, Cities

Riders Not Heroes: The Pandemic and Precarity of Food Delivery Workers

Author: Lynsey Free

A look at the intersection of platform capitalism, gig labor, the refugee crises, and COVID-19.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Milan, the city—and the rest of Italy—was quick to issue a strict lockdown banning people from leaving their homes. But in the midst of the quarantine, food delivery workers were allowed to keep pedaling, delivering lunches and dinners to a population otherwise devoid of human contact and outside services.

Milan-based interdisciplinary agency 2050+—recently founded by architect Ippolito Pestelini Laparelli—and creative agency -orama created a short video documentary which showcases how gig workers became essential workers in a time of crisis.

Riders Not Heroes looks into the lives of food delivery workers in Milan, a city with some 3,000 such bicycle riders who navigate the city with restaurant food on their backs, ringing the buzzers of countless apartments, day after day. Most of these riders are migrants—forty percent from Africa, fifteen percent from Asia, and five percent from South America. Many are undocumented workers, and most lacked the proper safety equipment and protection devices necessary while delivering during a pandemic.

Still image from Riders Not Heroes

It is through the lens of Italian delivery worker and artist Lupo Borgonovo that the audience really gets to see the impact that riders had during the quarantine. Equipped with a camera as he cycles the streets of the once vibrant city to deliver food to the masses, Lupo takes the viewer through an eerie tour of a new Milan.

“When the city was totally empty, riders were the only people who kept moving around what then resembled a ghost town, until their social functions finally started to be recognized. From being invisible, they finally got to be seen,” the narrator of the film states.

However, they were often seen by authorities not as essential workers who were risking their own health, but as minor traffic offenders, as they cycled through pedestrianized—yet completely empty—areas. Their own gig economy employers also failed to protect them, declining to provide them with tools to protect their own health and safety.

Still image from Riders Not Heroes

For the undocumented, there was another problem—a notion known as “caporalato,” or gang mastering, which sees intermediaries of large food delivery platforms recruit undocumented refugees in a state of need and exploit them by paying a fixed low fair while forcing them to work long, harsh hours. It’s been referred to as the “dark side of the gig economy,” and has resulted in the Italian branch of Uber Eats being put under judicial administration.

In just 13 minutes, Riders Not Heroes educates viewers on what the intersection of platform capitalism, gig labor, the refugee crises, and COVID-19 really looks like.

“I think the inequalities and social fractures that are present were also present before the lockdown, before the outbreak of COVID-19, but emerged stronger than ever when society was clearly split into groups—touchless objects tapping fingers on keyboards, on screens, typing in our credit card numbers—and those who were actually keeping the machine running,” Pestellini Laparelli said during an online public interview with Strelka Institute last month.

Riders Not Heroes trailer

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