The Gig Economy Project has spoken to current and former employees at Gorillas, the grocery delivery platform, in Berlin. They tell a story of systemic problems at the company which are causing serious issues for its workers on the frontline and intensifying conflict within the firm.
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.
WALK around Berlin and posters advertising Gorillas, the grocery delivery start-up which was founded in the German capital and became Europe’s fastest ever ‘Unicorn’ last year, appear everywhere. One would think this was a firm who’s star is still ascending, but behind this facade the reality is very different.
Last week, Gorillas fired 320 staff at its Berlin office (the company is now officially headquartered in the Netherlands) and ended its operations altogether in four European countries (Italy, Spain, Belgium and Denmark).
It has been reported that the company is struggling to attract new investment in the context of the easing of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis. This new context is significantly slowing growth and raising questions over how long Gorillas can keep losing a reported €60-90 million per month.
This week, the Gig Economy Project (GEP) spoke to some of those who have been fired or had their contracts not renewed recently, including an ex warehouse manager, an ex warehouse supervisor and an ex-staffer at the Berlin HQ. We also spoke to a Gorillas rider on the company’s Works Council, a student lawyer, and a legal activist who are both helping riders and pickers who staff the firm’s ‘dark stores’.
Many of the problems they highlight are not new, but the picture which develops is one of a company with chronic issues which, if anything, are getting progressively worse as the difficulties mount. It’s the workers in the most vulnerable situations whom suffer the most from these problems.
Wages unpaid, paid late or not in full
Wages being unpaid, paid late and/or not paid in full was one of the principle reasons for the wildcat strikes at Gorillas last year, and things do not seem to have improved.
Taylor, a former manager at the ‘Moabit’ warehouse in Berlin, and Stefania, an ex supervisor at the ‘Friedenau’ warehouse (names changed for anonymity purposes), both confirmed that payment issues were a “systemic” problem at the firm.
Avik Majumdar is a rider on the Workers Council at Gorillas, and was fired in October. However, after taking the company to court, the decision was overturned and he was re-hired in January.
“I was getting shifts in January and February but I wasn’t get paid what I should have been,” he says. “Apart from in January, the tips have been missing every month from my income. I’ve always been getting paid below what I earned.”
Avik, as a member of the Workers Council, is also supposed to be paid for the time he spends representing workers, but he claims he has never received any pay for this work. In March, the company announced it would be appealing the court decision which over-turned his dismissal. The case is set to be heard later this month.
Robin Backhaus, who is part of a German-wide university group called ‘Leftist law students organising themselves’, has been sitting down with Gorillas workers, which have come to the Works Council in need of legal support for the past month. He has been surprised by the “audacity” of Gorillas in relation to payment of wages.
“There are people working 130 hours and getting zero pay for two months in a row,” he tells GEP. “If you sit down with a person and see that they are unable to pay rent because of wage theft, that’s different from just reading about it in the newspaper. And that’s happening repeatedly and often.”
Chiara Losavio, an activist with ‘El Bloque Latinoamericano’, who is supporting Spanish-speaking riders at Gorillas with legal issues, tells GEP that: “A lot of people are not getting paid, or not on time or not completely”.
One of those is a South American woman on a short-term visa, who doesn’t want to be identified. Chiara claims she was not fully paid on three occasions: first after being off-sick with Covid for two weeks, then after being off while injured in a road accident at work (she was encouraged by a manager just to take an Ibuprofen and start working again), and finally she was not given her full scheduled hours of work due to a problem with the scheduling app and was not paid for those hours. Despite her raising complaints each time, they were all ignored or dismissed.
“If your contract says 40 hours a week then you should get paid for those 40 hours,” Chiara says. “If she doesn’t get scheduled because there is not enough work, it is not her problem, it’s the company’s problem.”
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this is that everyone who spoke to GEP said migrant workers on short-term Visas, which make up a large section of the riders and pickers at Gorillas, are extremely fearful of making complaints, going to the union or taking legal action even when they are not paid for their work, in case they are fired and lose their visa.
“It’s a disappointing experience, because they come here with so much hope, and feeling that maybe things really work better here, because that’s what you hear about Germany,” Chiara says.
“But in the end maybe you are treated even worse than in your home country. She told me: ‘I can’t pay my rent, but at the same time I’m scared about going to court in case I lose my visa.’ It’s very unfair.”
In response, a Gorillas spokesperson said: “Ensuring our crew is properly paid is one of our top priorities. But as in any company with a large international workforce, there may be occasional errors in payroll accounting. However, these amount to a small percentage.”
Taylor, who has 35 years experience in the Services industry in multiple countries, tells GEP that he has never previously experienced such a problematic workplace culture.
“I experienced the strongest ever hurricane on the British Virgin Islands, with 300 km per hour winds. After four hours the entire island was turned upside down, the infrastructure, which was pretty weak before, was destroyed. Gorillas has been much harder than even that, so that should tell you what you need to know.”
Taylor, who says “morale couldn’t be lower” at the company, worked for Gorillas from February to May, when he was sacked while still on sick leave which he says was caused by the stress of managing the warehouse. Because Taylor was still in his six-month probation period, that sacking is lawful, but he is taking the company to court for compensation as he claims he was forced to come into work while off-sick.
“I didn’t expect to see this in Germany,” he says. “That you can be forced to go to work while on sick leave; that’s a no go.”
Stefania, a supervisor who had worked at Gorillas for a year, says she had previously worked in a different Gorillas warehouse for seven months which was “amazing” because the manager was a “human being”, but was then moved to another warehouse which was “a disaster”.
She was on a one year fixed-term contract, but was told it would not be renewed by her manager. Stefania believes it is because she was willing to challenge malpractice.
“They were forcing riders to take heavy packs, I made a massive poster which said ‘nobody can force you to take more than 10 kilos’. I was pushing back against management, but I was following the company’s rules.”
At the Berlin HQ, Katharina (name changed for anonymity purposes), who worked at Gorillas’ record label, was fired in the mass sacking of 320 staff at the office last week. She says 600 staff were called in and told that if they received an e-mail on their phone it meant they were being let go. Katharina is suing the company as she claims she is owed severance pay.
“They pretty much fired anyone who is not in operations – they got rid of all the culture, community type of workers in the company. They got rid of some random roles, my role was totally weird; I would have probably fired me as well!”
According to Avik, some staff at HQ fit the late anthropologist David Graeber’s description of ‘bullshit jobs’ – jobs with no meaningful value – but other departments are hopelessly overworked and understaffed.
“There is a person who used to work at payroll support who was overworked and he said he had told the company ‘we need more staff to make sure people are getting paid correctly’. The company’s response was to intensify his workload even more and eventually he decided to quit.”
Katharina agrees that burnout is a big problem at the Berlin office, describing the culture as “absolutely toxic”.
“I’ve seen friends who are so stressed because they’ve just done over-time for weeks on end. They started working Saturday nights in the office when they shouldn’t be. Everyone is just exhausted, no one has capacity to do more, people have breakdowns, people quit their jobs because they can’t handle it anymore. There’s no thought about capacity and the pressure that’s on people, it’s just ‘do your job’.”
In response, a Gorillas spokesperson said: “We firmly reject the allegations you have made regarding our company culture and work environment and consider them to be grossly damaging to business.”
To be clear, these allegations were made by former and current employees, not the Gig Economy Project.
Despite some workers not getting their wages, the company is still spending money in unnecessary and extravagant ways. Katharina claims they were paying €200,000 a month for an office on Schönhauser Allee that wasn’t being used for almost six months, and that they spent €11,000 on a new office sofa.
These costs are obviously small when contrasted to the reported €60-90 million in cash burn each month, but it speaks to an environment where decadence and poverty rub shoulders.
In response, Gorillas said: “We cannot comprehend or reconstruct your information on rent and sofa costs.”
The Workers Council are “the enemy”
The Gorillas Workers Council was established in October after a legal challenge by the company to block it was defeated in court. The Workers Council is elected directly by the workforce to officially represent their interests in mandatory negotiations with the company on key issues like pay and employment. Taylor says Gorillas’ attitude to the Works Council is one of hostility.
“I used to be on the other side of the table, and they see the Workers Council as the enemy. I said many times ‘why don’t you try to work with them, there’s a reason they are there, so why don’t we try to make things better for all of us?’. But it was clear that this kind of option was off the table.”
An internal communication leaked to the Gorillas Workers Collective this week revealed Rene Beutner, the company’s Global Head of Corporate Communications, talking about discussion within management about the need to “play hardball” with the Workers Council, as “we are not getting money from investors anyway, so might as well just do our thing”.
Asked if the company wants to union bust, Taylor says: “Of course.”
Avik says that chimes with the Workers Council’s experience of relations with management.
“It has been the company’s approach to always push back. So the Council pushes back in response. If the company wanted to work with us, I would work with them, but the distrust goes both ways.”
In response, Gorillas said: “We are proud at Gorillas for being the only German Quick-Commerce company with an elected Workers Council. Both sides are establishing a collaborative and cooperative working relationship together to achieve the greatest possible benefit for our employees.”
With a high likelihood of more cutbacks to come at Gorillas, it’s likely more conflict between workers and management is in the post. And more revelations too, as disgruntled insiders become angry outsiders.
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