Italian delivery workers want people to stop ordering stuff they don’t need

A delivery worker in Rome.
A delivery worker in Rome.
Image: Reuters/Alberto Lingria
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When prime minister Giuseppe Conte put Italy under strict lockdown measures last week, he included deliveries in the list of essential services that would be allowed to continue running, along with pharmacies, supermarkets, and newsstands.

That has meant workers on bicycles and motorbikes, carrying the neon delivery bags of companies like Glovo, Uber Eats, and Deliveroo, are still a common sight here in Milan, even as streets have grown deserted, with shops closed, restaurants shut to customers, and people quarantined in their homes. UPS and BRT trucks are still running, as well as deliveries from Amazon and supermarket chain Esselunga.

Italy has more coronavirus cases than any country other than China. The country counted almost 3,000 deaths and over 35,700 infections on Wednesday (March 18), compared to 11,200 cases in Spain and 7,700 in France.

The coronavirus and quarantine measures enacted by governments worldwide have spurred record demand for delivery. Firms are waiving fees for consumers, and wait periods for some orders now extend well over a week. But in Italy, the delivery workers who make these services possible are pleading for customers to think twice before they order.

Italian couriers are urging people to consider cooking at home rather than ordering takeout, or scrapping that unnecessary Amazon purchase. They say these orders put them at risk of contracting Covid-19, and endanger their ability to keep truly essential deliveries moving. They also say companies are failing to provide them with the protective gear they need, even as they ferry boxes of face masks in their trucks.

Rights and wrongs

“Sushi, french fries, and pizza are not a right,” Angelo Avelli, a member of Deliverance, a union of delivery workers in Milan, told Quartz. “Access to income and health are rights, not a gourmet hamburger.” Deliverance is asking the region of Lombardy, which includes the city of Milan, to completely block deliveries, following similar measures in Campania, where they have been banned after 6pm.

“I ask that people cook lunch or dinner at home and stop ordering delivery,” Avelli said. “It’s a risk for me, for riders, for them, and for their families.”

As coronavirus spreads across Europe, and countries like Spain and France start to close services and demand quarantines, a debate is growing over the morality of ordering food during a pandemic and putting couriers, who are often low-paid contractors without employer-sponsored benefits, at increased risk.

Delivery workers, often called “riders” by their companies, say platforms are not doing enough to protect them. Their biggest complaint is that companies are not providing them with personal protective equipment like face masks, gloves, and hand gels. Although some platforms, including Uber Eats, have offered one-off handouts—€10 to €25 to purchase protective gear—riders say that’s not enough. When face masks can be found in Milan, a rarity these days, just one can cost between €10 and €60.

Platforms like Glovo and Deliveroo, that primarily do restaurant delivery, have introduced a “contactless” option in which couriers deliver packages to the door and leave. But in Italy, it’s an imperfect solution because many customers still pay with cash. Firms like Uber and Deliveroo are creating funds to pay riders who get sick. But many aren’t clear on key details, like the criteria for accessing funds, how much money they will get, and how many days off will be covered.

Governments sit on the other side of the debate. They want delivery services to continue operating so the economy continues running. Factories can still produce goods at a lower pace, and restaurants can keep their kitchens open, even if their dining halls are closed to customers.

Contractual obligations

Online retailers argue that their deliveries are a matter of life and death for some customers. “Our teams are working to ensure we can continue to deliver to the most impacted customers, many of whom have no other way to get the items they need,” Amazon said in a statement about its operation in Italy.

At least five warehouse workers in Italy and Spain have been infected with coronavirus as of Tuesday (March 17), but Amazon has chosen to keep the facilities where they work open. Workers at Amazon warehouses in Italy and France held protests this week, saying the company is not doing enough to implement containment measures, like keeping staff one meter apart. French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said the pressure Amazon is putting on workers is “unacceptable.”

The company might be starting to soften its approach. In the US, it sent staff home in New York after a warehouse worker tested positive this week. In Italy, it took measures to avoid gatherings and potential contagion, like suspending some meetings, closing showers, and spacing out out in canteens, lockers rooms, and turnstiles.

But contractors, who are on the frontlines of its service, driving trucks and delivering packages to customers, still feel under-protected. One worker who makes deliveries for an Italian company that works exclusively for Amazon said their activity is already beyond the Christmas peak, and that workers are using weeks-old masks because new ones are hard to find in Italy. “It’s ironic because Amazon sells masks, but doesn’t give them to their employees and contractors,” the worker said.

They share news and worries in WhatsApp groups, including stories of colleagues who have been quarantined, images of colleagues on the floor after feeling shortness of breath, and reports of delivery workers who have apparently died from Covid-19. Then they leave to make more deliveries.

Amazon said that it’s requiring drivers in Italy to keep a safe distance from customers, and that it’s requesting drivers to sign for the package on the customer’s behalf, but it didn’t respond to a more specific request for comment from Quartz regarding protective equipment and psychological support. Its warehouses in Italy are prioritizing products “most needed by our customers right now.” The company includes broad categories under that definition, like “consumables,” health products, “items needed to work from home,” personal care products, and “books and toys for children.”

“We’re here for all essential deliveries,” the delivery worker said. “But if you have to order a tricycle or some pencils because your kid is getting bored, please think twice. We also have families waiting for us at home.”

Additional reporting by Cosimo Bizzarri and Alison Griswold.