These deactivations have enraged French unions, which believe Uber Eats is deactivating accounts as growth stalls. “The decision took place without workers being notified,” says Fabian Tosolini, a delegate of the Independents Unions, which represents self-employed workers in France but is not involved in today’s protest. “They woke up and found they were not able to connect to the app. Their revenue just stopped.”
This was also the experience of Bassekou Cissoko, whose Uber Eats account was deactivated on July 28, 2022. The courier signed up to work for Uber Eats in 2019, using someone else’s Italian identity card. Uber spent two weeks verifying his documents, he says, before his application was approved. For the next three years, he says he worked 98 hours per week making deliveries for the platform. “During Covid, when everyone was in lockdown to protect themselves from the disease, we gave our lives to Uber and the clients,” he says.
Many of the couriers who were disconnected have Italian identity cards, which state they can’t be used to work outside of Italy, says Thomas Aonzo, president of the Independents Union. But he claims that Uber Eats has since 2018 allowed couriers to use this type of card to create an account. Italian identity cards are common among asylum seekers in Europe, including people who have entered the continent by crossing the short stretch of water separating North Africa and Italy.
The protest in France highlights Uber Eat’s fraught relationship with undocumented workers. Delivery apps, which are often easy to use and available in multiple languages, are attractive to people who are new in a country and looking for work, says Moritz Altenried, a researcher who studies digital labor at Humboldt University in Berlin. “Platforms [also] need these workforces, otherwise they’d be struggling to find workers doing jobs under these conditions.”
This is not the first time Uber Eats has been accused of taking advantage of a workforce that has few other options. In 2020, prosecutors placed Uber Italy under special administration, giving a court-appointed commissioner oversight of its business, after its Uber Eats business in the country was found to be exploiting vulnerable immigrant workers through third-party brokers known as gang-masters. The same investigation accused the company of creating an “uncontrolled avalanche of recruitment” during the pandemic.
Publicly, Uber Eats has long insisted it does not tolerate undocumented workers. Back in 2019, the company told The New York Times it had 100 employees in France performing spot checks on couriers’ right to work in the country. The French government did not seem reassured. In March 2022, Uber Eats and three other delivery platforms—Gorillas-owned Frichti, Stuart, and Deliveroo—signed an industry charter committing them to carry out weekly identity checks of couriers. None of the three responded to questions about how many accounts they had deactivated since the charter was signed.
Yet unions say that closing accounts belonging to undocumented workers does not mean they will stop making deliveries. “These undocumented migrants, who had accounts in their name, most often obtained with Italian residence permits, will find themselves renting accounts on the black market,” says Pimot, CLAP’s president. Such accounts, he adds, can be found on Facebook or Snapchat for 600 euros per month.
To properly tackle the issue, unions and demonstrators in Paris are calling for the gig economy to be included in the French process of “regularization”—whereby workers who can prove they have been in France for three years and are in possession of 24 payslips can apply to be considered permanent residents. Right now, self-employed workers do not qualify, and people who work for Uber Eats and other platforms do not receive official payslips.
Regularization would give undocumented couriers the right to work legally in France while allowing platforms to access the labor they need, according to advocates. It would also provide immigrant couriers with security and stability, says Cissoko. “[I would] be able to pay my taxes and live with dignity, like all the good citizens of this country.”