French Bike Couriers Give Macron's Economy a One-Star Rating

  • President Macron seeking to make France a center for start-ups
  • Courier protests aim to stoke opposition to Macron’s plans

The Meteoric Rise of France's New President 

Smartphone-wielding cycle couriers were among the first to embrace French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision of an economic future rooted in new technology and flexible labor rules. Now, they’re not so sure.

Riders staged protests in several cities across France this week, demanding help from the government to improve their working conditions after an influx of new couriers increased the competition for jobs. They may find they are fighting against the tide.

As demonstrators set off smoke bombs in the streets, Macron’s ministers were putting the finishing touches to his plans to reduce the restrictions on firing that have traditionally protected workers in France. Elected in May, the 39-year-old president has pledged to deliver lasting growth in the euro region’s second-largest economy by restraining the power of unions as he seeks to arrest a slump in his poll numbers.

“We’re a living laboratory of what happens in a system where employers and workers are so-called partners,” said 28-year-old Arthur Hay, who represents delivery cyclists working for Deliveroo, Foodora and UberEATS in the Bordeaux area of southwest France. “We need the government to look into our situation and make rules, not extend our plight to everyone else as it seems to want to do.”

According to an OpinionWay poll published Wednesday, 68 percent of French people fear their rights will be less protected should labor rules be fixed at the company level rather than by law, as Macron intends. At the same time, France’s League for Human Rights called on the Labor Ministry to intervene immediately to help cycle couriers defend themselves from “severe exploitation.”

Hay is a member of CGT, France’s second-largest union, and says he’ll join the protests planned for Sept. 12 against Macron’s overhaul of labor laws. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe will set out details of the plan, due to come into force next month, at a news conference Thursday.

Squeezing Couriers

Couriers with box-shaped backpacks have become a familiar sight in France over the past year as bike services mushroomed. But London-based online food company Deliveroo triggered protests in late July when it scrapped hourly pay for its most senior riders. Instead, they’ll get the same 5-euro ($6) delivery fee that new hires receive. Cyclists were given a month’s notice to accept the change if they wanted to continue working with the company.

Deliveroo increased the number of cyclists it’s contracted with to 7,500 from 1,500 in the past year to keep up with delivery volumes. The firm, which is privately held and doesn’t disclose revenue, operates in 12 countries around the world with 20,000 delivery people, mostly on bicycle.

A Paris-based spokesman for the company said the new system works out better for the riders on average, given the increasing number of deliveries. But unions said that the company has also widened delivery zones, so each trip is longer, and there isn’t enough work to go around.

“The deal was that we’d be able to choose our working hours,” says Hay, who started riding for Deliveroo in March 2016 after finishing a degree in humanitarian management. “But they hired so many people that we’re competing with each other. The promise is broken.”

Bypassing the Rules

Companies like Deliveroo can bypass French labor regulation regarding wages, working hours, firings and collective bargaining because their couriers are self-employed. Self-employment is on the rise, particularly in the Internet-related businesses like ride-services provider Uber, which is fighting several court cases with drivers.

Hay said the government needs to impose more restrictions on the company to increase workers’ negotiating power and prevent constant confrontation. In the current situation, firms are ending contracts with those who speak up, especially those who move to organize workers. Hay said that no delivery platform will work with him anymore.

Deliveroo denied such practices and said that talks with delivery biker associations have led it to pay for bikers’ civil responsibility insurance from March.

While similar initiatives are emerging in other European countries, including Germany and the U.K., the risk for Macron is that the Deliveroo dispute could set the tone for a season of protest as unions and opposition parties seek to rally resistance to his plans for the labor market.

French media were quick to make the connection between so-called “Uberized” workers and Macron’s overhaul of labor rules. The most-watched TV channel TF1 aired a piece on the “race to precariousness” this week and commentator Francois Lenglet said the fight is “emblematic of new labor relations” on RTL radio.

The law presented on Thursday will make it cheaper and easier for companies to fire workers without following the rules by limiting the amount of compensation that can be claimed in court. Firms would also be able to skip rules mandating higher pay for night shifts or overtime, and use more temporary work.

At demonstrations in Paris, Bordeaux, Nantes and Lyon, cyclists made their feelings about the so-called gig economy clear. “1,000 bikers fired by email” read one placard. Another said: “Pedaling to eat, not to be eaten.”

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.