Notes on the platform economy by union activist Matti Mamia

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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.

About our campaign (Part II)

suomeksi / Facebook
See also: About our campaign (Part I)

During the initial phase of our campaign in August 2018, we organized with fellow couriers, crafted our demands to Foodora, wrote texts explaining our demands and set up our campaign web pages. We then decided to hand out the demands publicly to Foodora by holding a demonstration outside the Foodora office in Helsinki and sent a press release the day before to the media. Journalists from Helsingin sanomat, the biggest daily newspaper in Finland, came to the demonstration, interviewed us, Foodora managers and union lawyers and wrote a relatively long article about it. After this article, other news media have written about the campaign as well. (For news coverage, see our Materials page.)

We have campaigned very actively on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, where we share texts in which we explain the issues we are trying to solve and try to pressure the companies to negotiate and improve working conditions—for example by commenting on their social media advertisements. This is also a way of trying to get the public involved and try to get the issues into public discussion. We know we will not win this through the social media, but as a grassroots campaign, publicity and public discussion are one of the biggest leverages we have.

We have also argued that this is not just about food couriers, but about a larger question of employers trying to circumvent labor legislation and that this issues needs to be addressed structurally. We have received support and endorsements from (mostly left and green) MPs and through them, we were invited to give an expert statement on work in the platform economy at a hearing of the parliamentary committee on employment and equality. In terms of trying to affect the structures, this is about as successful as a small campaign like ours can be.

We engage also in direct action, such as demonstrations, handing out flyers and gluing posters. These are equally important tactics in trying to make the public aware about our campaign and its issues. Just as this campaign is not only about food couriers, but about how work and worker rights are organized, there is no one single level that is the “most important”, but we must act through the media, by addressing decision-makers and directly on the streets, where we work.

We have been invited quite regularly to different events, such as the Shadow Book Fair, to talk about our campaign and we usually use the opportunity—except for electoral campaign events of any individual candidate. (It’s election season now and we are not affiliated with any party.)

We hold meetings among the campaign group every other week and try to get more couriers—both food-delivery and ‘traditional’ couriers—involved. After we started our campaign against Foodora, also Wolt couriers contacted us and joined and we expanded the campaign to deal with Wolt as well. Helping couriers to get organize is however also difficult:
the turn-over of the workforce in the food delivery business is very high, many do not regard courier work as something they will be doing for a long time and many, especially immigrants, who depend on the income, very justly fear about losing their job, if they speak out or are active in the campaign, because as freelancers they can be fired at will. We have organized our campaign so that freelancers can be active anonymously. However, many freelancers have spoken to the media and in our events also publicly and openly.

Finally, we are been in contact with similar campaigns in Europe and took part in a courier union conference in Brussels last year (video, video). There we took part in founding the Transnational Federeation of Couriers, an umbrella organization for these kinds of unions and campaigns. The TFC is still being modeled and built up, but the actives of the different unions, campaigns and collectives are regularly in touch with each other and last December we managed to hold an international action day where several groups held events/strikes on the same day in different countries.

About our campaign (Part I)

suomeksi / Facebook
See also: About our campaign (Part II)

This is the first part of a two-part text in which we recount some basics of our campaign, namely how the campaign started, who we are, what our relation to other actors is and how we operate. In this part we tell how our campaign started and who we are.

Our campaign is an independent and self-organized campaign initiated and run by couriers. Actives of a syndicalist unofficial union (Vapaa syndikaatti (‘The Free/Independent Syndicate’) were founding members of the campaign as some couriers had contacted them. Later, actives of an independent union/labor organization Vastavoima (‘Counterpower’) joined us. The majority of the campaign members and actives are however couriers.

The campaign started in the summer of 2018 when Foodora unilaterally cut the fees it pays to its freelance couriers. This caused couriers in the city of Turku to go public, especially after one of them lost their job as they refused to sign the new agreement that reduced the pay of couriers. Couriers in the city of Tampere meanwhile contacted the Vapaa syndikaatti and couriers in Helsinki (we knew each other from bicycle related circles). Helsinki couriers and Vapaa syndikaatti members started the campaign and right from the start we got in contact with the Turku couriers, who had their own self-organized groups. In the fall of 2018, the first Wolt couriers contacted us and wanted to join the campaign. Since then both Wolt drivers and bike couriers have been actively involved.

After our campaign took off and gained initial traction, the established Service Union United (PAM), member of the Finnish Central Organization of Trade Unions (SAK) became interested and since then we have had regular meetings with them, we have worked together and plan to do so in the future. In practice, they have looked into the legal side of the issue as they have the expertise and resources. They have also followed our campaign and written articles about it as well as given training about labor rights to employed couriers.

We (couriers and campaign actives) work as a campaign rather than an union, but active couriers founded the Finnish Courier Collective (FCC) so that some of the energy and organization would hopefully be retained after this campaign inevitably ends. The FCC isn’t, yet at least, a registered organization or an union, but we are thinking about negotiating insurance deals for self-employed couriers, establishing emergency funds and such. The FCC is for all couriers, be they employed, fake freelancers or genuinely self-employed and whether they work in the food delivery industry or other parts of the transport sector.