Assimi Aboladji returned from holiday with his family in the south of France to an email informing him that his job had vanished. After two years and 11,475 deliveries, his courier account for Uber’s food delivery business, Uber Eats, had been deactivated without warning. His main source of income disappeared and his 97 percent rating became worthless. “I was shocked, after two years of gold service,” he says.

Aboladji is not alone. Today he joined hundreds of other couriers to protest the company’s crackdown on undocumented workers. In Paris, hundreds of protestors, many on bikes, chanted: “justice for couriers” and “documents for Uber Eats.” Anger started spreading two months ago, when Uber Eats deactivated the accounts of dozens of couriers, claims Jérôme Pimot, president of the Collective of Platform Couriers (CLAP), the union that organized the Paris protest. “Then it accelerated and Uber Eats announced it had deleted 2,500 accounts. A massacre.”

Protesters are accusing Uber of exploiting undocumented workers’ precarious status and using them to pump and dump courier numbers as demand rises and falls. The company made it easy for undocumented workers to apply to work on its platform during the pandemic when takeaway demand was high, unions say. But now, as analysts project delivery demand will continue to fall, couriers are being kicked off. Uber Eat’s latest financial results showed monthly users, basket size, and order frequency only grew between 1 and 3 percent in the three months leading to June 2022, compared to last year.

The hospitality industry in Paris has long relied on undocumented workers to avoid labor shortages. “Every restaurant owner in Paris has someone working under an alias,” Jean Ganizate, the cofounder of the Melt restaurant group, told Le Monde in June, referring to undocumented workers who apply for jobs using someone else’s residency permit.

“As part of our commitment to fight document fraud and illegal work, we conducted a thorough audit of UberEats courier accounts in France,” says Uber spokesperson Matt Keirle, declining to comment on the timing of the crackdown. The audit of Uber Eats’ 60,000 French couriers, which was carried out by an external company specializing in document authentication, found 4 percent of those accounts either had false documents or were linked to the creation of multiple courier accounts, according to Uber’s own data.

The timing of the crackdown raises questions for some. “Why has [Uber] decided the account is fraudulent after two years of service?” Aboladji says. He applied for an Uber Eats account in 2020 using someone else’s document because he did not have the papers to apply for jobs in France, he says. His application was approved, and for the next two years he worked for the platform without any problems. On August 23, his account was blocked. His profile picture on the app did not match the documents he had uploaded, Uber told him.

These deactivations have enraged French unions, which believe Uber Eats is deactivating accounts as growth stalls. “The decision took place without workers being notified,” says Fabian Tosolini, a delegate of the Independents Unions, which represents self-employed workers in France but is not involved in today’s protest. “They woke up and found they were not able to connect to the app. Their revenue just stopped.”

This was also the experience of Bassekou Cissoko, whose Uber Eats account was deactivated on July 28, 2022. The courier signed up to work for Uber Eats in 2019, using someone else’s Italian identity card. Uber spent two weeks verifying his documents, he says, before his application was approved. For the next three years, he says he worked 98 hours per week making deliveries for the platform. “During Covid, when everyone was in lockdown to protect themselves from the disease, we gave our lives to Uber and the clients,” he says.

Many of the couriers who were disconnected have Italian identity cards, which state they can’t be used to work outside of Italy, says Thomas Aonzo, president of the Independents Union. But he claims that Uber Eats has since 2018 allowed couriers to use this type of card to create an account. Italian identity cards are common among asylum seekers in Europe, including people who have entered the continent by crossing the short stretch of water separating North Africa and Italy.

The protest in France highlights Uber Eat’s fraught relationship with undocumented workers. Delivery apps, which are often easy to use and available in multiple languages, are attractive to people who are new in a country and looking for work, says Moritz Altenried, a researcher who studies digital labor at Humboldt University in Berlin. “Platforms [also] need these workforces, otherwise they’d be struggling to find workers doing jobs under these conditions.”

This is not the first time Uber Eats has been accused of taking advantage of a workforce that has few other options. In 2020, prosecutors placed Uber Italy under special administration, giving a court-appointed commissioner oversight of its business, after its Uber Eats business in the country was found to be exploiting vulnerable immigrant workers through third-party brokers known as gang-masters. The same investigation accused the company of creating an “uncontrolled avalanche of recruitment” during the pandemic.

Publicly, Uber Eats has long insisted it does not tolerate undocumented workers. Back in 2019, the company told The New York Times it had 100 employees in France performing spot checks on couriers’ right to work in the country. The French government did not seem reassured. In March 2022, Uber Eats and three other delivery platforms—Gorillas-owned Frichti, Stuart, and Deliveroo—signed an industry charter committing them to carry out weekly identity checks of couriers. None of the three responded to questions about how many accounts they had deactivated since the charter was signed.

Yet unions say that closing accounts belonging to undocumented workers does not mean they will stop making deliveries. “These undocumented migrants, who had accounts in their name, most often obtained with Italian residence permits, will find themselves renting accounts on the black market,” says Pimot, CLAP’s president. Such accounts, he adds, can be found on Facebook or Snapchat for 600 euros per month.

To properly tackle the issue, unions and demonstrators in Paris are calling for the gig economy to be included in the French process of “regularization”—whereby workers who can prove they have been in France for three years and are in possession of 24 payslips can apply to be considered permanent residents. Right now, self-employed workers do not qualify, and people who work for Uber Eats and other platforms do not receive official payslips.

Regularization would give undocumented couriers the right to work legally in France while allowing platforms to access the labor they need, according to advocates. It would also provide immigrant couriers with security and stability, says Cissoko. “[I would] be able to pay my taxes and live with dignity, like all the good citizens of this country.”