How do we fix the gig economy

Who is delivered: Workers at Foodora and Amazon are fighting for better work

Georgia Palmer gets her jobs from an app. The 24-year-old philosophy student from Berlin works as a mini jobber for the food supplier Foodora. When her shift begins, she stands on the street with a pink jacket and bicycle, straps the transport box onto her back and picks up her smartphone. She logs in and waits for a beep. Then she rushes to the specified restaurant, receives food and - again via mobile phone - receives the address for delivery. The customer already knows that she is on her way to see him and how long she will still need. Because Foodora records everything. But despite constant monitoring, the startup underestimated its drivers and their anger. And thus possibly triggered the first major class war of the gig economy.

The matter of first names was actually just a detail. But for Georgia Palmer it is representative of how little consideration is given to drivers. One day customers started greeting her with "Hi Georgia" when she handed them food. She thought it was scary because she wasn't wearing a name tag. She later learned that Foodora had unlocked the drivers' first names for customers. “But nobody told us that before,” she says.

The drivers of Foodora and the competitor Deliveroo stink a lot: that they have to provide their bikes and mobile phones themselves and repair the bikes in their free time, that a non-transparent algorithm distributes the shifts and that conditions can be changed at will. So drivers in Berlin began to exchange ideas on the street and in chat groups, to discuss things in the pub in the evening and finally to organize themselves in a union. Suddenly there was a "we".

This “we” is even bigger for Foodora and Deliveroo drivers than the streets of Berlin: In London, Turin and Bordeaux, Deliveroo drivers have been on strike in the past few months against wage depressions. There is the first Foodora works council in Vienna. And everywhere in German cities there are attempts to emulate the Berlin labor fighters. “They might get their jobs from an app,” says Kurt Vandaele, researcher at the European Trade Union Institute ETUI, “but they are also connected in real life on a local job market in big cities.” The drivers in their pink and mint green outfits stand out in the cityscape , they are often waiting in the same places for orders. They meet and realize: we are many.

The drivers are paid on a minimum wage basis. Most of the drivers at Foodora are employed on a mini or midi job basis. Deliveroo also employs many drivers as self-employed. Pressure can be exerted a little easier on them. In England in particular, the company is trying to switch from hourly payments to a pure premium per delivery. But the job is not easy for any of the competitors: if you are an employee who misses out on shift assignments despite the guaranteed minimum number of hours - which, according to drivers, often happened this summer, but has not been confirmed by the company - you have no choice but to stay on permanently Cell phone to see if something is spontaneously available. Availability: all the time. Level of frustration: very high.

So far, it has not seemed particularly attractive for the big unions to stand up for the food suppliers: Many of the drivers, like Georgia, are students who earn extra money, especially those who have moved to Berlin from abroad. "There are also many who do not want to be permanently involved in trade unions," says Thomas Voss, who is responsible for online trading and shipping at Verdi. “This protest is rather actionist.” Clemens Melzer, Berlin press secretary of the anarcho-syndicalist base trade union FAU (Free Workers Union), which organizes the drivers, contradicts this: “It's a fun job, with which the drivers identify. Many would like to stay if the conditions were better. ”He says that the protests mean that the FAU is gaining a double-digit number of members every month - not only in Berlin, but also in Hanover, Hamburg, Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Dresden and Duisburg. He doesn't say exactly how many drivers they represent.

A Tuesday evening in July. A handful of people are standing in front of a shop in Wedding, smoking and discussing. The organizing group meets here every other week in the FAU office in Berlin. Ten people came, English is spoken. On the wall a poster with the inscription: militant, anarchist, solidarity. The conversation is well organized and tight, an agenda, a moderator, focused strategic planning. Most of them are drivers or work in the suppliers' offices. Georgia is there too. They are celebrating their first success. Shortly before the IPO of the Berlin parent company Delivery Hero, Foodora is ready to officially negotiate the demands of the drivers. The British competitor Deliveroo, on the other hand, continues to ignore the protests. Your management sees him as not representative of their drivers. "We will increase the pressure", announced Clemens Melzer. He is confident that the protests will spread. They want to organize the first international delivery services conference in Berlin by the beginning of 2018 at the latest.

The situation of drivers is even more precarious in countries with particularly low occupational health and safety, such as Italy or Great Britain. This is no coincidence, because the business model of the services quasi screams for wage dumping: through their platforms they sell food from restaurants that do not have a delivery service. Such a business is significantly more risky than the mere mediation between customers and the supplying restaurant, as offered by other platforms. Foodora claims 30 percent of the price - Deliveroo did not want to respond to inquiries from Investigate Europe, but restaurant owners say the price is the same for both services.

The services have to have a large number of drivers ready for peak times who do not need them at other times. The lower the labor costs, the better. Especially when the drivers are waiting. Both startups are supported by international investors with sums of millions. When Delivery Hero went public, it was revealed that Foodora is (still) making millions in losses. Deliveroo did not want to say whether it looks similar with them.

The fact is: Both companies are still expanding strongly. According to its own information, Foodora is represented in more than ten countries and 65 cities worldwide, Deliveroo in twelve countries and 160 cities. Now they are also followed by the protest at the new locations. The media attention for it is great. Almost as many journalists as drivers came to a bicycle demonstration in Berlin in May. The protagonists are young, the actions spectacular: at the end of June they dumped a load of bicycle scrap in front of the Deliveroo office to protest that the employer is not responsible for any damage. In the meantime, Deliveroo has introduced a flat rate for wear and tear. The drivers know that in a crowd they have power. Union researcher Kurt Vandaele says: “Although the drivers are easy to replace in their jobs - you don't have to be specially trained to ride a bike - they have some bargaining power. They become aware of their strategic position and are rediscovering the strike: their bosses will not make a profit without food delivery. "

According to experts, the fact that the corporations subdivide the orders and deliveries into many small work steps and thus make workers more replaceable is intentional - the technical term for this is "digital Taylorism". This is not only common among the food suppliers. "The digital revolution is strikingly reminiscent of the industrial revolution and piece work in the 19th century," says Vandaele. Back then, people were paid for the shirt they sewed. How long it took did not matter. “It was then that the first strike funds, unions and minimum wage laws were created. And that is exactly where we are again in some sectors, ”he says. As further examples, he cites the hotel sector with so-called on-call contracts, which mean zero security with maximum availability. Or the compilation of goods in the logistics centers of the large corporation Amazon.

The Amazon case shows particularly well how trade unions are now practically forced to cross-border networking. Amazon operates nine logistics centers in Germany. These have been repeatedly struck by employees in recent years. There have been wage increases - but so far the group has refused to accept trade unions as representatives of their workers and to negotiate collective agreements. You talk directly to the works council, they say. Nevertheless, according to Verdi, up to a third of the workforce are now unionized. Since 2014 Amazon has been supplying the German market from three logistics centers in the Polish cities of Poznan and Wroclaw. Thanks to the special economic zone, the workers there do not even earn five euros an hour, work longer shifts and on Sundays.

“Working at Amazon is very exhausting,” says Malgorzata Mróz, chairwoman of the Inicjatywa Pracownicza grassroots union. "We fight to be treated like people and not like machine parts." The Amazon warehouses in Germany and Poland are closely interwoven. The workers have to show solidarity with one another, she thinks. And the German colleagues have also understood: If there is a strike in Germany, it is easy for Amazon to process orders via Poland - in case of doubt, the customer will not notice anything. The negotiating position of the workers is thus massively weakened. "So we fight together," says Thomas Voss from Verdi.

"We have different wages and standards, but what unites colleagues across Europe is concern for our health," says Thomas Rigol, who works at Amazon in Leipzig and sits on the works council for Verdi. If workers have to load trucks for weeks or months, for example, or open parcels on the conveyor belt with only their right hand, then that is an immense one-sided burden. "Together we want to ensure that the people in the departments rotate more and can therefore work longer in the plants and not have to leave the company after a short period of time due to illness." Some improvements have already been achieved. Nevertheless, the sick rate paid in his company is still well above the industry average. Amazon does not go into this information, but refers to the Group's own health concept. Until this is enough for the workers, they visit each other during strikes with busloads of helpers and give each other tips.

Trade unionist Voss is going to Barcelona in October, where trade unions from all countries in which Amazon has locations meet: Great Britain, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Spain. The goal: joint campaigns and collective agreements everywhere. Unionists Melzer and Georgia Palmer have been negotiating with Foodora since August. A lump sum for wear has already been promised, the amount is still being disputed. But the talks are constructive, say both sides. In other countries and cities, drivers continue to take to the streets. Until we talk to them too.

This research comes from Investigate Europe, a pan-European team with nine journalists from eight European countries, which researches relevant topics across Europe, jointly develops theses and shares all results. The project is supported by the Hans Böckler Foundation, the Norwegian Fritt Ord Foundation, the Hübner & Kennedy Foundation, the Rudolf Augstein Foundation and the Open Society Initiative for Europe. The team cooperates with the NGOs Journalismfund and N-Ost. In addition to the two authors, Crina Boros, Wojciech Ciesla, Ingeborg Eliassen, Leila Minano, Nikolas Leontopoulos, Maria Maggiore and Paulo Pena also collaborate. More about the project:

Also read the article Europe's New Reserve Army, which emerged from the same research project.