Since its founding in 2015, Glovo has been expanding across the Iberian Peninsula and the world so quickly that we have not had the time to appropriately react and evaluate its impacts on our lives. The company uses a business model and marketing strategy that were first developed and perfected in Silicon Valley, USA by giants such as Google, Uber, and Facebook.
These new “platforms” create a new power relationship between itself and its workers and between itself and society, allowing it to avoid things that we expect of most members of society, such as taxes, decent labor conditions, and a basic sense of responsibility for its actions. This new dynamic has proved extremely dangerous in the United States where a dystopian world has taken place in which basic worker protections are a whimsical dream, and extreme exploitation is the norm.
I am standing outside of a fancy burger restaurant smoking a cigarette. I’m checking my phone over and over, watching as the clock ticks steadily on and on. I have been here for an hour so far and I’m being paid five cents a minute to wait for a pair of burgers to leave the kitchen in a brown bag, signaling my freedom to jump back on my bike and do the only thing I enjoy about this job: riding dangerously fast through urban areas at night.
This is the second time I’ve been here tonight. Later, when I do a rough calculation, I’ll find that I spent only 70 out of 200 minutes actually doing my job: biking and interacting with clients. Another 104 minutes were spent like this, waiting for food. This has turned out to be the most prevalent aspect of working as a contract worker for Glovo – the waiting.
Here’s how it works. A few days ahead of time, you sign up for the hours you want that week. If you’re a beginner, you’re only going to get evening shifts, and mostly on the weekend. Once the shift arrives, you sit around waiting for an order, which can take a while. Once you get one, you ride to the location. Then you end up waiting again as they prepare the food, usually 10 minutes to an hour depending on the time of day, day of the week, and the restaurant. After the food arrives, you take a photo of the receipt and take off towards the client, often traversing most of the city. When you arrive, the client signs your phone application with their finger, you give them the food, and you go back outside to wait for the next order. If it isn’t a high demand hour, you likely have to bike back into the city again before you can get your next job, since orders are given out based on proximity to the pick-up location.
In theory, you have the “freedom” to pick whatever hours you like, and there is no consequence for changing your mind, even in the middle of a shift. In reality, we deliver food almost exclusively, and people only want food delivered to their home at particular times. By definition, this means the hours are more or less predetermined, and they are when you’d rather be relaxing with friends. While it’s true that you can change your mind, if you do it often enough your “Excellence Score” begins to drop, something that affects how many hours you can work, and how likely you are to get orders during your shift.
They say we can accept or reject orders, but they do everything possible so that we activate “auto-assignment”. If we choose not to use it, our “Excellence Score” quickly starts dropping. Even if you turn it off, orders only show up during the highest-demand hours, and orders appear to first be given out to those with the feature enabled. On the other hand, if you have auto-assignment turned on, orders just appear on your phone, and for some reason the worst orders with the longest wait times always seem to appear just as your shift was supposed to end. This really amounts to choice, not freedom – the choice to do exactly what the company wants, or to lose money and time. But freedom sounds much better from a marketing perspective.
Even given all this, so far I’d been surprisingly happy with the work. I had signed up as a Glovo “collaborator” in order to investigate the reality of being an on-demand worker in one of the fastest-growing companies in Spain. But since I like biking and hadn’t been doing enough of it lately, it turned out I was actually enjoying myself. At the same time, I had a hard time understanding how my new colleagues were making ends meet in this system. I don’t have a family to support, or a mortgage to pay, and working every day of the week in a physically demanding job wasn’t paying much more than my previous, part-time job where I taught English. It seemed like a difficult way to make a living, even if it did make buying a gym membership unnecessary.
A few things influenced my decision to investigate Glovo. I come from the United States, but left around eight years ago. I was a member of the first generation in a brave new world of technological children. We watched Facebook grow into a household name, Apple Ipods turn into Iphones, and Netflix replace the living-room television. But I was gone before mobile data coverage and increasingly sophisticated smartphones enabled the true capabilities of application-based living to take root in society. When I was little, the internet was a fancy new way to search for help with high-school assignments and play free online games. By the time I left, the first signs of a transformation in the U.S.-American social and labor fabric had started to become visible. The destructive changes precipitated and encouraged by technological companies and the “gig economy” are major factors in the decreasing quality of life I chose to leave behind, and their absence here is part of what protects the impressive quality of life I enjoy now.
Living here in Basque Country, I feel a sense of responsibility to bring attention to Glovo and its look-alikes. Here there is a strong sense of exceptionalism and not always a strong understanding of international trends, which means people are utterly taken aback when I describe some of the living conditions in the modern U.S.A.: high costs, 60 hour work weeks, and a generally miserable quality of life. In the “land of opportunity”, primary and secondary school teachers need second and third jobs to pay rent, mental illness goes untreated as millions of people lack any type of medical coverage, and those that are insured pay at least $500 a month for family policies that barely cover the basics. Vacation time and retirement are essentially unheard of, employees are expected to answer work emails and calls at any and all hours, fully employed families cannot afford childcare, and higher education costs between $20,000 and $40,000 a year on average. In isolated rural areas or regions the economy has left behind as tech work replaces factories, jobs are often unavailable. In wealthy urban areas where tech money congregates, jobs are widely available but working-class conditions are regularly grim or absurd, and even high wages, long hours, and multiple jobs are not enough to keep pace with soaring rents.
In the Basque Country, however, unions and specialized manufacturing labor have delayed many of these developments. From here, it can be difficult to see the danger posed by a bunch of bikers in yellow backpacks. But large changes always begin with small, almost imperceptible steps that slowly normalize a new status quo. As a U.S.-American living in Basque Country, I decided I was not comfortable standing by as these forces gained ground here.
So to fight Glovo, I decided to become one of them. I attended two hour-long meetings and set up my new contractor status with a company that processes employee paperwork. I was immediately hired with no screening process whatsoever. During the entire “interview process” I was asked only one question: “bike or motorcycle?”.
My first night I was nervous and excited. Waiting outside my house, nervously perched on top of my bike, I picked up an order in the first 20 minutes and excitedly sped away to start my shift. To my great amusement and frustration, I then spent the next hour trying to get the application and support team to receive the photo I’d taken of the receipt. After finally, agonizingly, succeeding in proving I’d found the right bag of food, my mobile coverage for the month ran out. After deducting IVA, I made eight euros in three hours.
The next night I got a flat in the first 30 minutes, and had to spend the next hour and a half walking from the city center to the customer’s location, and back into the city again. The day after that, the new tube I’d bought turned out to be faulty, and I didn’t get to do anything except try to fix my bike. It was a stressful first week, and I made a total of around 30 euros that paid for about half of what Glovo charged me for the required company backpack.
But, after patching my tires, troubleshooting the application, gearing up with emergency bike-repair tools, I went out again the next week. Surprisingly, it went well. I spent a total of around 33 hours working for Glovo, didn’t get any flat tires, and made 271,23€, before subtracting 21% for IVA in what I later learned was an unusually good week. But more interestingly, it turned out I’d been missing the thrill of biking, the sense of confidence that I have on two wheels. After decades of dodging traffic, I find myself able to almost see into the future, knowing where a space will open up before it appears. As I fly down dark streets, alone and surrounded by a society comforting itself in family meals and friendly get-togethers, I revel in my ability to know the flows of traffic lights and pedestrian habits, allowing me to barely slow down in complex intersections. I feel the wind on my face, the burning of my over-worked thighs, and I push forward towards my next destination, all in the service of the on-demand food industry.
It’s possible to confuse my enthusiasm for biking with reason to promote Glovo, but the problem with Glovo is not that it takes place on a bicycle. Deliveroo and Glovo often try to excuse their working conditions by claiming that employees view their job as “fun.” But this is a dangerous conflation of hobby with necessity. Just because I enjoy teaching English doesn’t mean I should have trouble paying my rent. The same is true for Glovo. In fact, messengers have existed for decades. I am far from the first anarchist punk to find a sense of freedom in navigating a city on two wheels. But in the past, these skills were rewarded with high pay and employee status.
The problem with Glovo is the model it is trying to normalize in the Basque society and economy, only by accident related to urban biking. After all, Glovo isn’t the only company “revolutionizing” an industry, they are part of a global trend spearheaded by Uber, Airbnb, Amazon Flex, WeWork, and dozens more like them. These companies are part of a new norm, where workers are hired as independent contractors rather than employees, and managed by an application rather than a boss. They are part of a new evolution in capitalism that has become the fastest-growing business trend in the United States. There, these types of “platforms” work in almost every sector imaginable. Truckers, cleaning services, taxi rides, grocery shopping, and almost anything else you can imagine is now done using these services.
These companies have found a legal loophole that creates an entirely one-sided power dynamic between them and their workers. In traditional jobs, the workforce enjoyed a certain amount of bargaining power, power that flowed naturally from fundamental qualities of the businesses whose value they generated. The best-unionized industries have been those in which employees congregated together in specific places, benefited from the legal recourse of collective bargaining laws, and most importantly, shared strong social ties outside the workplace that incentivized cooperative behavior.
Glovo, and companies like it, have created a situation in which none of those factors exist. Instead of commiserating together about our jobs, my workmates and I are incentivized to compete against each other through an “Excellence Score” that dictates when we can work and how much work we get during our hours. As my boss said to me and another prospective Glovo messenger, “You are workmates, sure, but you are also competition”, a philosophy that invades every aspect of our job. To make matters worse, we have no central meeting place. Coworkers only encounter one another primarily in the waiting areas of the restaurants that can’t manage to make a hamburger in less than an hour.
In the gig economy, already-isolated people are forced by necessity into further-isolating work. Language, legal status, or other disadvantages can be a barrier both to acquiring a good job, and to organizing within one. Those who enjoy a secure social and financial place can afford to assert their interests, and can choose to walk away from a bad option. But for workers in a precarious situation, jeopardizing a job that was difficult to acquire becomes a risk that is too great to take. At Glovo, most of us have no other job to fall back on, with some of my coworkers being unemployed for as much as three years before becoming a messenger. At the State level, before finding their current job, 1 in 5 gig economy workers previously endured a long period of unemployment.
When you also consider that we have almost no legal recourse due to our contract labor status, things begin to look pretty grim. We work in a world where our social ties are flimsy and fleeting, where if we are hurt we can expect little to no assistance, and where it’s difficult not to see our workmates as obstacles to getting another order. What this amounts to is a work environment that pits us against each other in a new and efficient way, driven by the possibilities of geolocation, smartphones, and a precarious population desperate for any type of work no matter the conditions. At the same time, companies like Glovo have succeeded in stripping away all of the structural elements of past employment that bonded workers together and enabled them to work towards better conditions. We are a class of unnoticed, underpaid immigrants with few other options open to us, and this decimates the possibilities of worker power. Given all this, who can be surprised that we make on average between 62% and 43% less than non-gig economy workers?
Together, these factors combine to form reality in which our relationship with Glovo is completely unequal. We have no Human Resources desk to go to with issues, just an email address and a manager who is only available for six hours a week. We are alone and stranded in the dark and the rain with only a slow and unhelpful chat feature to support us during our deliveries. And since we are paid by orders, not by the hour, the company loses no money if the application has errors, the address is impossible to find, or if the food won’t leave the kitchen. Every time we are not paid extra for rain, we must spend time at home writing out emails to try to receive our pay. Every time the application won’t upload a signature, we are the ones losing time and money. If a machine fails to function properly in a traditional office or factory, the company is incentivized to fix it so that you can return to the work you are being paid to do. In Glovo, any breakdown in the application, our transportation, the clients, or the restaurants results in the couriers suffering the consequences. Glovo looses no money and no clients, and therefore, has no interest.
This is part of a large-scale shift in the possibilities of international business, one that has been accelerated by these platform technologies. One of the best ways to make money in a business is to externalize your costs and privatize your profits. One might say this is the core goal of capitalism. A simple example could be dumping toxic waste into a lake instead of paying for safe disposal. The company’s disposal costs are externalized onto the ecosystem, onto those who use the lake or drink its water, and eventually onto the publicly funded entity that will have to clean up the lake someday.
But this example is as old as time. You could dump your waste in a river, but you still had to pay for the factory, for employees, or for raw materials. All of these costs are a barrier to making ever-larger profits. For Glovo and every other application-based company, there are almost no real costs. After making the application, Glovo only needs a few sparse physical locations. It has contracted out its workforce to avoid paying social security and benefits and so it owns no motorcycles, bicycles or cars. Glovo does not pay taxes for a large downtown office building in my city, or even the electricity that charges my phone. Glovo, in a sense, does not exist in the real world. Glovo is a kind of ethereal ghost with no real physical presence, impossible to touch or communicate with, sucking money out of thin air.
All of the costs that were once taken on by a delivery company with a physical location and paid employees are now taken on by the contracted labor force, or society as a whole. If my bike breaks, I must pay to fix it. If I am hit by a car, without real insurance, the public health system must pay for my care. If I get sick, or have a child, Glovo has no responsibility to give me paid time off. Glovo has effectively externalized every cost associated with moving food from one place to another, only paying for its application, its data servers, and the orders completed. Every other cost is borne on the back of its workforce and society. But the profits, or course, are for Glovo alone.
Tonight it’s Sunday and I’m speeding down a familiar road, a main thoroughfare between a shopping mall and downtown. I’ve been working for nine hours so far, and my mind is starting to turn fuzzy. I’d spent the day before celebrating the birthdays of my partner and a friend, and needed to make up the hours if I wanted to end the month with a decent paycheck. By 10:00 pm, I’ve begun to see pedestrians in my path, only to take a second look and realize they’ve transformed into a parking meter. Around hour eight I’d gotten dizzy and almost vomited over my handlebars, but managed to hold it in. And I’m not some weekend day-rider either. I’ve taken month-long bike trips, covered 300 kilometers in a day, and I’m still young and relatively in shape. But after an entire day of your phone beeping urgently, cars swerving in and out of your path, and blissfully oblivious pedestrians who don’t bother to look when crossing bike paths, the stress of constant and total awareness will take its toll on the best of us.
As I accelerate out of a roundabout, I hear the unmistakable sound of metal on pavement behind me. I turn, and see a motorcycle lying on top of a Latin-American man in the middle of a badly-lit crosswalk, with a blue Domino’s Pizza box on the back. I make a sharp U-turn and stop my bike, hoping my new, expensive bike lights will catch the attention of any motorists before they worsen the situation . I lean down and take a look. The motorcycle isn’t touching the man’s leg, but I ask to make sure. In shock, he just moans. I look him in the eyes, move close to his face, and repeat loudly, “Is the bike touching your leg?”. He shakes his head. “Then I can safely move the motorcycle. Do you want me to move the motorcycle?” He nods. By this point, about a half-dozen people have materialized, but they also seem to be in shock. I pick a strong-looking guy, and point at him, and order him to help me lift the motorcycle. As we are returning, the other pedestrians have decided to move the motorist. It’s too late to stop them, and from what I saw of the accident he shouldn’t have any internal injuries, you would think that they should know better.
At this point someone is calling the police, everyone is ignoring me as I try to tell them to give the man some air, and I realize there isn’t anything more I can really do. My drop-off point is about 100 meters away. I’m losing money. I have work to do. I get back on my bicycle, and pedal away. After I finish smiling at and thanking another client who doesn’t give me a tip, I ride past the accident again. Two police cars and an ambulance have arrived, blocking off the street and putting the man into a crash cart. As I move on to my next order, I can’t help thinking about the next few days in this man’s life. Hopefully he has papers to legally work, or he’s completely screwed. With the public health care system here, he won’t have to go bankrupt for his health-care costs, but he won’t be riding a motorcycle for a while. Domino’s pays just over six euros an hour, and I’m told that they have insurance for their employees, and on top of this the company is required to pay a portion of his pay until he is ready to work again. All of these are benefits that I do not have as a contract worker, and an accident like this for me would mean weeks without pay, on top of repairs for the motorcycle. For people in precarious positions, without the labor benefits that we have won over the course of the 20th century, these kinds of small blows are harder to recover from, turning small risks into real problems that can spiral out of control. As I pedal on through the night, I’m glad he has some type of a safety net, and I hope that this helps him, quite literally, get back on his feet.
It’s hard to believe that all this is worth a pizza.
During my time in Glovo, my US-American background has been a bit of a conversation piece. Almost everyone working at Glovo is an immigrant, and almost all of them have briefly been in the USA, or desperately want to go there. It’s not hard to understand. If someone’s cultural context is successful get-rich schemes on television and the enduring propaganda of the American Dream, breaking your leg for 6 euros an hour in Basque Country doesn’t look incredibly appealing. U.S.-American capitalism is based on competition and an upward gaze, identifying yourself with those above you in the corporate hierarchy and proving your worth in competition to your peers. Unfortunately, the image of wealth and success is idea, not reality, and they can only be dis-proven through harsh personal experience. And so again and again I find myself in the situation of tempering coworkers’ illusions about Uncle Sam and opportunity, struggling to find words and metaphors that might convey the daily struggle of an average U.S. citizen.
While it’s true that the average US-American worker makes more in nominal dollars than the average worker here, this simple fact shrouds a much darker truth. Take for example what I know about the students who graduated from university with me a few years ago. There are two categories. The first category are those who come from a middle-class background, scraped together some scholarships, had parents who invested a significant amount of their meager savings in their child’s education, and then took out around $100,000 - $200,000 in debt to pay the rest of the school fees, books, and rent. Every one of them that I know is now working at an entry-level job in a Starbucks equivalent, making minimum wage on a 40 or 50 hour workweek, barely getting by. The other category are those who never had to worry about loans because their parents had enough money to casually pay out of pocket the $60,000 yearly tuition, $15,000 yearly rent, and other thousands of dollars in everyday expenses and books. These students, the ones that I know of, are all working in the banking sector at companies like Goldman Sachs.
These disturbing economic outcomes for even the most highly-educated US-American youth starkly illustrate the new normal of the US-American economy. Trends in the data tell the story, and it isn’t pretty. Since the crisis in 2008, GDP growth has recovered and surpassed its previous records. Yet in 2015 there were still 5% fewer jobs than there were in 2007. The jobs lost in 2008 were of the same category as those that have been gradually eroded since the 1980s: steady, full-time, strongly-unionized lifetime jobs with generous benefits, healthcare packages, low employee turnover, and potential for promotion, savings, and retirement. The new jobs are temporary, badly-paid, often part-time, and include no benefits
- much like those at Glovo. While the average income of the top 1% of wage earners has rocketed up over 240% since 1979, worker spending power has flat-lined as the working-class cost of living has gradually risen. Today, this has snowballed into a situation where 47% percent of US-Americans report that they are unable to produce $400 in the event of an unexpected emergency. Even in decent jobs, US-Americans have no mandated time off per week, no paid annual leave, no paid maternity or paternity leave, and absolutely no public medical coverage. The average US-American CEO today making 400-500 times the wage of a typical worker. To compare, in Spain this ratio is around 125 times, and I’ve heard serious complaints from Basques about The Mondragon Corporation’s decision to increase this ratio from three times, to nine.
I am watching from afar as the US economy is split in two, with one small minority taking almost all of the profits and the huge majority being paid less and less for more and more work. We are watching as jobs with benefits and disposable income disappear and are replaced by “gigs” like Uber or Amazon Flex. Some are surprised at this change, but given the changes systematically undermining worker power, it is difficult to see what is so surprising. Some see the economy as a game of efficiency and production where successful companies will create a wealthy middle class. Others, like myself, see the economy as a fight to the death between working class families and an owning class, a fight in which improvements in conditions and pay are only won by gaining leverage and popular power.
Without ignoring the inequalities and exploitation inherent in the colonialist 20th century economy, it is important to note that something new and dangerous is happening. In this new world of platform businesses, there are only two types of jobs. In Glovo, there are the people who move food for wages that would be blatantly illegal if they were employees, and those who run the company and build its application. Glovo has created a duopoly, a company made up of only two classes of workers, those with real paychecks, benefits, social security, and stock options worth hundreds of thousands or millions of euros, and those without.
If you look at the modern tech giants such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter, Uber, etc., compared to pre-21st century manufacturing companies, they appear to have almost no employees, no physical presence except some headquarters in a hip, coastal city, and create no tax revenue. These practices produce an incredibly high ratio of profits compared to costs, and in fact this business model doesn’t seem to have any costs at all.
In Spain at least, Glovo’s biggest “innovation” in externalization is the contract worker status we are all required to have. In 2013, the monthly quota for independent contractors was changed from a fixed rate, to a scale. Now, you begin by paying only 60€ a month. Once a year goes by, if your business is still open, this fee climbs to over 100€ a month, and the third year it flattens out at 364.22€ a month. In the job interview for Glovo, I asked about the quota. My boss, without prompting, began causally telling me how almost every single employee quits after a year, because it’s not financially worth it to pay the rising quota while your income remains constant. In my case, the full quota would take almost half of my monthly paycheck, rather than 1/16th it does now.
This means that Glovo has taken a government subsidy, meant to encourage entrepreneurship and local businesses, and turned it into a great way to avoid paying any taxes or social security benefits. Since everyone quits after a year, the Spanish government is accidentally subsidizing Glovo’s business on a huge scale. Assuming the final quota is a fair one, Glovo is saving 304.22€ a month for each worker, and to take one city as an example, in Valencia with 200 “riders”, this adds up to 60,844€ a month. For the country as a whole, it must add up to millions every year.
If you look closely at these new companies, you see a clear strategy emerging. The key quality that they all share is that their services are either free, or impossibly cheap. One might assume they are just bad at making money, but what is really happening is a strategic and skillful attempt to monopolize entire sectors of the economy by offering prices that can only exist because of the successful externalization of every possible cost associated with the business. This combination of the externalization of costs and market monopolization is then used to raise prices for consumers, without paying employees anything more. As these companies expand into new markets, they convert an industry with a scale of incomes and benefits into a sterile job market of gigs that pay close to nothing, have no benefits, can’t be resisted by desperate and individualized workers, and can’t be questioned by the general public because of the all-encompassing spectacle of progressive technological change.
This is the new norm in the United States, where teachers no longer expect tenure and must buy their own classroom supplies, where warehouse loaders are forced to work faster and faster with no increase in wages in contracted positions, where cleaners are fired and then rehired to do the same jobs for less money and uncertain hours,, where truck drivers must now own their own trucks and take on all the liability previously taken on by an employer, forced to work more than eight hours a day just to break even financially. It turns out the biggest innovation of the tech giants was to strategically and systemically render the workforce desperate and precarious. This innovation can be, and is being, applied to almost any job in the world that isn’t in extremely high demand. Glovo’s tactics, designed to destroy any hope of working-class solidarity and power, have been exported to industries that have nothing to do with the tech world, made all the easier by the sky-high unemployment rate that leaves people with few choices, and none of them good ones.
I left the United States a long time ago. At this point, I don’t plan on returning for any real length of time. Here, people always find this surprising. Maybe because family plays such a strong role in Basque and European society, or maybe because they are still confused as to why I’m here in the first place. But I tried to return once, and it didn’t work out. I clearly remember realizing I would have to work fifty hours a week at a job I hated, and still wouldn’t be able to afford rent. And that assumed I could even get a decent job. I remember seeing my old high-school friends working as servers at restaurants for minimum wage, in debt, and without any real career path to look towards. I remember having to drive to get absolutely anywhere, including the bar, and having to budget over a hundred dollars just to go out with friends for a quiet evening. I decided to come back.
I didn’t come here because I fit in perfectly or because Basque Country is uniquely picturesque. I have chosen to stay here because I don’t have to consider which concerns me more, getting shot, or the tens of thousands in hospital bills I will have accrued if I survive. I can pay rent without working from 6am to 8pm, and have some money left over. When I go home after a hard day’s work, I can relax and enjoy slow-paced, authentic interactions with people I care about without half my mind on my phone and my boss. These are not separate issues, they accumulate and allow me to have a life, one that I enjoy. I have decided to stay here and watch as the choices that my parents’ generation made slowly wreak havoc with the U.S.-American economy, political environment, and social fabric. I watch and desperately hope that here, those mistakes can be avoided.
There are signs of hope. Around the Spanish State, resistance to Glovo and its model can already be found. There are unions and lawyers pressuring the company in the courts, and recently having some successes. Just weeks ago at the time of this writing, Glovo lost multiple court cases, setting precedent that they are illegally misclassifying their “riders” as independent contract workers. There is a quasi-union for gig economy delivery employees managed over social media, trying to carry out strikes and collective action. There are even cooperative startups in Barcelona and Madrid that are hoping to directly compete with Glovo and its look-alikes at their own game. But in Basque Country, there has yet to appear much coordinated resistance. In my small city, the only sign took the form of graffiti painted on the walls of the Glovo office, desperately trying to make it clear that someone, somewhere, is paying attention. Graffiti is a start, but I believe we can do better.
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