoring the route you take and responding to the customer ratings you receive.’

These data sets inform the riders’ overall ranking on the platform, which in turn goes towards determining the number of active hours each courier is assigned on the application the following week. With riders forced to compete in this way, any semblance of flexibility of schedule also disappears. They are penalised for rejecting too many deliveries or not being available during periods of high demand like weekend evenings, during major sports events, or when it rains or snows.

The degree of precarity in the existing model was underscored at the height of the pandemic when Glovo (Spain’s largest platform, with 48 percent of the market) unilaterally reduced delivery payments to riders by nearly fifty percent while, at the same time, expanding the numbers of couriers on its platforms to increase competition.

Evaluating the Rider Law

Unidas Podemos Labour Minister—and newly-appointed Deputy Prime Minister—Yolanda Díaz admitted last month that the negotiations around the new law had been the ‘toughest and longest’ that she had experienced in her eighteen months in the job.

She made a firm commitment to legislate for the employee status of platform couriers in June 2020 during a meeting with Riders x Derechos representatives, declaring that she hoped to bring a draft text to cabinet by last August. She also insisted that the law should have the widest scope possible, extending to gig workers in other sectors.

But alongside continuous lobbying from the platforms, Díaz also faced stiff resistance from more orthodox elements within the country’s coalition government, as PSOE’s Economic Deputy Premier Nadia Calviño repeatedly stonewalled the initiative. Calviño shared the delivery platforms’ preference for a change in labour laws so as to allow riders to be classified within the hybrid category of ‘economically dependent self-employed’. Like with California’s Prop-22, this would only see riders gain access to basic labour rights while ensuring the companies’ existing business model based on per-delivery payment could largely continue as before.

When negotiations between the labour ministry, unions, and the Spanish business federation (CEOE) finally began last October, the talks dragged on for a gruelling five months – with the final deal representing an uneasy compromise. The agreement did see the business federation break with the delivery platforms in recognising the employee status of riders, thus ruling out any possible legislative reversal, but this concession was only made on the condition of more minimal legislation limited to only the delivery sector. This is despite the fact that Spain boasts among the highest number of digital gig workers in the EU, who are active in services ranging from cleaning and home help to ridesharing.

For Corredor Álvarez, the law’s other main weakness is that the permanency of the existing workforce is not guaranteed under the new employment arrangement. The final text ‘does not set out any criteria (such as seniority) under which the company would be obliged to offer permanent employment contracts to their current couriers.’

As a consequence, the platforms themselves are using the three-month transition period to explore alternative models to directly employing the couriers, such as Just Eat’s extensive use of subcontracting, or the use of temporary work agencies. These practices are used extensively in Spain as a means to circumvent the terms of sectorial wage agreements, though workers would still have access to employment rights.

On a more positive note, Corredor Álvarez points to the importance of the regulations on algorithmic transparency, which the unions had fought for during the talks. ‘[As workers] we don’t know exactly how the algorithm functions. We can make an informed guess as clearly certain metrics (like the customers’ rating) are important… However the APP is like your boss, giving orders and evaluating you – meanwhile you do not know the exact criteria on which it’s all based.’

With an increasing number of companies beyond the gig economy also deploying forms of artificial intelligence, accessing corporate algorithms and subjecting their terms to collective negotiation has become a growing priority for trade unions in Spain and elsewhere. With the transparency provisions extending to the whole of the labour market, the Rider Law aims to ensure that the mass implantation of algorithmic management is not left to the companies’ discretion. All such formulae that impinge on working conditions have to be made available to the companies’ union representatives.

The Struggle Ahead

For her part, Díaz has made it clear she intends to return to the task of legislating for other gig workers, indicating it could form part of her plans for a wider reform of the country’s labour laws expected this autumn. As the de facto leader of the Spanish Left (after Pablo Iglesias’ recent retirement), Díaz is staking much of her political capital on this major reform, which she sees as encompassing a repeal of the Popular Party’s regressive 2012 labour reform and a new ‘Statute for Workers in the 21st Century’.

Ultimately, the degree of success of the Rider Law will depend on the outcome of these negotiations, particularly in terms of the reforms around limiting and regulating the use of subcontracting. If Spain’s economic recovery after the 2008 crash was built on low-wage precarious jobs facilitated by the PP’s labour reforms, Díaz is betting that this time around, the Left’s position in government can secure a major breakthrough for workers’ rights – but the degree of pushback already experienced during the Rider Law talks shows what an arduous task it will be to secure significant steps in that direction, not least because of the centrist credentials of Unidas Podemos’ coalition partners.

For their part, Riders x Derechos are committed to challenging the legality of any subcontracting employment regime in the courts, with the Cabify rideshare platform having already been fined €431,000 for directing a subcontracted fleet of drivers directly through its app. ‘This is not the end,’ insists Corredor Álvarez. ‘Our legal struggle continues, and it’s going to be a long one. We will need the union movement behind us yet again.’