Bologna. Italy. The bike wheels spin through the centre of a deserted and silent Bologna: there is a gourmet burger to deliver. Even in the midst of a pandemic, the ‘city of food’ doesn’t stop. The idea of dying as a hero, saving the life of some stranger, is almost preferable. Riding for Deliveroo, you risk your life just so some stranger doesn’t have to bother cooking dinner. We don’t even get the joy of being indispensable.
A banner appears at the window of a large villa on the main street: “Everything will be fine”. The city’s bourgeoisie is convinced that everything will go back to normal. For them everything was going well, a small accident on the road has undermined their linear lives, but they also make sacrifices because, as they say, “We are all in the same boat”. They are morally superior, they stay at home, they don’t stupidly risk their lives, nor the lives of others, they say. They can afford to be ethically superior. Life isn’t too bad in a hundred and fifty square meters. You work from home, or you just don’t work, no salmon and avocado bagels at Zoo café, no breakfast at Pistone bakery, no happy hour with bio-dynamic wine at Medulla, you’re making sacrifices like the rest. But back to us: there’s food to deliver.
After half an hour of waiting in a cold and deserted Piazza Maggiore and after being checked by the lurking cops, always on the hunt for wild joggers, we go back to work. No one will pay us for that half-hour wait, even if we’re on shift. Now the algorithm sends me to Burger King, the only fast food place open in town, where the majority of the riders’ orders are concentrated, also those working for Glovo, JustEat and UberEats. In the alley behind the fast food place there are 25 riders, 90% of them Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, and almost all of us not from Bologna – in short, we are all immigrants. While we are queuing up, yet another drone passes by, flying low, buzzing, probably also chasing joggers? We laugh, will this be the “state of emergency”, the pervasive power? Maybe, in fact a Moldavian girl in front of me calls the police. There shouldn’t be 25 people in an alley, she says, its not possible to practice social distancing. The police don’t show up, they’re busy elsewhere.
In the meantime, we wait angrily in an almost orderly line, waiting for a fast food employee to come and take orders with a pen on a piece of cardboard. Where’s the automation gone? Where’s the capitalist efficiency? Not here I’d say, with the Amazon drivers who’ve got no work, who come here in the evening to do their second job, people waiting a month to receive a parcel etc… Riders have long known that “software instead of people” is bullshit. Listening to the jokes, the theme is always the same: “Did they pay you?”, “Did you get your refund?”, “This stupid app doesn’t work”. Nobody knows exactly how their remuneration is calculated (which amounts to about 6 euros an hour before tax), your paycheck is often underpaid, the app doesn’t pick up your position, there are no refunds for waiting or bonuses for bad weather. You don’t have an office to turn to, you send an email waiting for a bot from a Spanish server to send it to some employee. Now, with half of Europe quarantined, who knows if they’ll answer you, there are fewer people working in the delivery companies, and who knows when we’ll see our money.
The emergency has laid bare the supposed perfection of the logistics machine. As much as we can dream of automation and acceleration, we discover that it’s a luxury for the bourgeoisie, a class privilege. In the end, the broad basis of production and reproduction is made up of our bodies, which strive, sweat, move, get sick, no more or less than a few centuries ago. For now, automation has only stolen our work, or made its management more despicable. You’ll understand that after only one evening using an app which tells you where to go, what to do and how much to earn. If you have a problem during a shift there’s only a virtual chat with other workers, also paid a pittance, who work permanently from home (and started doing so long before the pandemic), who go mad trying to remotely understand our problems.
This is the latest demonstration that this emergency brings nothing new: the measures already tested by the so-called sharing economy are expanded. We work by valorising our assets, computers, phones, cars, motorcycles, bikes, and homes. Whether we are talking about a precarious teacher or a courier, the costs of fixed capital are unloaded onto us – that’s capitalism baby!
We don’t talk much in the queue, we’re all alienated and pissed off. Some riders are getting angry at the Burger King employees: “These assholes don’t work, they’re slow.” The algorithm took away our healthy resentment for the boss, who’s now invisible. All that’s left to do is pick on the employees who give us the food to deliver. But there are 4 of them, in the only open and cheap fast food place in the city, managing hundreds of orders, without a boss (he’s “on sick leave”) and forced to work with limited staff because of the new health guidelines. This is a sector that the Italian government considers essential. To be clear, no one has masks or gloves, neither the riders nor the employees. That would be yet another expense burning into the night’s profits.
There’s some new faces in line, some Italian guys, a little out of place, who started working for these platforms at the beginning of the emergency. There are also those who have lost their jobs, or those who had to start working because their parents (from Southern Italy) have been left without work. “New blood in the city’s arteries.”
Minutes of waiting become hours, we lose patience, glued to our mobile phones, hoping that the hamburger won’t have to be delivered too far away, especially for those of us on bikes. Some people are luckier, in companies like JustEat and Glovo there’s a refund for long waiting times at the restaurant, us at Deliveroo don’t get a penny. The exasperation almost makes us more united and we end up talking to each other. While talking about who earns more or less, a guy tells me that he started working the first day of quarantine, he says that after initial uncertainty he starting getting a constant flow of intense work, made harder by these logistical nightmares at the fast food places, and the insecurity and fear of getting sick. A job is divided into several shifts during the week, always random and determined by the reliability score that the app calculates. Because to have access to more hours work, you have to open the app often and see what is free. Someone who has worked for a long time, and has never refused an order, or never missed a shift, has a higher score and has access to more hours. Those who maybe had an accident, or refused to work in the snow, or were sick, see their score go down, and have to start all over again. At the beginning of the job it’s better to accept everything to increase your score, show your loyalty to the production cycle. Companies talk up the flexibility, comfort and freedom of be an independent collaborator, which for many workers is a rare thing: the possibility to work when you want, for a few hours, after studying or doing other jobs. But if you aren’t reliable, you lose your chance to work. In fact, within the regulatory framework of the self-employed worker or autonomous worker, in which this job is included (without contributions and insurance but with a 20% withholding tax at the end of the month), the rider has become a fixed and indispensable job for the vast majority of people who do it. If this slice of “reliable” and experienced workers stopped the job, the entire home delivery sector would blow up, as they couldn’t rely on young students from Bologna, who are too intermittent.
After an hour of standing in line, two girls are talking to each other, complaining about the Pakistanis – every time the Burger King employee arrives to take orders, they crowd together, jump the queue, stand next to each other, they don’t care about social distancing, they say. Foreigners also represent the most experienced riders, they work mainly with mopeds (obviously without any kind of refund for fuel, maintenance or injuries) and have seen many native workers come and go, who soon enough get bored, find better jobs or have the support of their families to wait for better work. It is clear that in the labour market, race, as well as sex, have a specific weight, Italian workers have access to a wider slice of the market, especially if young and educated.
On top of all this, we do not see anything exceptional in our shift in the midst of a pandemic. Normality is relative. We work as always, without any protection and for the usual small change. You go out, you pedal around, you take a few shifts, you come home, you do another job or you change your backpack to do the same things with another platform, there are those who change municipality and move to San Lazzaro or Casalecchio, to have access to other shift schedules. You finally come home, and how can you start cooking? Let alone go out jogging.
Does normality reign supreme? Perhaps. You can still feel that one thing has changed: our patience is running dry. By ourselves on the streets we used to meet a lot of people, buses, cars, tourists, men in suits, people shopping, we were, like many others, invisible. The city in lockdown highlights the disposable workers, the frontline of production, people have got used to staying at home and ordering food as much as and more than before, while we’re out working. There’s just us on the street, some bin men and police cars. Maybe we’re starting to feel indispensable. The words that come out of the sealed and alienated heads of the most experienced riders are of impatience and anger, more than fear of getting sick. Food and courier companies mourn the crisis, but in the face of their ability to use the redundancy fund, the crisis in the sector is put onto our shoulders, with no protection and no trade unions interested in our situation. With all respect to the improvised riders’ unions, no one here has even heard of their “Charter of Rights”, which has remained dead ink on paper, and proved to be nothing but useful propaganda for the city’s Left. If the emergency has highlighted the inefficiencies of the logistics sector, overloading our work has also eroded our patience. Because you end up asking yourself: “Why am I not also at home ?”
After an hour and forty-five minutes of waiting, I take my orders and I find that I have to go three and a half kilometres away, and then probably back downtown to take a few more orders. I’m followed by other riders who are heading, like me, towards the suburbs. I find myself in a sad courtyard in the San Donato neighbourhood, and while I look for the bell a lady comes out, alone with three children, the dinner is for her. I apologize for the wait. I leave for the final delivery point, an anonymous sandwich maker in the city centre. While preparing the order, the owner invites me to sit down and complains about the food delivery companies, they cost a lot and depending on your geographical location, especially if you’re surrounded by other restaurants that already make deliveries, it costs even more to join: 600 euros to activate the service and up to 35% commission on food. For restaurants before it was impossible to make money without making deliveries, now, in an emergency, it’s unthinkable. “You know, a lot of places close, because they can afford to. We can’t. People want takeout, it’s almost like going out.”
I take my order and I leave, I thank the owner for the glass of water he gave me ‘on the house’ (sic!) and I leave thinking about that 35% commission and how much of it goes into my pocket, and that many restaurants will never get out of this crisis, even Bologna ‘la grassa’ – “fat Bologna” as it is called – will have to go on a diet.
I deliver my last order, crossing paths with another rider who was pissed off at the girl he’d delivered to. She made him do 4km, complained about him being shlow and didn’t leave a tip (unspoken rule). We bike together for a while, riding home on the empty streets – bam! Flat tire. Lots of swearing. Say goodbye to three hours of work.
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