When Mr. Robot is Your Boss: Working under algorithms

The phone rings and an eerie voice mimicking a woman says: “Your shift is about to start, please log in and make sure you are in your designated starting area.”

This automatic reminder to promptly start the riding shift was for me the most tangible reminder that couriers working for Foodora and similar “platform economy” companies work under the control of algorithms. While getting a call from a robot urging to start your shift is uncanny, the algorithms control the couriers’ work in more subtle, and more important, ways.

Dispatching, namely the assignment of orders to couriers is done automatically at Foodora. Through the application that the couriers use to receive orders, the algorithm tracks the couriers’ location, average speed, how quickly the courier delivers the food and how much time they spend at the customer. Based on an unknown weighing of these factors, the algorithm assigns a specific order to a given courier.

The dispatcher, who distributes orders, plays probably the single most important part in a courier’s job. The courier plans their own routes, but the dispatcher gives the orders, sets the pace and provides the information the courier needs to do their job. No matter how fast a courier rides or how well they navigate the city, if dispatching does not work, nothing works. Conversely, when dispatchers and couriers work well together and communicate with each other, they deliver orders quickly and efficiently. When the dispatcher is a courier themselves, this cooperation usually works best, because the dispatcher knows what can be expected from a cyclist, how the weather, the load and distance affects the courier.

Foodora has human dispatchers, who oversee couriers in a given city. However, in the working process designed by Foodora, human dispatchers ideally don’t interact with couriers, who should get their orders automatically. Presumably as a cost-saving measure, Foodora centralized its dispatching to Berlin and the dispatchers overseeing say Helsinki know nothing about the city. Thus the dispatchers are not able to help couriers in problem cases and sometimes the results are just plain bizarre, for example when by mistake an order has registered to a restaurant that is in fact closed and the courier tries to tell disbelieving dispatchers in Berlin that the cannot pick it up, because… well, the restaurant is closed.

The biggest problem however is one of transparency. The provisions paid for the order form a substantial part of the couriers’ income at Foodora, and because of this, those who get more orders earn more. The courier however does not know how and why the algorithm distributes the orders to one courier instead of another. Apparently, the algorithm distributes orders to couriers it deems “effective”. I have seen a situation when a fast courier came exhausted with less than ten minutes of their shift remaining to the office where couriers, who had just started their shifts sat waiting for orders. Then a new order came and algorithm assigned it to the fast courier. Why, nobody knows, but in Foodora’s automatic system, re-dispatching is not done.

Similarly, the algorithm classes Foodora’s couriers into four “batches”, or groups, based on their performance (as judged by the algorithm). Shifts are made available in steps to these batches so that the first batch, with the “best” couriers, get first pick from all the shifts, then the next and those in the last batch pick any shifts that might be left. How a courier gets shifts obviously directly affects their income. If one can do only a limited amount of hours, one also earns less. Along with this direct effect, how much and how well one works affects also one’s position in the “batch” and the possibility to get shifts in the future.

In short, the algorithms directly control the couriers’ work and their income, but in ways the courier can only guess. Even if the courier was adept in reading the code and reverse-engineering the applications, the systems are proprietary and not made known to the courier.

Automatic dispatching may be well-grounded in a situation with many couriers, constantly incoming and fast-paced orders. Algorithms, like any technologies, have particular affordances that may encourage particular types practices, but they do not determine them. On the contrary, the algorithms do what they are designed to and within social relations of production that are formed based on human decisions. When non-transparent algorithms are combined with hierarchical and unequal forms of labor as now in the “platform economy”, workers are adversely affected. Similarly, when decisions directly affecting the worker are automated, the actual hierarchy within the workplace is obfuscated and unequal power relations are masked as technical properties of the applications.

This needs however not to be so. Instead of making workers compete with one another over shifts and orders, the applications could be designed to enable greater co-operation between couriers themselves and between couriers and dispatchers. Instead of masking unequal power relations within the companies, the applications, like any other tools, could be designed to foster truly equal forms of labor. We have to change not the applications, but the social relations behind them. And that is what couriers throughout Europe are now doing and we hope precarious workers in other sectors will join us.

Tuomas Tammisto, Helsinki bike courier & postdoc researcher, former Foodora courier & RC

Response regarding our “Bread and Roses” event

Our Bread and Roses event prompted feedback, which asked about the event’s linkage to the struggles of the feminist movement. The feminist movement has used the Bread and Roses symbolism in various historical struggles for women’s rights. The writer of the feedback asks in what way our event is connected to the struggles of the women’s rights movement and why we have not explicated the linkage. We thank the writer for their support and for their important observation. Hence we want to clarify our stance and use of the feminist symbolism.

We have deliberately chosen to use the Breade and Roses theme in our campaign, because we are not only demanding better pay (“bread”) as well as appreciation and better working conditions (“roses”), but also in order to emphasize that many of the couriers are women (as is typical for underpaid service work), non-binary or belonging to a minority. It is true, that most the couriers are men, but many of them are in an othered position for example, because they have not Finnish citizenship or are not entitled to Finnish social security. With the feminist theme we want to highlight the linkages between different struggles and the need for co-operation and alliances between these. In precarious work, where most of the workers are in a very vulnerable position as they work without any security, intersectional differences become even more pronounced.

The links to the struggles of the feminist movement shows also in the way we operate: the problems of courier work have not been addressed by anybody else, so we have done it by ourselves from the beginning. In our campaign work, we have attempted to achieve equality between all actors, listened to every participant and tried to give every interested person a chance to contribute in a way that suits them best. We have sought to emphasize that experiences are personal and embodied in contrast to talk that is detached from actors.

Our campaign to reverse pay cuts and improve working conditions of precarious couriers and car drivers can be truly successful only in combination with other struggles for equality, because we represent a diverse group of people and want to be acknowledged as such.

Messenger Appreciation Day

Today on the 9th of October, or 10–9 in the North American way of numbering dates, is the Messenger Appreciation Day. The celebration has its roots in the US: in 1991 San Francisco proclaimed the day to be in honor of messengers after the 10–9 radio code meaning “Say again” or “What”. Since then, other cities in the US and Canada have joined San Francisco in appreciating its bike messengers. In Finland, Messenger Appreciation Day is known mainly amongst the couriers, who celebrate it in various ways within the messenger scene.

Today, on Messenger Appreciation Day, we want to show our appreciation to all the messengers, especially those riding today in the rain. More so, we want to point out that messengers, like other workers, need appreciation—not abstract thanks and lip service, but concrete valuation in the form of decent pay and working conditions.

On this day, we want to remind Foodora Finland that when the company issues statements about appreciating its “delivery partners”, the monicker it has chosen for its couriers, the talk must be backed by deeds. We don’t need empty statements of appreciation, but we need:

1. Better pay
2. Transparent shift allocation
3. A break space
4. Insurances
5. Employment contracts

Foodora couriers are not demanding the bare minimum of decent working conditions. Foodora, show that you really appreciate your messengers by starting negotiations and addressing the demands.

We don’t give “feedback”, but demand!

Today Foodora approached its couriers with an email saying that they “will now take a closer look at (courier’s) comments and start investigating how they can align to (courier’s) wishes”.

Foodora, these are DEMANDS, not mere comments!

A responsible company that cares about its employees wouldn’t try to avoid meeting with them, communicate solely through social media and with vague and meaningless emails, refuse to set up a date for negations and completely shut its eyes from its worker’s struggle! Foodora, get a grip!

We also want to emphasize that Foodora Take Responsibility -campaign is organized by couriers themselves from the very beginning and represents them.

Bread & Roses

The campaign by Foodora couriers moves now to its second phase and approaches restaurants with bread and roses.

The Foodora couriers started a campaign on September 6th in cooperation with Vapaa Syndikaatti and Vastavoima to demand the repeal of the recent pay cuts and improvements in the working conditions of couriers. The vast majority of Foodora’s couriers work under ‘freelance agreements’, where they do not have normal employment rights, such as sick leave or insurances. In July, the couriers’ hourly pay was cut and now drivers do not get parking allowance or fuel subsidies. The couriers ask for fair pay and decent working conditions. We want bread, but roses too.

Because Foodora has not addressed the demands of the couriers, the second phase of the campaign begins on October 13. On that day we organize an event where couriers deliver bread and roses to restaurants and asks them to support the couriers struggle for better working conditions. The Foodora couriers believe that couriers and restaurants have, as service sector workers, much in common and shared interests. We want to deliver food from restaurants to clients’ homes under fair working conditions!

We approach restaurants as friends and ask them to publicly support couriers or to approach Foodora directly in support of couriers. As food couriers, we want to give the restaurants bread, because we know how important food is. And we want to give roses, because we know that mere bread is not enough, but workers need appreciation as well.

Our days shall not be sweated from birth until life closes,
Hearts starve as well as bodies, Give us bread, but gives us roses

Why I support the campaign? Courier Per Ehrstöm

I did my first shift for Foodora in December 2017. I had just started studying again and needed to find work that I could do while studying. After a “test ride” with another rider I was employed and did my first shift a few weeks later.

The fact that there really wasn’t any kind of help offered for the riders surpised me. No place to change clothes, fix your bike or eat something. I did quite a lot of shifts during the winter and had to get suitable clothes and better tyres for my bike. Foodora provides you with jackets and shirts, but the rest you have to get yourself.

Foodora doesn’t collaborate with any bikeshop or help you with your bike maintance. What this means is that if you don’t have the gear and clothes for riding in the winter, you need to do quite many shifts in order to cover these costs.

Foodora doesn’t provide you with any insurance, they only recommend that you have your own insurance. Most insurance companies provide you with a quite affordable accident insurance, not many of them cover injuries that come from wear and tear. Riding a bike for many hours a day, in cold weather and with a heavy backpack is hard on your neck and back. I hurt my neck during the winter and had to take a break from taking shifts.

You book your shifts on a weekly basis and the system puts you in different groups called “batches” based on how actively you have been working. If you work a lot, you get access to the shifts earlier, if you haven’t been working much you get access to them later. If you are in the later batches there aren’t usually that many shifts left. So basically, in order to get work, you need to work. After I hadn’t worked for a while it was nearly impossible to get shifts. The only way to get shifts is to constantly check if somebody has given up their shift and then take that, at which point we are a long way from the type of flexibility Foodora promises their riders.

Foodora sees their employees as “freelancers” and the company acquits itself of any responsibility of their workers wellbeing. The riders and car drives operate under the kind of working conditions that absolutely should be considered as employment and they should have better rights.

Instead of making the working conditions better Foodora seems to only make them worse. I’m fortunate enough to have other another job, and I wont be returning to Foodora before the working conditions are made better. Since all of us don’t have the same possibility, I sincerely hope that Foodora will take more responsibility for their workers and give them the rights that they deserve.

Per is a 34 years old dramaturgy student at the Theatre Academy at the University of the Arts.