For about a year during the pandemic, Marco made a living by cycling up and down the cobbled streets of Rieti in Italy, delivering meals for Spanish app company Glovo. Then all of a sudden, his orders dried up.
Marco is one of about a dozen Rieti riders who lost their incomes because of third-party apps that subvert the booking systems of delivery platforms like Glovo – letting gig workers pay to book jobs, union leaders said.
"These apps have created a digital wild west, pitting low-paid workers against one another," said Mario Grasso, a spokesperson for Italy's UILTuCS trade union.
In Italy, where more experienced or highly ranked Glovo riders get priority when it comes to choosing working shifts, the apps are being used by novice gig workers who struggle to get orders without them.
The phenomenon is not unique to Italy. As COVID-19 fueled demand for meals delivery and other goods, third-party apps, which make a profit by helping self-employed couriers book orders, popped up from Spain to the United States.
"Workers tend to use these systems because earning opportunities or the way jobs are allocated don't seem fair to them," said Alessio Bertolini, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute's Fairwork project.
He described the apps as technological versions of industrial-era gangmasters, adding that their growth was rooted in poor working conditions in the gig economy.
The apps use various techniques to disrupt the delivery systems put in place by companies like Glovo, and operate without the firms' consent.
Glovo, which is one of the main delivery apps in Italy and operates in 23 countries, did not reply to several requests for comment.
Marco, who asked not to give his real name, started to work for Glovo in 2020, when the app was fairly new in Rieti, joining a handful of other riders serving the town's 47,000 inhabitants.
Twice a week, at set times, the app allows riders to book the hours they agree to work over the coming days, and Marco slowly climbed up the platform ranking system.
Workers with the highest ranking – based on a rider's length of service, availability at peak times, reviews and efficiency – have the first pick, while those with a low score have to wait to see what is left.
Marco said initially there was enough work for everyone, but things changed in 2021, as more riders joined the platform.
The number of gig workers in Italy doubled to half a million between 2019 and 2021, according to the public research body INAPP.
"I soon found myself unable to book any hours," Marco said by phone, adding that, as his earnings shrank, he fell behind with rent and had to look for another job.
Riders and unions said this was because growing numbers of Glovo riders in Rieti were using apps such as GlovoBot and SushiClicker, which consist of bots that automatically book hours as soon as they become available, regardless of ranking.
They said Glovo had cracked down on fake courier profiles – another tactic used by some workers to jump the queue.
Grasso of UILTuCS said the union has reported the app issue to Italy's labor inspectorate, alleging that the bots' use could be illicit and was a breach of Glovo's terms of service.
"We would also like to see Glovo doing more to block these automated systems," he said.
The labor inspectorate declined to comment.
Rieti police inspector Alessandra Ciulla said bots' use could be considered a form of unfair competition and could become a criminal matter if Glovo wants to complain about damage to its software, she said.
SushiClicker could not be reached for comment.
A request for comment to GlovoBot prompted a reply from a Polish firm named Ecoweb, which said the app was on sale "as of today" and was no longer being updated. It said Glovo had updated its software, making it harder for Glovobot to function.
A further request sent to Ecoweb drew an email from its owner, Przemyslaw Pasieko, who said he was a former Glovo rider and had developed the app out of frustration with the Spanish platform's work booking system and to enhance couriers' safety.
"When the courier is driving, he ... does not have to look for hours to book," the email read.
But Luigino Serilli, a Glovo rider in Rieti, said that in small towns where riders compete for few orders, apps like GlovoBot push those who do not pay for their service out of the market. GlovoBot charges riders up to 50 euro a month.
"That's what we make in one or two days," Serilli said.
Complaints about bots have been reported elsewhere, too.
Ruben Ranz of Spanish trade union UGT, said bots were popular in Spain until last year when a new law forced delivery companies to employ their couriers and Glovo scrapped its time-slot booking system.
Sharon Goen, a member of the Gig Workers Collective in the United States, said bots were common among couriers working with Instacart and Amazon Flex, where competition to get high-paying working "blocks" was high.
Deliveries on these platforms are generally assigned to the fastest person to swipe on them.
"I feel we (delivery workers) look like a bunch of hungry fish bobbing their heads up in the water when someone is throwing breadcrumbs at them," she said by phone.
The developers of one bot, Flexomatic, which runs on Amazon Flex, said they were aware their business model raised ethical questions and that use of their app was in breach Amazon's terms of service – but felt they provided a useful service.
"We are basically saving time for people," said Flexomatic's Chief Executive Remi Marenco, a former Flex worker who said couriers normally waste hours refreshing the app to get jobs they want.
Flexomatic, which charges up to 4% of what couriers are paid for a delivery, lets users pre-set the times they want to work and the minimum pay they are willing to take, and automatically scoops up deliveries that fit the bill, said Marenco.
The app currently has about 1,000 active users in countries, including Britain, Germany, Singapore and Japan.
Amazon declined to comment.
Instacart said it was dedicated to preventing illicit or fraudulent apps from violating its terms of service and its efforts in this direction included banning bad actors, taking legal action and deactivating those who misused the platform.
But Bertolini of Fairwork said the solution might lay elsewhere.
"If delivery apps were to provide normal employment contracts and pay, workers might be less in need to use these tricks," he said.