From taxis to food delivery: undocumented migrants in platform work

Many undocumented migrants work in so-called “platform work”, that is work managed by companies through digital platforms like websites and apps, in domains including taxi services, mailing services, and food delivery.

To do “platform work”, in practice, an undocumented person may either register an account in their own name, using an identity document (a passport might be sufficient), or use someone else’s account, as if they were being effectively subcontracted.

Platform work has come under the spotlight of migrants’ rights organisations, trade unions, media, courts and EU policy-makers as a striking example of many of the shortcomings of 21st century gig economy, especially in terms of poor working conditions and job insecurity.

Many of those whose employment is managed through an online platform today face issues such as unpredictable working conditions, low wages and job rates. Many workers are excluded from labour protections and social security associated with being an ‘employee’, because they are officially registered as self-employed, despite the relationship with the online platform being an employment relationship.

Those who are undocumented face additional risks and challenges, while having fewer alternative employment options and resources to counter and remedy abuse, precisely because they are denied a residence and work permit in the first place.

In 2020, in France, 24 undocumented people working for the Stuart delivery platform were dismissed overnight and had their account disactivated without notice, after they had been working there for months. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they delivered food and medications across France, which was hailed by many as “essential work”.

According to French law, the platform could have applied for their regularisation, as having a job is a key criterion for getting a residence permit. Instead, the workers lost the limited revenue overnight, and found themselves with no options to bring their employer to justice nor find regular work.

When someone is working using another person’s account, they often “rent” the account, meaning they pay a fixed monthly sum or percentage of their earnings to the owner of the account. This not only reduces the person’s income, but can expose them to exploitation and additional risks. The account holder can wield control over the worker, for example, by withholding wages and work. Undocumented workers can also be threatened with immigration enforcement, including if they try to complain about pay and conditions.

In the UK, the workers’ rights NGO FLEX conducted participatory action research involving three app-based couriers who were renting someone else’s account. Two of them had had their pay withheld as the money they earned was transferred into the account holder’s bank account. One had also been threatened with immigration enforcement and had their identity document confiscated by the account owner.

In Belgium, the migrant workers’ rights NGO Fairwork Belgium reports that an undocumented rider for the food delivery company Uber Eats broke his leg while working with someone else’s account. Undocumented workers in Belgium can access work accident insurance, and there is a state fund if the employer does not have insurance, but it remains challenging to prove that an employment relationship existed and ultimately that the injury was caused by a work accident. In such a case, where the worker is using someone else’s account and within a context where delivery platform riders are often misclassified as self-employed, proving the labour accident and accessing remedy is a major challenge.

When undocumented platform workers are able to get remedy and, in some cases, access residence and work permits, it is often thanks to their own collective mobilisation, and support by NGOs and trade unions.

In December 2021, the European Commission released a draft directive that builds on the existing EU legal framework, and seeks to improve the working conditions of all platform workers. The most promising aspect of this proposal is the legal clarity it brings to the definition of what can be considered an employment relationship between digital platforms and their workers. Far from being a mere technicality, this clarification has the potential to help workers, including when undocumented, prove that they are effectively employed by the platform, and that they should therefore enjoy the labour rights granted to any other employee.

The Employment Committee of the European Parliament has approved a draft report which promotes an employment classification based on the actual working conditions of platform workers. This text will become the official negotiating position of the Parliament once approved by all MEPs in the Plenary. The Council is still in the process of agreeing its position, and the proposal for the directive will still undergo negotiations before being officially adopted as a legally binding instrument. It will be crucial that the directive improves the working conditions of all platform workers, including when they are precarious or undocumented migrant workers.