From active silence to willing cooperation

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About a year has passed since Foodora cut the pay of its couriers with an unilateral announcement and laid off those couriers, who did not agree to the pay cuts. Because the pay cuts were preceded by a series of decisions that worsened the working conditions of couriers, they were for many the last straw. Soon after the pay cuts couriers started organizing and this campaign is a result of it.

When we started our campaign, we gave Foodora about two weeks to answer our demands, but we got no reply. Since then we have repeatedly proposed a meetings and negotiations, but Foodora has not replied to us or even mentioned our campaign by name. Foodora however replied to the media, that they “discuss” issues directly with their couriers, which was a weird answer, since our campaign was started by Foodora’s own couriers. In the winter Foodora made however its first concessions: they re-opened the break spaces they had closed a year and a half earlier and issued a winter bonus, which however does not make up for the pay cuts, as it is paid only for winter months. Now, almost a year after the start of our campaign, Foodora has commented one of our social media statements. After Wolt couriers joined our campaign, we have met with the leadership of Wolt and told them our demands. We also said we are willing to negotiate, but a new meeting has not been arranged. We have however announced that we are ready to negotiate at any point.

The approach by the companies, and especially Foodora, towards our campaign has clearly changed. The companies have shifted from active silence to seeming concessions and even direct discussion with us. Even though we have not achieved our immediate demands, namely the improvement of the working conditions of couriers, much has happened since the start of our campaign. First, established unions have taken an interest in our campaign: different union branches have shown their support to us, the Service Union United has given education to our members and the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions has proposed that the employer assumption is added to the law. Second, decision makers in Finland and elsewhere have become aware of the problems of the platform economy and proposed solutions. The EU parliament recently passed a law that obligates member countries to ensure the rights of workers in atypical, gig and part-time employment. The new government programme in Finland states that the masking of an employment relation into something else must be prevented. Third, our demands and notions that these problems affect not only couriers, but other workers as well, have become a part of public discussion. And finally, couriers over the world organize themselves and co-operate internationally to improve working conditions.

In other words, the pressure towards platform companies has grown stronger and the public opinion is starting to shift to the realization that labour rights must be secured also in the so called gig economy. This also explains the change in the approach of the companies: our demands cannot be sidelined anymore and the companies have to address them in some way. This change of approach resembles almost exactly the pattern in which other industries have responded to criticism. Researchers Peter Benson and Stuart Kirsch have shown how industries that cause major harm to the environment and society, such as the tobacco and mining industries, have responded to public critique. The reactions of companies have often followed the same three-phased pattern. First, the companies simply deny the existence of the harm they have produced. For example, tobacco companies claimed for a long time that smoking does not cause cancer. In the second phase, when the existence of the harm cannot anymore be credibly denied, the companies admit the limited existence of it and make superficial or seeming concessions, which are mainly aimed to reduce consumer concerns. The bringing of low-nicotine cigarettes to the market is an example of this.

Finally, when it is clear that the society will address the harm and most problably begins to regulate the industries, the companies admit the full extent of the harm and seek to present themselves as co-operative and responsible partners in the solution of the problem. Their aim is to affect any new legislation in ways beneficial to them. For example, in North America and Europe the tobacco companies have taken part in different public health programmes, but at the same time have tried to lobby so that the advertising of tobacco would not be significantly restricted.

The reactions towards our campaign have followed almost exactly this same pattern: first Foodora did not even mention our campaign by name or address our demands, but eventually, after enough pressure, it made its first concessions. Opening the break spaces in Helsinki was important, but it does not address the problems of the couriers working conditions, which are mainly caused by their freelancer status and low pay. The concessions were superficial. Wolt has been more wise in its approach to our campaign and it wanted to meet our representatives, even though there has been no concrete negotiations over the solutions we proposed. It is clear that the political and public pressure has reached the level that in the near future the problems of the gig economy will be addressed. Thus it is highly likely that both of the companies will start proposing their own solutions, which aim primarily to ensure a beneficial outcome for the companies.

The aim of this text has been to spell out that our struggle and the actions of the companies do not happen in a vacuum and they are not separeted from other social and political processes. As we have noted, sham entrepreneurship and the circumvention of labour rights with freelance agreements is not restricted to food couriers, but is reality on other sectors as well, including cleaning, early delivery and even translation. Similarly, how companies react to public critique depends largely on the wider atmosphere and the political situation. As the poor working conditions of couriers have caused a public outcry and as the new government has decided to prevent the circumvention of labour laws, the platform companies are more willing to enter into dialogue. The public and decision-makers should thus be aware of these dynamics and when they seek to improve the position of workers, it is important that it happens on the terms of the workers and the wider society, not on the conditions of the companies.

References

Benson, Peter & Stuart Kirsch 2010. Capitalism and the Politics of Resignation. Current Anthropology 51:4, 459–486.

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