Serbian Wolt Couriers Protests: What sets them apart from Europe’s unrest?

Posted on 11.05.2023
A Wolt courier navigating street in Belgrade, Serbia
A Wolt courier navigating street in Belgrade, Serbia. PC: Shutterstock, Balkans Cat.

Author: Tanja Jakobi

In April of this year, between 50 and 80 Wolt couriers in Serbia hit the streets of Belgrade for the first time since the company established its business in the country in early 2019. While their colleagues from Glovo had several minor protests in the past, the Wolt strike came as a surprise, at least within the national borders. The platform scored relatively well in the Fairwork Serbia Ratings 2022, receiving 6 out of a maximum of 10 points in fulfilling the five principles of fair work. Notably, they were awarded the full 2 points for complying with the first principle – Fair Pay. The scoring was a result of the methodology that takes into consideration workers’ voices, which were quite happy with the remuneration they got.

The origin of the strike has to do with the decision of the Wolt headquarters in Helsinki to introduce a new calculation of couriers’ earnings in January 2023, which has since been gradually introduced across the countries in which Wolt operates. The Serbian strike was one of many taking place in the Czech Republic, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Croatia, Germany, and Israel since the beginning of 2023.

After the aforementioned changes in the pay methodology which were implemented in Serbia by the end of March, Serbian couriers calculated that their income was cut between 20% and 35% and that the new approach does not allow them to easily understand the structure of future payments. According to the reports from many protests across Europe, Wolt couriers in all countries came to the same conclusion regarding the extent of their income losses: the change in pay calculation arrived at a time when inflation had already decimated their income – they had to take action together.

Serbian Wolt couriers, whom the Fairwork Serbia team interviewed, organized only a modest protest in the center of Belgrade – in front of the headquarters of the Wolt with no banners, or flags and only one megaphone. Only a few media reported about their discontent, and only one Twitter account was established to help them spread their requests publicly. Before entering the strike, they didn’t ask for the backing of any of the major unions like their colleagues in Greece, nor were they able to walk out of the strike with their own trade union initiative, like their colleagues in Croatia who formed the Wolt Delivery Initiative.

Why did the same spark yield this variety of responses? One explanation could be the difference in national contexts.

First, the experience of food delivery couriers in Serbia is quite singular as they have a very modest history of organizing protests, and in the past were only able to form loose and short-lived associations. Second, the type of relationship Serbian couriers have with the platform is complex. On paper, Serbian couriers (irrelevant of the platform they work for) are issued regular employment contracts by third-party companies partnering with platforms. But in reality, couriers rarely see their contracts and have no access to the rights stipulated by them (for a detailed explanation see Fairwork Serbia Ratings 2022). In other countries couriers are registered as self-employed, directly through platforms, or through several layers of third parties. This context, as well as the national legislation governing union membership (according to Serbian Labor Law, couriers could only form unions within the third-party companies through which their labor is contracted, not the platform that they work for), drives Serbian couriers to different types of organization compared to other countries. Finally, although couriers’ contracts are highly questionable, this problem is still invisible to Serbian policy makers that have sway over labour, road safety, and social policy. While the legal and regulatory institutions of some countries with more developed platform economies are aware of the problems – and some of them are seeking to find solutions for more decent courier work – Serbian policymakers have only recently started to discover the complexities of the platform work.

Fairwork Serbia is in the process of writing their third annual report that will present updated ratings of the platforms operating in the country, including Wolt. The ratings continue to revolve around the Five Principles of Fair Work: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation. In the previous rating cycles, the best-rated platforms scored 6 out of 10 points but none of them assured the freedom of association of workers or supported democratic governance including Wolt. We will see how the platforms evolve this year…