by Coline GRIMÉE

On March 8th, 2022, the three directors of British food delivery platform Deliveroo were taken to penal court in France on charges of illegal work after an investigation by the Office central de lutte contre le travail illégal, initiated in 2017. Previously, Deliveroo as well as other platforms offering food delivery services by bike had been forced by civil courts to redefine their working relationship with delivery people on bikes as an employment contract when the latter were able to demonstrate a clear link of subordination in their relationship. Whatever the outcome of the trial is, these developments are crucial in the transition to sustainable urban mobility, and revolve around one key concept: last mile delivery – or the organization of the part of the supply chain directly connected to clients.

         Populations in cities are growing, and with it the logistical challenge of satisfying the demand for urban freight while transitioning to cleaner mobility. This increasingly sheds lights on innovative ways to solve the puzzle of last mile delivery, such as cyclelogistics. Already well-known to the public for food delivery, cyclelogistics are becoming an integral part of cities’ plans to transition to sustainable mobility. In France, the existence of a Plan national de développement de cyclologistique or the inclusion of cyclelogistics in Paris’ Plan Vélo indicate that decision-makers have recognized the importance of developing this alternative.

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         However, the Deliveroo trial is revealing a crucial missing point: the social protection of cyclelogistics workers, especially those carrying out the deliveries. An investigation by FranceInfo indicates that bike delivery people throughout France are subjected to an enormous pressure from the platforms they “sell” their services to. Low pay per run coupled with increasing distances and accrued competition forces them to be quicker and quicker in their deliveries to make a livable earning. Additionally, the workers in question are employed by the platforms as freelance workers, thus they do not benefit from the same social protection as employees, only further increasing the pressure to perform.

         Notwithstanding the social and moral issue of those suboptimal working conditions, the key point for urban mobility is that a lack of protection for biking workers is actually counterproductive for the use of cyclelogistics and the transition to cleaner, safer, and decongested cities. First of all, the investigation by FranceInfo reveals that many workers decide to switch to scooters, motorcycles, or even cars to keep up the pace required from them, which stands in direct opposition with the goal to decarbonize freight and decongest urban lanes. Secondly, resorting to dangerous cycling methods counters all efforts made to democratize cycling in cities, be it through campaigns or safer cycling infrastructures. It ignores the very premise of cyclable cities, which is to make cycling safe for all users of the public space, whether they are cycling or not.

         Where do we go from here? It will certainly be interesting to follow the outcome of the Deliveroo trial, as it may set an important precedent in French penal courts to attack platforms that try to bypass – or outright violate – existing labor laws. Additionally, a favorable outcome could push lawmakers to pass more stringent regulations destined to these platforms. Certain countries, including Spain, have already passed laws forcing numerical platforms to provide employee status to their workers. Similarly, the European Commission has submitted a proposal for a Directive that would simultaneously force platforms to presume an employment relationship and reverse the burden of proof, making platforms responsible for showing that their delivery people are potentially independent workers. 

         Most importantly, however, it remains crucial to develop alternatives to platforms based on an exploitative business model. Providing workers with the space and tools to manage their own time and work while benefiting from the appropriate social protection and earning a living wage is possible and should be encouraged, as is showcased by the large number of emerging cooperatives. Not only do such alternatives feed into a broader ecosystem of an economy that is more respectful of people and the planet, the alternatives are essential for the development of cyclelogistics as a viable solution to the puzzle of last mile delivery.