Spanish on-demand delivery startup Glovo is facing angry protests from couriers on its platform following the death of a 22-year-old rider on Saturday in Barcelona where the business is headquartered.
Local press reports that the man, a Nepalese national called Pujan Koirala, had been substituting for a registered Glovo courier at the time he was struck and killed by a garbage truck. It does not appear that Koirala had a visa to work legally in Spain.
After Koirala’s death, a number of Glovo couriers held protests in front of the company’s office, burning the signature yellow delivery backpacks and criticising it for ignoring long-standing safety concerns — using hashtags #glovonosmata #glovomata on social media — aka, “Glovo kills us,” “Glovo kills.”
In Barcelona, Glovo couriers are a more common sight than on-demand rivals such as Uber Eats and Deliveroo — typically to be found thronging eateries waiting to collect take-away orders and/or biking at speed to a drop-off. The city is one of Glovo’s best markets, though it also operates in other countries in Europe, as well as in LatAm and Africa.
The tragedy highlights persistent safety concerns attached to conditions for service providers on so-called gig economy platforms that rely on scores of individuals to deliver the core platform proposition who are classified as “self-employed,” rather than employed as workers with all the rights and protections that would entail — while also often having their work rate tightly controlled and managed remotely via location-tracking algorithms.
In the case of Glovo, the platform appears to weight delivery speed and availability between specific hours as key factors in distributing jobs. So, in other words, if a rider doesn’t make themselves available when the app demands, and get each delivery done quickly enough, they risk future work on the platform drying up.
A critical report last year by a U.K. politician, which examined conditions for couriers using the rival Deliveroo on-demand delivery platform, found a dual market in operation that encourages a surplus of labour that results in a winner takes all outcome where the best riders get rewarded with more stable work, while another group is left at a disadvantage to compete for whatever is left. (Deliveroo disputed the report’s findings.)
Hence, both the safety concerns attached to gig economy platforms’ algorithmic management, and the practice of registered riders substituting themselves — i.e. in order to try to keep up with the work rate being demanded by sharing their account with a non-registered rider, as appears to be the case in Koirala’s case.
In a statement yesterday, Glovo confirmed that Koirala had not been officially registered, writing that “the fact that he carried a Glovo backpack suggests that he could be using a third party’s account.”
It does not officially authorize this type of unregistered account sharing. But whether the pressures of working on its platform encourage unofficial substituting is quite another matter. (In its statement, Glovo also writes that it tries to prevent unregistered substituting by offering riders and users mechanisms where they can report suspected cases, after which it says it may immediately and permanently cancel the account in question.)
Undocumented, unregistered platform service providers plying a black economy, cash-in-hand trade entirely off the platform’s books, are clearly another, even more precarious tier of “gig” workers — given they are working illegally, meaning they risk exploitation by those they are substituting for, as well as falling entirely outside any insurance benefits that a platform may offer to officially registered workers. (Glovo does offer riders a level of insurance.)
El Espanol reports that on the fateful day, Koirala had agreed to do a delivery for his roommate. In such cases, the paper suggests, a substitute rider expects to be paid as little as €5 (~$5.60) for fulfilling the job on the registered user’s behalf.
Glovo, meanwhile, has raised more than $346 million in VC funding since being founded just over four years ago, per Crunchbase — including a $169 million Series D just last month. Investors include Seaya Ventures, Rakuten, Lakestar, Cathay Innovation, Antai Venture Builder and others.
We reached out to Glovo with questions about the safety and legal risks of using algorithms to manage a distributed “self-employed” workforce at scale. At the time of writing, we’re waiting for a response and will update this report when we have it.
Glovo investor Seaya Ventures did not respond to a request for comment about how it priced such a level of risk into its valuation of the startup.
In its statement yesterday, Glovo said it would pay to cover the expenses of the private insurance that Koirala would have been entitled to had he been working legally and able to officially register on the platform.
It’s not clear how many similarly undocumented workers are gigging on Glovo’s platform.