Delivery apps make gig work a ‘digital wild west’

For about a year during the pandemic, Marco made a living cycling the cobbled streets of Rieti in Italy, delivering meals for Spanish app company Glovo. Then all of a sudden, his orders dried up.

Marco is one of a dozen Rieti runners who have lost their income to third-party apps that subvert the booking systems of delivery platforms like Glovo – leaving gig workers to pay to book jobs, executives said unions.

“These apps have created a digital Wild West, pitting low-wage workers against each other,” said Mario Grasso, spokesman for Italy’s UILTuCS union.

In Italy, where more experienced or higher-ranked Glovo riders have priority when it comes to picking shifts, the apps are being used by novice workers who struggle to get orders without them.

The phenomenon is not unique to Italy. As COVID-19 fueled demand for the delivery of meals and other goods, third-party apps that make a profit by helping freelance couriers place orders have popped up from Spain to the United States.

“Workers tend to use these systems because the income opportunities or the way jobs are assigned don’t seem fair to them,” said Alessio Bertolini, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork project.

He described the apps as technological versions of industrial-age gangmasters, adding that their growth was rooted in poor working conditions in the gig economy.

The apps use various techniques to disrupt delivery systems set up by companies like Glovo and operate without the companies’ consent.

Glovo, which is one of Italy’s leading delivery apps and operates in 23 countries, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Robot problems

Marco, who asked not to give his real name, started working for Glovo in 2020 when the app was relatively new to Rieti, joining a handful of other runners serving the town’s 47,000 residents.

Twice a week, at set times, the app allows runners to book the hours they agree to work over the next few days, and Marco has slowly climbed the platform’s ranking system.

Workers with the highest rank — based on a runner’s length of service, peak-hour availability, reviews, and efficiency — get first pick, while those with a low score have to wait and see what’s left.

Marco said that initially there was enough work for everyone, but things changed in 2021 as more riders joined the platform.

The number of gig workers in Italy doubled to half a million between 2019 and 2021, according to state research body INAPP.

“I soon found myself unable to book hours,” Marco said over the phone, adding that as his income dwindled, he fell behind on his rent and had to look for another job.

Runners and unions said this was due to an increasing number of Glovo runners in Rieti using apps such as GlovoBot and SushiClicker, which are robots that automatically book times as soon as they are available, whatever regardless of their ranking.

They said Glovo cracked down on fake email profiles – another tactic used by some workers to skip the queue.

Better security or lower salary

Grasso of UILTuCS, said the union reported the app’s issue to the Italian labor inspectorate, alleging that the use of the bots may be unlawful and a violation of Glovo’s terms of service.

“We would also like Glovo to do more to block these automated systems,” he said.

The labor inspectorate declined to comment.

Rieti Police Inspector Alessandra Ciulla said the use of bots could be considered a form of unfair competition and could become a criminal matter if Glovo complains about damage to its software, she said. declared.

SushiClicker could not be reached for comment.

A request for comment from GlovoBot prompted a response from a Polish company named Ecoweb, which said the app was on sale “as of today” and no longer updated. He said that Glovo had updated its software, which made it difficult for Glovobot to work.

Another inquiry sent to Ecoweb drew an email from its owner, Przemyslaw Pasieko, who said he was a former Glovo pilot and had developed the app out of frustration with the company’s work-booking system. Spanish platform and to improve courier safety.

“When the courier is driving, he…doesn’t have to search for hours to book,” the email read.

But Luigino Serilli, a Glovo pilot in Rieti, said that in small towns where pilots compete for few orders, apps like GlovoBot push those who don’t pay for their service out of the market. GlovoBot charges passengers up to €50 (about ¥6,470) per month.

“That’s what we do in one or two days,” Serilli said.

“Hungry Fish”

Complaints about bots have also been reported elsewhere.

Ruben Ranz, from the Spanish union UGT, said bots were popular in Spain until last year, when a new law forced delivery companies to employ their couriers and Glovo scrapped its courier booking system. slots.

Sharon Goen, a member of the Gig Workers Collective in the US, said bots were common among couriers working with Instacart and Amazon Flex, where competition for high-paying “blocks” of work was high.

Deliveries on these platforms are usually awarded to the fastest person to swipe on.

“I feel like we (the delivery people) are like a bunch of hungry fish shaking their heads in the water when someone throws breadcrumbs at them,” she said over the phone.

The developers of a bot, Flexomatic, which runs on Amazon Flex, said they were aware their business model raised ethical issues and that using their app violated Amazon’s terms of service, but believed that they were providing a useful service.

“We’re basically saving people time,” said Flexomatic managing director Remi Marenco, a former Flex worker who said couriers normally waste hours updating the app to get the jobs they want.

Flexomatic, which charges up to 4% of what couriers are paid for a delivery, allows users to preset the hours they wish to work and the minimum wage they are willing to accept, and automatically picks up deliveries that fit the bill, Marenco said. .

The app currently has around 1,000 active users in countries like Britain, Germany, Singapore, and Japan.

Amazon declined to comment.

Instacart said it is dedicated to preventing illicit or fraudulent apps from violating its terms of service and that its efforts to do so include banning bad actors, taking legal action and disabling those who abuse. of the platform.

But Fairwork’s Bertolini said the solution may lie elsewhere.

“If delivery apps were to provide normal employment contracts and pay, workers might need to use these tricks less,” he said.

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