[Originally written in March 2020]
(Pavia, Italy) Staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be challenging for most but it is almost impossible for many in the migrant and refugee communities in Italy whose livelihoods are earned on a daily basis. While most of the service industry has been shutdown, delivery riders venture out risking being exposed to the COVID-19 virus to provide a now essential service to those quarantined.
Across Europe, food delivery has become one of the first, and sometimes only, job opportunity to which migrant, asylum seekers and refugees have access. Users can order from restaurants, supermarkets and even pharmacies through online platforms such as Deliveroo, Just Eat, Uber Eats, Glovo and others. Riders are paid per order and the rate varies depending on the time of the day and the distance between the restaurant and the client. No orders means no pay and, as expected, the COVID-19 outbreak has caused a plunge in the number of orders made. Sam* a delivery rider from Pavia, 30 km south from Milan, tells me that, for him, an average of fifteen orders a day has decreased to five or less “on a good day” he says “and each week is getting worse”
This crisis has yanked the floor underneath many migrant groups in the country. In Pavia, the first businesses to be affected were Chinese-owned eateries which since mid-February started to face an onslaught of blatantly discriminatory attitudes forcing them to voluntarily close their stores ahead of the official suspension of activities. While in the following weeks some restaurants went back to operating on a limited capacity these businesses have remained closed.
Furthermore, asylum seekers who have arrived to Italy in the recent months are facing a bureaucratic delay in the processing of their claims. According to the Italian law, asylum seekers are allowed to work and reside legally in the country while they are awaiting for their claim to be processed, which takes an average time of a year. For this purpose they are given a temporary residence permit a couple of months after the official asylum request is introduced. On March 9th, the Ministry of Interior announced that all matters including immigration were suspended and appointments were to be postponed, in some cases for several months. This delay leaves many asylum seekers in a sort of employability limbo which could potentially leave them without access to formal employment sources and expose them to predatory labor practices.
While many workers in Italy are being sent home on paid leave the jobs held by undocumented workers, or those in the process of getting their papers, have been the first ones to be cut by business owners in an effort to reduce overhead costs. Even with recent decrees of monetary relief, rent freeze and tax waivers for many sectors, including the unemployed, a large portion of the migrant and refugee workers are not eligible to access these measures and they are being left to navigate this crisis on their own.
As many other essential workers, food delivery riders are being exposed to COVID-19 on a higher level than people that are able to quarantine. Employers have issued recommendations to lower the likelihood of contamination including hand-washing, use of antibacterial, gloves and face masks and adding options like “contactless delivery”. In practice, however, these are rarely implemented as face masks are not provided by the employer and they are not readily available on drugstores. In addition, according to Sam, the contactless protocol is rarely observed by both the client, who may be unaware of its existence, and the rider who is pressed to deliver the order as fast as possible.
In recent weeks there have been reports of the collapse of healthcare systems across the world and situations like the ones in Guayaquil, Ecuador, where corpses of people who had passed from COVID-19 were laying on the streets waiting for collection from the authorities, have flooded news outlets. Additionally, social media feeds are filled with news of scarcity of food, medicines, fuel shortages in many places around the world. For riders like Sam it means to be even more torn between the struggles of his family back home and the newfound uncertainty of daily life in what once was a promised land.
Carlos Perez Rojas.
* names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of the interviewee