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The food couriers of Foodora and Wolt are at the forefront in the ongoing struggle about the ways in which work is done as well as the position and rights of those who perform the labour. The platform economy is already in use among other sectors in home cleaning, personal assistance, newspaper delivery and even in industry. The common denominator here is the attempt by the commissioner of work to assign the platform worker the obligations of an employee and the risk of an entrepreneur. The platform company thus gets to pick the cherries off the cake, while those who perform the work at their mercy without the protection assigned to employees.
For platform workers it is extremely challenging to start to demand better pay, working conditions or just being critical towards the commissioner of work. The platform workers can be fired without any reasons as they are not protected by employment contracts and labour legislation. The pay can be cut in half without negotiations with the employees. In fact, there are not any employees, just a group of private entrepreneurs. But to talk about entrepreneurship in the case of the likes of Foodora and Wolt is grotesque, as the couriers work under the supervision of companies and according to terms and schedules set by the companies–just like any other employee. To be sure, the work of few other employees are controlled and tracked as closely as that of food couriers. When you log into the system, the commissioner of work knows exactly and all the time where you and what you do. The couriers are ranked according to how fast they deliver the food from the restaurnt to the customer. The ranking system, which places the courier in a given category, react also to absences due to illness and missed shifts. These lead, via the algorithm, to a lower ranking. Those who fall into a lower category are not offered the “good gigs”, where the food is possible to be delivered quickly to the customer.
It seems the main function of the ranking system is to make the workers compete with each other over who gets the best rankings. This allows the company to dodge criticism, even though its decisions would be grossly unfair. The couriers see rarely each other and even less rarely have they time or the opportunity to discuss work-related matters without surveillance of the company. This of course benefits the companies, because without the working community and its collective power, the labour force can rarely organise significant resistance—or even discuss the possibility of it.
Is this the most common form of commissioning work in the future labour market? If I were a capitalist wanting to succeed, I certainly would seek to take advantage of a system that circumvents the employment contracts and laws set to protect the worker. As a side benefit, the traditional labour union movement becomes slowly marginalized, because in the platform economy the interests of “entrepreneur-partners” cannot be protected with traditional means—because there is nothing to protect. Even if a new platform innovation may be hip and cool in an event like SLUSH and even if decision-makers may be dazzled by them, the idea behind them is centuries old: about the ability of capitalism to renew itself and find new means and loopholes to maximise profits. Despite the new tricks, the game is old: creating profit for shareholders.
There is however hope. Throughout Europe, those working in the platform economy and especially food couriers have started to organise themselves and have began to publicly demand their rights. In Finland the Justice4couriers group began to campaign against Foodora in the fall of 2018 to repeal the paycuts issued earlier in the summer, to get break spaces, transparency into pay models and for the possibility to get employment contracts, if they want one. The campaign gained immediately much attention in the media, but Foodora has not to this day answered the demands issued by the couriers or agreed to talk with the campaign. It looks like the strategy chosen by Foodora will cost the company dearly. Recently, also Wolt was issued a request to talk with the campaign representatives.
The differences between employees and entrepreneurs will certainly be scrutinized in the future in courts—as has already happened in several other countries. This is a good thing, but it does not help the freelancer who now barely makes the ends meet, in constant uncertainty and without the protection of intersts. The court cases may take several years; especially if the case is dealt in different court sintances.
I cannot see any other way to get improvements, except to keep organising and spread it to other sectors in which workers are forced to be freelancers. Even if it is now risky to come forward and speak up publicly, the risk becomes the smaller the more people in similar positions mobilize themselves. Acts of solidarity given to labour struggles in other industries also ensures support when you yourself need it. The traditional unions and the wide range of activists would do a great service if they started to publicly and loudly to support the Justice4couriers campaign. Spreading posters, boycotting the companies until they promise to change their procedures, demonstrations, support gigs, sharing of the campaign material on social media… There are ways if there is will.
All the sham entrepreneurs of the world—unite! Don’t moan, organise!
Matti Mamia is a regional officer of the union JHL, a member of Vastavoima and an activist in the Justice4couriers campaign.