A traffic accident in Serbian capital Belgrade in which a Wolt bicycle courier got injured raised concerns about Wolt couriers’ working conditions and status. Are they employed and where, do they have health and social insurance, right to sick leave, vacations, how much do they earn…
For a few months now a large number of bike couriers carrying big yellow and blue delivery backpacks have been circulating Belgrade. Together with their less visible motorised colleagues they perform work for the on-demand delivery companies Wolt and Glovo.
Shortly after photos of the accident appeared on social networks, questions were raised concerning the labour and financial condition of the injured courier. Should Wolt, the company the courier was performing work for, accept responsibility for the rider’s injury at work, and, if so – in what way?
Wolt’s answer to Masina was that “the people working for Wolt aren’t Wolt’s employees”, but are instead engaged through one of three possible models: they either 1) own their own companies, whose relation to Wolt is regulated through partnership agreements, 2) are employees of a company Wolt has a partnership agreement with, or 3) are students engaged through a university service Wolt cooperates with.
In short, as representatives of the delivery company state, Wolt has partners, and the couriers are their employees.
Masina also asked Glovo to explain the company’s relationship with their workers. Unfortunately, we haven’t received an answer by the time this article was published.
Wolt and Glovo appeared on the local market a few months ago. While the Finnish company Wolt specialises in food delivery, the Spanish Glovo covers grocery delivery, delivery of drugs, documents, gifts, etc. Both companies are present in a large number of countries and present themselves as successful digital start-ups who apply an “innovative” approach in mediating between buyers, sellers and deliverers using apps.
However, as Dunja Kučinac noticed in an article published in Bilten, the very business model these companies and the like use is innovative in itself. The companies use messages such as: „Be your own boss“, „be in charge of your working schedule and make money all the while“ to recruit potential couriers. However, as Kučinas states, such juicy offers mask mechanisms of intensive exploitation:
Breaking down a service to detached segments blurs the form of traditional wagework. The delivery companies make money from connecting detached segments, while the alleged flexibility of the working schedule hides numerous mechanisms of pressure and control, aimed at intensifying the working process. A particular courier’s choice of shifts and workload is thus in fact limited, he relies on his own resources (the driving vehicle and a cell phone), and is constantly competing with other drivers.
Workers or entrepreneurs?
A former Wolt courier whom we had a chance to talk to confirmed that he wasn’t employed in the company. Instead, the company suggested that he should register as an entrepreneur. As the ex-courier, who wished to stay anonymous, explained:
… Nobody wanted to open a firm, so they called us to work through a proxy company, with which Wolt had an established cooperation.
He claims, however, that no agreement got signed between him and the mediating company, although his earning was reduced by 20% on the account of their services.
These aren’t the only couriers’ expenses. They are also obliged to provide the vehicles (bicycles, motors, cars), provide for their roadworthiness, provide fuel, safety equipment, mobile phones and pay the expenses of telecommunication services. Food and refreshment during shifts are also paid for by the couriers themselves, and not the companies who they in fact work for.
I work five hours a day, save money, eat when I get home.
This is how a high school student who was working for Glovo during the summer described his average working day for Mašina.
A rising number of people face such precarious working conditions. The emerging digital economy, which Wolt and Glovo belong to, take the shift of responsibility from employers to employees to a whole new level of precarisation. Given that there are no written agreements regulating workers’ engagement, the app that serves to engage workers becomes the only link between the actual employer and the actual employee
The absence of legal contracts also releases the employer from responsibility to provide social insurance to the ones who, for instance, work as food deliverers. The injured bike courier suffered an accident during summer season, when the traffic conditions were favourable. How will the worsening of atmospheric conditions affect the safety of cyclists and bikers who work as couriers is a reasonable question to ask. Who is, in addition, responsible for their safety?
Jelena Šapić, who researched the working conditions of those engaged in the digital economy in Serbia says that “social insurance is of utmost importance since it guarantees the safety of workers throughout their working life”.
This particular group of workers, including the ones engaged by Glovo and Wolt, experience diminished access to social insurance – if they register as entrepreneurs they are only entitled to basic social insurance. Basic insurance doesn’t include paid work absence, sick leave, or leaving work to care for a family member (a child or an elderly person), to which legally engaged workers have access.
The access to social insurance is virtually non-existent for those who haven’t signed any working agreements, such as the Wolt couriers, and are also not registered as entrepreneurs.
Their only access to social insurance is through a family member or a partner. This way they aren’t entitled to official seniority on account of which they could in due course claim rights to a retirement. They also lack access to social insurance in case of unemployment. If we take into account how unpredictable part time jobs, which are emerging as the main source of income for the young, are, combined with the risks that the couriers are taking to themselves, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a big challenge, stated Šapić.
Nevertheless, many are forced into taking jobs with such working conditions, which still provide some source of income.
As our informants, who used to work for Wolt and Glovo, explained, the first company pays roughly 250 dinars (2.1 euros) per delivery or 450 dinars (3.8 euros) per hour and a half, if you chose to work “guaranteed hours”. Glovo pays 230 dinars (1.96 euros) by the hour regardless of the number of deliveries.
Although the couriers can choose the length of their working day on their own, the need to make a living pressures many of them into working outside the standard working hours. A courier whom we talked to stated that “rumours that a guy made 70 000 dinars(595 euros) a month cannot be true”, since he would have to “work 11 hours’ shifts every day to make such a sum”.
On the other hand, a former Wolt’s courier claims that he saw with his own eyes that:
A guy riding a bike made 60 000 (510 euros) in two weeks, but he worked 12 hours long shifts daily.
Our informant, who spent between 40 and 60 hours weekly making deliveries on behalf of Wolt made between 60 to 70 000 dinars a month. He had to pay 20% of this sum to the proxy company through which he was engaged without a contract, and an additional sum for vehicle maintenance, fuel and mobile phone use expenses.
The pressure to increase working hours, which contributes to diminishing couriers’ safety, could grow during colder months, when the number of those interested in such jobs decreases.
The fight for rights
Being a part of the digital economy and working “via apps” was introduced to the world a few years ago. Besides Wolt and Glovo, who made their presence in Serbia, on-demand delivery is provided by Deliveroo, Foodora, and even Uber, who launched their own service platform.
The expansion and development of the delivery companies was followed by the struggle of the engaged couriers for better working conditions and larger wages. Wolt’s couriers in the companies “native” Finland launched a campaign for working condition improvement, while the couriers of Deliveroo in Madrid, Spain, recently won a court case that obliges the company to treat them as permanently employed workers, and not as freelancers.
Wolt’s couriers in Belgrade also had a minor attempt at organising.
As a former courier of the company explained, some of his colleagues were dissatisfied when they didn’t receive bonuses that where promised.
Namely, the presentations which they saw in Wolt’s offices mentioned a 7500 dinars bonus for the couriers who make more that 150 deliveries. When some of the couriers reached this threshold they began demanding the bonus, which the company failed to pay.
People then started complaining and sent memos to regional managers. According to a former Wolt’s courier, the company stopped their cooperation with one of the couriers, after which the others stopped complaining.
According to his claims, Wolt justified withholding bonuses by saying that they could, supposedly, only be paid to legal parties they cooperate with, which excludes, as explained above, those couriers performing services for Wolt who at the time weren’t registered as entrepreneurs.
Labour organising is a big challenge for the couriers working in the current conditions:
It’s hard to organise when we almost never meet. You only see others for a moment or two. You don’t know who they are, explains a former employee.
Trade unions took an active role in different cases when the couriers working via aps in the EU tried to organise. Unfortunately, Serbian trade unions still lack strategy for organising in this expanding industry.
As Aleksandra Vitorović, a representative of the UGS Nezavisnost trade union, explaines: “The law on labour is problematic, because it fails to recognise the legal institute of a worker, and recognises just the employee”.
Formally only employees can unionize – or, in other words, have a trade union as a representative of their rights and interests. “We are advocating a change in the legislative which would allow for all workers to unionise”, stated Vitorović, adding that Nezavisnost won’t give up on pushing for such legislative change that would allow for respecting the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (also signed by Serbia), which guarantee the right of all workers, and not just the ones with legal contracts, to unionize.
Vitorović concluded that individuals can join a trade union regardless of the type of contract between them and the employer: “We want to help all workers with advice”.
Exploitation of a larger number of people brought about by working via apps as a part of the digital economy obviously won’t wait for the change of the legal framework, as much as the change in the atmospheric conditions won’t make the couriers’ work easier.
Translation from Serbian: Iskra Krstić
This article was originally published in Serbian on Sep 23, 2019.