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Society

Paid In Food, 14-Hour Shifts: How An Italian Delivery Racket Exploits The Most Vulnerable

Of 823 delivery riders checked in a recent police blitz, 92 were using accounts that belonged to someone else, rented to them for exorbitant rates. The investigation reveals widespread exploitation of these gig workers, who are often vulnerable, undocumented immigrants.

Image of a person riding a bike, on their way to deliver food in a street with cars and people.

A person riding a bike to deliver food in a street.

Monica Serra

MILAN — Some were forced to shell out €300 just to change a bike wheel or battery pack. Others were charged €1,000 for a bike. In one case, a Pakistani delivery rider said he worked for 12 to 14 hours every day, rain or shine, on Sundays and holidays, in exchange for food and €100 per month, forced to use a fake account provided by an exploitative compatriot.

This is the racket of illegal riders. Born during the explosion of delivery services during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities say it has taken on enormous dimensions.

After a 2019 investigation into exploitative labor practices in delivery services, Italian authorities fined platforms up to €90,000 and forced them to hire riders with pseudo self-employment contracts.

As part of a new investigation, Milan prosecutors are now waiting for the results of recent police checks in the northern city and elsewhere in Italy, including the cities of Turin, Genoa and Bologna. Prosecutor Maura Ripamonti says charges of illegal employment and exploitation of workers are expected.


Fake profiles, skimming earnings

Of 823 riders recently checked by police, 92 were found to be working with a fake account provided by someone else. Of those riders, 23 didn't have an Italian residence permit — without which they cannot be hired legally by delivery platforms. Instead, in order to work, they are forced to turn to the black market.

The owner of the fake profile may keep as much as 50% of the earnings.

Even some riders with work permits do this, even though they can open their own accounts legally. Usually, it's because they don’t speak Italian or English or don't know it's possible to do it on their own. As a result, many agree to exploitative terms offered by people who provide them with a fake account and in exchange skim some of their earnings.

Rates vary depending on the package offered. If riders need all of the gear — a bike, backpack and jacket — in addition to an account, the owner of the fake profile may keep as much as 50% of the earnings, which in Milan can amount to €70 per day.

Milan prosecutors believe many of the people offering fake accounts operate more than one account, which can allow them to make significant profit on other people's labor.

Image of a banner saying "Riders in Action", next to some food delivery cool bags, in Rome.

Banners made by food delivery workers during a strike in Rome.

Matteo Nardone via Zuma

A widespread phenomenon

Are the owners of fake profiles working on their own, or as part of an organized racket? This is one of the questions investigators want to answer.

The phenomenon is so widespread that it seems difficult to curb.

Many exploited riders use illegally modified bicycles, which can be as fast as mopeds. Police seized 22 of them during the latest checks. Battery packs, often stolen from scooters and electric bicycles, are used to modify the vehicles in specialized workshops and sold to riders for up to €1,000. Many of the seized bikes were similar, leading prosecutors to suspect that some organization may be responsible.

The phenomenon is so widespread that it seems difficult to curb. Doing so will require the cooperation of delivery platforms. But some, like Deliveroo, still refuse to add the rider’s photo to the app used by customers, which makes it much more difficult to tell if the delivery person is actually the owner of the profile.

The scam is harder to pull off with the Just Eat app, explains Davide Contu, a rider who works for the platform and is also a union delegate in the company of Italian Federation of Transport Workers. "The riders are hired with permanent employment contracts and are organized in fleets that, before starting their shifts, meet in a starting point — there are 15 in Milan, 4 in Turin and so on — where a shift leader, the ‘captain,’ is in charge of checking on his colleagues," he explains.

A way out

"Their tasks are to supervise the use of the personal protective equipment provided by the company: helmet and reflective vest; check the backpack in which food and drinks are carried; but also to check if there is a the correspondence between the contract holder and those who show up for work," he says.

Contu explains that this form of exploitation is also favored by “Bots and programs that circulate on Facebook groups that, for a fee, make it possible to unlock accounts closed by companies, and to open profiles with false documents.”

It's a huge problem, and the most desperate are the ones most at risk. The platforms need to step up, Contu says: “As long as platforms continue to treat riders as self-employed workers when they are not, controls can never be complete and effective. If the delivery people were all hired on regular employment contracts, the exploitation among riders would disappear. Or, at least, it would be much less widespread.”

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