Critical Workers: What's Happening to Delivery Persons in Europe's Food Tech

In digitising the process of food delivery, startups may have given rise to exploitative labour and preacariousness in the lives of their delivery personnel.

“We are dispensable”, stated Maya (name changed), an ex-Foodora rider who sat in front of me on a sunny day at a university library in Berlin. We remained perched in front of a huge window, through which we could see young riders, wearing spunky pink or turquoise-coloured clothes and carrying their big, box-shaped bags, etched with the labels Foodora and Deliveroo, whizzing by.

The UK-based Deliveroo and the German startup Foodora are a part of the ecosystem of the new digital economy, which has gripped the excitement of investors, startup pioneers as well as consumers. Their business models are based on instant food deliveries to the consumers. This service is made possible by contracting a ‘crowd-fleet’ of cyclists who deliver food from local restaurants to the consumers. The essential requirements for this work are possessing a bicycle and a smartphone. It sounds simple and most importantly, convenient, the buzzword that has become indispensable in the current climate of innovation. But quite on the contrary, it posits more inconvenience for those making this supply chain possible – the riders.

The Deliveroo and Foodora riders are precarious workers. Carole Thornley, Steve Jefferys and Beatrice Appay in an introduction to the research monographs titled Globalization and Precarious Forms of Production and Employment: Challenges for Workers and Unions, identify the core features of the politics and process of ‘precarisation’. The authors note that with the labour market norms everywhere shifting towards ‘flexible’, part-time and temporary, the new world of work is preponderated with low-pay, insecurity, few social protections as well as lack of unions. To put it simply, the production and employment processes are systematically becoming precarious.

Maya, a young woman who had recently finished her PhD in Berlin, was associated with Foodora as a part-time employee for six months. “I was looking to do something easy, something that did not require the intellectually exhausting work that I had been involved in since the last few years. But I had underestimated what lay ahead of me”. Her remark about the advertised easiness of the work despite the reality of exploitation is recounted at a collective meeting in a hip area of Berlin. The collective calls itself the Critical Workers, reminiscent of the ‘emancipated human beings’ from the critical theory devised originally at the Frankfurt School in Germany, which provided a rough sketch of how capitalism structures social life and the possible dynamics which could help replace this deceitful system.

Critical workers

The growing precarity in the world of work and the continuous exploitation of the workers have banded together the group of activists who believe that their critical disposition towards the digital industries calls for better working conditions. Their website banner with Charlie Chaplin’s iconic still from the film Modern Times is a signatory to this ideology. I enter a room full of young people who are mostly Italians, at their monthly radio recording session. Critical Radio is hosted by RadioNoBorder which was conceived in the spring of 2016 at the Greek-Macedonian border by a bunch of independent activists working on the refugee and immigration issues. Eventually, following the deportation of the refugees and unsuccessful struggles to sustain broadcasting on this issue, Critical Radio moved to Berlin as an activist project to document the struggles of precarious workers.

A deliveroo worker cycles along a pedestrianised road in Liverpool, Britain, October 18, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Phil Noble

A Deliveroo worker cycles along a pedestrianised road in Liverpool, Britain, October 18, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Phil Noble

After having recorded two podcasts on precarious workers in the universities (such as student assistants and tutors who are not paid adequately and recognised) as well as exorbitant increases in house rents in Berlin, the theme this evening focused on Deliveroo and Foodora workers, represented by the collective called Deliver Union. Adrian, a former contract worker for Deliveroo, recounted his year-long ordeals with the company and the lack of redressal mechanisms available for workers like him. “I had recently moved from Hong Kong to Berlin and was looking for some work on the side, while I could focus on other things. But the scale of exploitation was just unbearable. It reached a point where I could not take it anymore and had to leave.”

Adrian details his working hours, the lack of proper equipment such as a well-functioning bike, protection gears etc. He also explains the algorithmic-driven modes of exploitation which would control the working shifts of the riders. Deliveroo ranks the workers at three different levels, according to their performance. The workers on the highest level will be shown more delivery requests while the lowest will not, and at times they will have to wait for several hours to access a shift. The use of technology to excessively extract value and discriminate amongst the workers is not new. The classic example of Toyotism and lean production processes are worth recounting in this regard.

Added to that is the risk of driving on the busy streets of Berlin, often with the pressure of getting the food delivered quickly to the customers. All the riders, with whom I have had a chance to speak with, recount the abysmal conditions, especially the extreme weather conditions, in which they have to work. They have to make deliveries within the stipulated time period and if they fail to do so, they are given a strike against their names in the online work system. “You could actually call it a system of punishment and reward,” notes Maya. At a recent talk in Berlin by Marion Fourcade, the noted sociologist ruminates that the coming societies and their institutions which are controlled by digital technologies will increasingly be dependent on information systems that would monitor efficiency and extract value out of labour. While this might sound dystopian, the current pace at which digital tools and procedures are being used to track individuals, assess them and monitor their conduct, especially in the diverse workplaces, is a gargantuan reality.

Anna, an ex-Foodora rider, notes that the promise of work flexibility that companies like Foodora have been vocal about, does not hold true for the workers. Recalling the example of ‘Shyftplan’, a third-party platform used by Foodora to manage the shifts of the workers and their performance, she notes that earlier, riders at least had the option of giving up their shifts and looking for a substitute rider on the platform, some 48 hours before the delivery had to be made. However, the company acted against it and the riders cannot make use of this flexibility anymore.

However, they found a way around this coagulation in the system. They would block their work calendars for the whole month so that they were not forced to take the work shifts. This lasted for a few weeks until the Foodora management intercepted eventually. Even the German head of Delivery Hero, the company which recently acquired the Munich-based startup Foodora, came for a meeting in Berlin and called upon the Foodora management team to address this as a significant problem. He also appealed to the riders against such disruptive activities. “It was certainly a novel system of protest against the system,” beams Anna.

Foodora and Deliveroo are redefining the traditional logistics sector by platformatisation of the delivery work. While the labour of delivering food itself remains physical, the operational model is completely digitised. This also means that the traditional employer-employee relationship in this kind of delivery work has been modified. The gig economy is characterised by short-term or freelance work. While Deliveroo gives work on a contractual or freelance basis, Foodora has been careful of the legal implications. It employs riders or couriers, as it prefers to call them, on a part-time and eventually, on a full-time basis in case they have not already been fired by the company or left on their own free will. While this sounds a tad assuring, a glance through the work contract provided by Foodora provides a glimpse of the precarity that even terminologies like ‘part-time’ and ‘full-time’ employment cannot assure.

Andreas Harte, a Foodora delivery cyclist poses on a street in Berlin, Germany, June 2, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

Andreas Harte, a Foodora delivery cyclist poses on a street in Berlin, Germany, June 2, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

I ask the riders if they would read the contract before signing the agreement and if they understood what they were signing up for. I am met with a unanimous response on the vagueness of the language of the document, often unclear in the construction of the statements. “But at the very least the contract was also in English, apart from being in German,” adds Maya. The Deliveroo and Foodora riders are a diverse community of workers. Both the companies are quite open to giving work to non-Germans and international students. There are far more male workers than female workers though and they are usually young. Sexual harassment is common in this line of work, with workers often finding themselves in vulnerable situations, such as in the customer’s house while delivering food or on the street while driving.

Organising workers

Anna, who was a part of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and is currently an active member of the German trade union FAU (Free Workers’ Union), glosses over the strengths in organising through a legal trade union such as FAU. The workers are protected under the law, can access resource materials, money for flyers and can connect with struggles of other precarious workers. However, there are also challenges of organising the riders. These include the workers’ fears of losing their jobs as well as the inherent culture of precariousness which demotivates the workers to organise. Added to this is the competitive culture which pits one worker against the other.

The self-branding techniques and investment of resources into building a desirable identity have become quite common, especially for workers engaged in informal and uncertain employment conditions. This also posits challenges to collectivisation and unionisation efforts of the workers. Further, complicated technical tools such as Slack and other mobile applications to vote on workers’ demands and organise have been difficult to sustain. Instead, WhatsApp has emerged as one of the easiest and efficient ways for the workers to remain in contact and organise. “There should be more spontaneous, creative and minimal bureaucracies-oriented ways of organising,” states Anna.

Georgia, the press representative from FAU, a union that is also engaged in organising workers of the gastronomy sector in Germany, notes that while the diversity in delivery work is certainly a strength for bargaining working rights collectively, it has proven to be problematic at times. “The riders approached us and since the very beginning, we have been open to their needs and strategies for securing their rights. Right from the kind of demonstrations to when and how they should take place, is all deliberated upon by the riders. However, it gets challenging when the riders are only part of these efforts for a short period. A lot of the riders are students who have come from different countries in Europe and elsewhere and thus, it affects the sustained struggle.”

Carlo and Adrian nod in agreement. “Gathering riders to demonstrate is a big struggle, despite the success stories that we have had”. These success stories include riders using creative and diverse forms of struggle in large numbers as well as Foodora riders winning the per-kilometre pay for bike repairs. The instant food delivery workers have been striking in around ten cities in Europe and it is hard to miss the emerging transnational movement of precarious labour in the continent. Despite the structural circumstances and lack of support from established trade unions, the riders have managed to win victories in London against the Deliveroo change of contract from an hourly wage (7£ plus 1£ per delivery bonus) to piece wage system (3.75£ per drop) for the old workers. Similar struggles have sustained across the UK in Bath, Brighton, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester, Middlesbrough and Portsmouth.

This along with the mass strikes or ‘proto-strikes’ by Foodora riders in Turin (Italy) in 2016 which forced the company to accept some demands such as increasing the delivery fee from 2.60€ to 3.70€ and discounts on bike repair costs. However, lack of substantial change in the workers’ conditions led to a critical mass strike in Milan on July 15, 2017, by riders from Deliveroo, Foodora and Barcelona-based Glovo, with demands for sick pay and accidental insurance. In Spain, the Deliveroo workers in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia organised massive strikes in 2017, demanding minimum deliveries per hour, guaranteed work per week as well as called out for an end to the victimisation of unionised workers. Riders from the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Greece have not been far behind.

These struggles along with their subsequent associations with workers’ unions such as the FAU in Germany, the IWGB and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the UK, the syndicalist union SI-COBAS and even support extending from the left-wing party Sinistra Italiana are creating ripple effects in the European legislative processes. The discontent with the gig economy has resulted in the European Parliament resolution of 19 January 2017 on a European Pillar of Social Rights. Following this, the proposal for a Directive on Transparent and Predictable Working Conditions was drafted in December 2017 to address the insufficient protections for workers in precarious jobs. While the proposal is lacking in strong provisions for workers trapped in zero-hour contracts as well as against abusive flexibility, it is a step forward in holding the online platforms accountable as employers.

Deliveroo and Foodora riders in Berlin hope for a future where the regulatory frameworks regarding the freelance and contract work will be changed. There are also some who are designing and developing their own platforms. These alternative projects are underway in Barcelona and Brussels and are being supported by government funding (as a part of the digital cooperative project in Barcelona) and by experienced consultants in Belgium. Despite these gains, Anna believes that if there is no big win being made, then the hype (media) will eventually die out. “In this great shift towards the digitised marketplace, people like us could get left behind”.

There is an increasing proliferation of digital platforms in the Indian marketplace and the investment in ‘food tech’ has risen substantially. With global behemoths such as Google (Areo), Uber Eats and now Deliveroo competing with local platforms such as Swiggy, Zomato and others, there is little dismay on developments in the online food delivery market in India. However, precariousness and exploitative labour conditions are part of the current reality of platform economy in India and it is worth reflecting over the consequences of the ‘Future of Work’ for the segmented Indian labour and society.

Sana Ahmad currently lives in Berlin and is pursuing her PhD on the labour conditions in the IT sector in India, at the Freie University Berlin.