Author: Frederik Moler
Wolt is a Helsinki-based food delivery platform founded in 2014. Currently, it operates in 105 cities across 18 European countries, and has 4,000 employees.
Looking at this low number, one may think that a couple of zeros were forgotten when writing the total number of employees, but actually it is in fact ony 4,000 – because the Wolt food couriers in blue aren’t employees. They are instead “independent contractors” hired on a contract that secures the couriers’ flexibility to schedule their own work hours but doesn’t include a myriad of employee rights such as secured minimum-wage, health insurance, social insurance, sick leave, sick pay, and holiday pay (for further details please see the Fairwork Serbia Ratings 2021). Exactly this flexibility is what 67% of Wolt couriers value the most about their jobs, and what the company uses as argument for contracting the couriers as independent.
But it now seems that couriers are demanding both flexibility and labor rights, manifested by the numerous strikes against Wolt’s poor working conditions, that (amongst others) include: cuts of baseline pay without notifying the couriers, no compensation for accidents related to delivery work, and a “hire-fire” mentality. Due to the nature of the baseline Wolt contract, the aforementioned problems are, to some extent, found in every context that Wolt operates in, but there is variation across the countries in relation to how many benefits the Wolt-contract includes and how Wolt responds to the strikes.
The Fairwork reports gives an indication of how Wolt varies their contracts according to the national context. For example in 2021, in Serbia, Wolt offered a base-wage of 1.6 euros (purchasing power parity (PPP): 0,35€), and only few extra rights, such as traffic accident insurance. Whereas in Germany the base wage was 11 euros (PPP: 0,741€), and included rights such as a safety provider advising about the weather conditions, collaboration with a health and safety regulator that assess the worker safety each quarter, free bicycle repairs, a rapid human-resource team responding to emergencies, and regular surveys making sure that the couriers are content with their equipment. Such national variation in labor rights included in food courier contracts, exemplified with the Wolt-contract, are partly a reflection of the general labour rights and economic situation in the respective nation, but also a reflection of how much support food couriers get from the state and national labor unions.
Additionally, it seems that the union and government support is notably important for the success of strikes, because when a strong labour union or supportive government steps in to facilitate the mobilization, it empowers the couriers and creates a more influential strike, which in turn threatens food courier platforms such as Wolt more, and might even make the food couriers and app-users look for opportunities at other, more fair food delivery platforms. An empirical example of this is found in New York, where the union ‘Los Deliveristas Unidos‘ with help from the ‘Workers Justice Center‘ in New York mobilized the couriers and created a campaign called ‘Justice for App-Workers‘, which gained a lot of attention and influenced the mayor of New York City to guarantee labour rights such as more information about delivery routes and protective measures.
Apart from this example from the United States, a supportive union or state also seems to help couriers get more rights in Europe. In Denmark, the biggest trade union for delivery drivers, 3F, has fought alongside food couriers during strikes securing compensation for the use of their own vehicle, holiday pay, at least 30-minute long breaks, overtime pay, and sufficient workwear. In Spain, after a food courier strike, the government approved the first European law classifying food delivery couriers as employees of the companies they work for. In contrast, strikes in Lithuania and Italy did not gain any support neither from labour unions nor from the governments, which meant that Wolt did not take the strike as seriously and therefore the couriers’ working conditions didn’t improve.
The discrepancy in the support for couriers’ strikes sparks two opposite directed spirals that makes the couriers in countries with a supportive union or state achieve better conditions, while the couriers from nations with less supportive unions or states have a hard time establishing more labor rights.
In this way, food platforms, here exemplified with Wolt, create continuously bigger differences in the labour rights and wages of couriers across Europe. To ensure decent working conditions and labour rights for all platform workers across different national contexts, we must push unions and states all over Europe to open their eyes and fight for the labour rights of the estimated 4.1 million people who work through food-delivery and ride-hailing apps in Europe.