In Europe, food delivery coops are fighting back against the gig economy

On 25 and 26 October 2018, digital platform food delivery workers from all over Europe will come together for the first time in Brussels, Belgium. Unlike the usual luxury conferences held in the European capital, attendees will have to crowdfund their own tickets. But that won’t stop the 100 or so couriers from meeting up to share their “methods of struggle and define a common strategy for better working conditions” in a bid to combat the “unacceptable” labour practices of online food delivery platforms such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Foodora.

The deliberate misclassification of these platform workers as ‘self-employed’ denies them fundamental workers’ rights, particularly in relation to a minimum wage, working time regulations, collective bargaining rights, insurance and health and safety protections (the latter two points are particularly crucial to food delivery workers who spend most of their working day on motorcycles or bikes). As a result, there have recently been a wave of protests in the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain condemning the exploitative nature of this work.

But as well as protesting, deliver workers have also been organising, with a number of bike courier cooperatives recently being established by couriers who once worked for these digital juggernauts. Ex-platform workers in Belgium, France and Spain are turning to democratic business models as a reaction to the precarity of the ‘gig economy’, and in a bid to shape decent work for themselves.

In Belgium, for example, ethical courier company Molenbike was born from the ashes of the now defunct Take Eat Easy. In France a similar situation led to the birth of CoopCycle, while in Spain the cooperative Mensakas is in the process of being founded.

Over time, these cooperative alternatives could be significant.

As of this year, Deliveroo has raised more than US$850 million in venture capital, while operating in around 200 cities across Europe and Asia. In the UK alone, according to a 2016 report from the Financial Times, Deliveroo employs around 20,000 couriers. And that ignores the size of comparable companies like Uber Eats and other local services operating in specific markets. If cooperative alternatives could only grab a slice of this market share, it could mean a boon for worker-owned businesses in Europe.

“Things are going back to the 19th century”

One of the countries where courier cooperatives are popping up is France. “There is no boss. We try to put democracy in all the things we are doing. Everybody is encouraged to speak up,” explains a representative from the French bike cooperative CoopCycle, who asked not to be named.

CoopCycle was founded by ex-workers of the Belgian food delivery platform Take Eat Easy, after it went out of business in 2016. That failure, and the ugly effects it had on the workers of this platform – some of whom were left stranded without an income – pushed them to organise.

Their beef with the traditional digital platforms lies squarely with their labour practices. Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Foodora, but also similar platforms in other sectors like the global taxi-service Uber, see themselves as simple intermediaries between independent couriers/drivers/service providers on one hand and customers on the other. Workers, however, have long complained that this arrangement forces them into low wage and precarious working conditions where they are forced to declare themselves as self-employed, despite having a traditional employee/employer relationship in most respects.

“This is just going back to the 19th century,” says the CoopCycle representative.

“Gig economy companies use self-employment to move all the risk onto the worker, while paying no taxes to contribute to the welfare state. They pretend to change [the nature of] work by allowing you to use your time how you want. But they dictate their rules to workers; workers are not free to do what they want. They have no social protection.”

Isabel Wagemans of Febecoop, an organisation supporting cooperatives in Belgium, tells Equal Times: “We aren’t for or against these types of platforms, but much of the wealth these platforms generate flows back to the owners of the platform, while the workers bear the risks.”

CoopCycle is currently developing an open-source software platform that cooperatives can use to offer food delivery services. “We believe coops can change the way the whole economy works,” says the spokesperson.

How viable is the cooperative model?

Cooperatives face a massive task in competing with digital food delivery giants, companies that receive hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital, and therefore can afford not to be profitable while offering artificially low prices.

“For now these types of platform cooperatives are still in their infancy,” Wagemans says. Nevertheless the hunger for an alternative to these large platforms is growing. “We do not play by the same rules as the gig economy. Our model is not based on burning large amounts of cash to play the ‘winner takes all’ game,” says the CoopCycle representative.

Successful alternatives have also appeared in other sectors, says Wagemans. “For example, in Denver in the US, there is a local taxi platform that is owned by more than 1,000 drivers.”

Cooperatives Europe, the European regional office of the International Cooperative Alliance, has been developing a vision for cooperatives in the ‘collaborative economy’, of which digital platforms are a key component.

“The collaborative economy has been accompanied by tensions,” says Louis Cousin of Cooperatives Europe. “Cooperatives are now experimenting with promising models for the responsible development of the collaborative economy.”

The people from CoopCycle agree. “One of the problems of our times, is that people feel powerless in their ‘bullshit jobs.’ Coops are a way to reintroduce purpose in the workplace, and allow people to feel they are a part of something.”

“We need to combine cooperatives and trade unions”

Trade unions also have a big role to play in “supporting the rise of platform cooperatives,” according to Wagemans. “Unions for example supported the Denver taxi cooperative,” she explains.

Thiébaut Weber from the European Trade Union Confederation agrees. “I’m strongly in favour of cooperatives because they allow for more worker participation and could help create social rights for these platform workers,” he tells Equal Times.

“Nevertheless, I think we need to combine cooperatives and trade unions. Cooperatives often still have bosses, they’re just elected. So workers still need representation.”

Weber admits that the cooperation between cooperatives and trade unions could be better in Europe: “There isn’t a form of structural discussion yet, although I think these things should start from the ground up. But I strongly believe we need more discussion and cooperation.”

Cousin of Cooperatives Europe is unsure about how much of a trend food delivery cooperatives really are. “Unfortunately, we do not have accurate data about cooperative development in the collaborative economy,” he says. But he adds that cooperatives are organising across Europe, and increasingly networking with each other.

For now, the efforts continue, with cooperatives getting off the ground in a number of European countries. And the folks at CoopCycle are hopeful about the future: “People often ask if there is an alternative. Yes, there is an alternative, and we can build it by focusing on something other than profits.”