We have noted several times that the main problem for the couriers at Foodora and Wolt is that they have no employment contracts, but work under freelance agreements. This agreement shifts the riks of entrepreneurship to the workers and helps the employees to circumvent their legal responsibilities.
In practice this means that the Foodora and Wolt couriers pay out of their fees themselves the side expenses of work, such as pensions, possible insurances, their gear and the maintenance of their vehicles. Maintaining a bike used in work is expensive, not to speak of cars and fuel. As freelancers, the couriers do not have the right to sick pay, they have no protection against termination and their pay can be cut with unilateral announcements—as both Foodora and Wolt have done.
Both companies argue that the freelance-agreements provide “flexibility” and claim that this benefits the couriers, who can work freely and do not have to commit to fixed weekly hours. This argument has two mistakes: first, flexibility and the security of employment do not rule each other out and second, couriers in the platform economy are not allowed to work freely. In this text we explain why.
Flexibility, meaning that the workers does not need to commit to do, or the employer to offer, shifts, can be achieved with zero hour contracts. This is a common arrangement for example in retail, where employers can offer shifts to workers with very little forewarning and where the workers do not need to accept the shifts. This arrangement provides the flexibility that Foodora and Wolt say benefts especially youths and students. At the same time it provides basic security for the employee: the employer pays the side expenses, the employee has a right to sick pay and they have the necessary insurances. In other words, the employers bears the minimal responsibility of their workers. Foodora and Wolt do not want this, but they attempt to reduce costs by shifting the expenses to the couriers.
The companies also argue that freelancer contracts give the workers the freedom to work independently. Someone who is truly self-employed chooses when and how to work. The couriers of wolt and Foodora however are during their shifts under the tight control of the companies. During their shifts, the couriers cannot decline orders given to them by the dispatchers (actual persons or algorithms). The couriers must ask for breaks and the dispatchers decide when they can take them. For example in the attached screenshot, a Foodora dispatcher tells the courier that they cannot have a lunch break at the moment. Also Wolt dispatchers carefully monitor the location of the courier and directs where the courier needs to be.
One Wolt courier told that the surveillance is so precise that when three Wolt couriers were in the same place waiting for orders, the dispatcher phoned them, asked if they were having a meeting and told them to disperse and wait for orders in separate locations. Foodora for example explicitly forbids the couriers to smoke, because it runs counter to their “brand image”. This is not the freedom of self-employment, but work work conducted from a dependent position and under the control of others, namely an arrangement that fulfils the criteria of employment.
“Flexibility” in the case of Foodora and Wolt means only that the couriers must act like employees without rights, while the companies shift the risk of entrepreneurship to couriers and deny them the freemdom of actual entrepreneurs.