This article is part of a special report, The Essential Tech Worker.
MILAN — In the first weeks and months of the coronavirus pandemic, people across the world stepped out onto their balconies, opened their windows or stood on their stoops to clap for the health care workers risking their lives during the pandemic.
Another type of “essential worker” received less attention. And yet they played a big role in making our lives in lockdown more comfortable: They delivered pizza, sushi and poké bowls; they took us to the doctor’s office and drove us home when we couldn’t face taking public transport.
For many of these gig workers — delivery people and drivers working with platforms such as Deliveroo, Uber and Glovo — staying at home wasn’t an option. But showing up for work came at a personal cost.
With little or no access to sick pay or social security payments, many had to choose between the possibility of contracting the virus and the reality of having no means to pay their bills. Most had to buy their own protective equipment such as face masks and hand sanitizer. In a recent report, Fairwork — an organization researching best and worst practices in the emerging platform economy — found that most companies did not do enough to protect gig workers from exposure to COVID-19.
We asked riders and drivers in Europe’s major cities about what it was like to work through the pandemic. They all said: “We don’t feel safe.”
Riccardo Mancuso, Italy
“I was afraid — afraid of getting sick, of contracting the virus and passing it on to those around me,” said Riccardo Mancusco, 26, who works as a rider for the food delivery app Deliveroo to help finance his studies in Bologna.
The platforms didn’t provide workers with masks, gloves or hand sanitizer in the first weeks and months of the pandemic, according to Mancusco, who worked throughout the lockdown. “We felt left in jeopardy.”
It wasn’t until the trade union Riders Union Bologna launched a lawsuit against the platform in April, that Deliveroo started sending safety supplies to workers, according to Mancusco, who is a member of the union.
“In June, I received 10 masks, five bottles of hand sanitizer and a package containing about 50 pairs of gloves,” said Mancusco. The supply wasn’t enough to last longer than two weeks, after which he again bought his own. He eventually received a second package “with the same amount of materials” in late September.
In an emailed statement, Deliveroo said it “has distributed and continues to distribute personal protective equipment to riders (masks, sanitizing gel, etc.)” and guaranteed a refund of €25 if riders purchased their own. The company also stressed that it “implemented a ‘contactless’ delivery method” and offers financial assistance to riders if they fall ill: “€30 per day of compensation for hospitalization for up to 30 days”; “€1,500 one-time compensation for intensive care recovery, once discharged from the hospital”; and a “one-off lump sum of €350” if a rider has to self-isolate with coronavirus symptoms.
Not everyone can afford to buy their own masks and sanitizer out of pocket, said Mancusco. Some of his colleagues come from extreme poverty. Many are migrants who have just arrived in Italy and cannot afford to spend their salary on buying a new mask every day.
“They told us, ‘Buy them, and we will reimburse you,’ but I never heard of any rider who actually got anything back,” he said.
“The employers put our health and that of their customers at risk,” he added, pointing out that the platform hasn’t put in place any new policies going into the fall and winter, even as the number of infections is growing across the country and people fear further lockdowns.
Jérémy Wick, France
When France went into lockdown in March, Jérémy Wick, 31, quickly realized that his job was not compatible with health safety.
“We come in contact with too many people,” said Wick, who works as a rider for Deliveroo and Uber Eats. “I deliver 20 orders a day on average. There are elevator buttons, doors and doorbells to touch all the time, the possibility of getting sick is higher.”
Wick came down with a fever, cough and chills in late March and was told by his doctor to self-isolate. At the time, only those with severe respiratory symptoms were tested for coronavirus, but Wick is confident he had a case of COVID-19 — and that he was exposed at work, despite his efforts to follow social-distancing measures.
“I don’t know if I got it from a colleague, a customer or a restaurateur, I just know that neither of the two platforms I work for protected me,” he said. “None of them sent me enough masks, gloves or hands sanitizer. The first package came in May: There were only three [masks].”
He was attracted to the work initially because he thought there would be “freedom” in flexible working hours, but said he became disillusioned when he realized it amounted to what he calls “a hidden form of exploitation.”
Wick said he received €30 a day in compensation during his quarantine from Deliveroo. In an emailed statement, the company said its insurance scheme covering riders in France “amounted to €230 for 24 days.” It added that it offered riders “free remote medical consultations.”
Wick ended up suing both Deliveroo and Uber Eats, arguing for changes to his contract and that they should have done more to ensure his safety. “I don’t want other colleagues to risk their health like what happened to me,” he said.
The experience has made him re-evaluate the value of the “freedom” he thought his job afforded him. “In March, even my girlfriend got sick because of me. I felt guilty, we were afraid of dying. For what? Delivering a pizza?”
Joynal Khan, United Kingdom
Until the coronavirus pandemic hit home in the U.K., Joynal Khan was happy with his choice to become an Uber driver.
Originally from Bangladesh, Khan, 52, came to London 28 years ago and, with his wife, raised five children on a waiter’s salary. He started driving for Uber six years ago, attracted by the flexible hours and the prospect of being his own boss.
The company’s treatment of drivers during the pandemic was a “great disappointment,” he said. “No masks or other protective devices. I emailed Uber complaining about the lack of material, but they didn’t do anything.”
When his calls went unanswered too, he decided to buy his own masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. But because demand was so low between March until August, Khan didn’t work. People weren’t leaving the house, he said. And no customers meant no income.
“Fortunately, I received something from the government, but I was hoping that Uber would also help us with some financial help,” he said. “My family and I struggled a lot to get to the end of the month.”
Uber did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Now things are a little better, said Khan. People are hailing rides again on the app, and he is back behind the wheel. He has received some masks from Uber, he said, but also makes sure to buy his own stash, because the supply is unreliable. He also keeps hand sanitizer in the car for his customers — and to help protect himself from them.
“I’m a little afraid, but can’t help but work,” he said. “I do it for my family.”
Damian, 23, came to Madrid eight years ago from North Africa. Last year, he started working for Glovo, a Spanish food-delivery startup founded in Barcelona. The gig helped him finance his training to become an assistant cook — his dream job.
“I earn based on how many runs I do, and even during the months of lockdown I continued to work, I needed that money a lot,” said Damian, who asked to use an alias out of fear of losing his job.
He continued to work throughout the pandemic, even when he developed flu symptoms in mid-April. He is ashamed to talk about it, he said, but felt he had no choice at the time.
“I had a headache, and for a day a little fever. No cough. Maybe it wasn’t COVID, I don’t know, but I couldn’t afford two weeks of unpaid quarantine,” he said. “I would not have been able to pay my rent and other expenses, I would have ended up on the street.”
Glovo didn’t provide its riders with masks, so Damian had to buy his own and ended up using the same mask for several days in a row because he couldn’t afford to wear a new one every day.
None of the other platforms gave their riders protective equipment, and people got sick, said Felipe Corredor, a former rider and trade unionist from Madrid. But Glovo also “cut riders’ payments in half during the worst days of the pandemic,” when people were placing fewer orders, he said.
The effects were devastating for those who relied on those gig economy jobs. “These people are considered self-employed,” Corredor said. “If they don’t work, they don’t get paid, if they don’t get paid they don’t eat.
Glovo faced “initial difficulties” in procuring personal protective equipment because of disruptions to supply chains, Glovo co-founder Sacha Michaud said in an email. The company was eventually able to “provide around 133,000 masks, 71,000 pairs of gloves and 2,500 liters of hand sanitizer gel to our couriers worldwide,” she said. The changes to the compensation structure “were planned prior to COVID-19 and were implemented to address the imbalance that previously existed between short- and long-distance orders,” she added.
Damian said he still finds it hard to talk about those days, because he knows that his behavior put the lives of colleagues, customers and restaurateurs at risk. “If I went back, I wouldn’t do it anymore, but I was really afraid of ending up on the street,” he said. “I don’t have my family here. I don’t have anyone.”
Going into winter and the prospect of rising infections and further lockdowns, Damian says he feels more protected — not because of anything platforms are doing, but because people are better informed about how the virus spreads and how to behave. Still, he said, he knows the nature of his job isn’t compatible with a pandemic.