Gig Economy Project – The food delivery couriers who worked for three months and never got paid

The Gig Economy Project speaks to a Wolt rider in Berlin, who was hired via a sub-contractor and was never paid. He and his colleagues are taking the food delivery platform to court.

The Gig Economy Project is a BRAVE NEW EUROPE media network for gig workers in Europe. Click here to find out more and click here to get the weekly newsletter.

Picture taken from Labour Net TV video ‘Wolt Workers on Strike!’

Muhammad* got married in Pakistan last July. After the summer, he returned to Germany with his wife to continue his studies in digital marketing at the Berlin School of Business and Innovation. He also set about looking for work. 

Muhammad had previously worked as a rider for Wolt for 18 months until his contract was not renewed. He contacted the Finnish food delivery platform again in November, but this time, rather than hiring him directly, they told Muhammad and some of his friends who were also applying to go to a mobile shop, and the owner would give them a contract. Within a couple of days, they started worked.

Muhammad and his colleagues were told that they would be paid halfway through the month after they finished work. When 15 December came around, there was no money in their accounts.

The riders returned to the mobile shop on Karl Marx Strasse. According to Muhammad, the shop owner, Imran Ali, told them that he hadn’t received his commission from Wolt yet and so couldn’t pay them, but not to worry, because he was sure he would get his commission and then he would pay the riders two months of wages on 15 January. 

They continued to work and by the time 15 January came round, there was still nothing in their bank accounts. They returned to the mobile shop and were told that Ali had fled to another city, and that they should go directly to Wolt to get paid. 

“When we went to Wolt’s office they wouldn’t negotiate with us or even listen to us,” Muhammad says. “They just said: ‘Go to the subcontractor’.”

Muhammad says there is a WhatsApp group with over 100 Indian and Pakistani riders who had worked for Wolt via the sub-contractor and have not been paid. Muhammad has had €3,100 stolen from him, with the unpaid wages of some of the riders being over €5,000. Collectively, that’s hundreds of thousands of Euros in unpaid wages.

“To not get paid has been a big burden on me,” he says. “I do not have any money in my bank account and my wife’s savings are paying the rent, which is very high. I am using my credit card to pay other bills.

“I know riders who have been de-registered from their universities because they don’t have any money to pay their fees. Some other people have taken loans from the bank to cover the cost of this.”

READ MORE: #ReWolt: Why are Wolt strikes spreading across Europe?

Muhammad has no doubt that the fact they are non-EU migrant workers has played a part in their mistreatment. 

“I don’t think this would have happened if we were German or European. We are on student-visas and we have very limited rights. There is no support from the government until we get permanent residency here, so companies can easily steal our wages.”

Wolt says the number of riders affected is actually 29, but Muhammad argues that it is only 29 who have written to Wolt to demand payment and taken legal action, but there are many more who are currently too scared to do this, fearing it will affect their student-visa status, but may do so if Muhammad and others win their legal case. The first hearing at the Berlin Labour court was two weeks ago, and the next is on 27 July.

“We are saying in the court that Wolt is the main employer,” he explains. “We were using the Wolt app, Wolt bag, Wolt equipment, and we were having a direct communication during our work with Wolt, not with the sub-contractor. So Wolt is the one that has to pay us the money.”

WATCH: Wolt Workers on Strike!

From Muhammad’s perspective, it is not difficult to prove that Wolt owes them wages, since all their work has a data trail.

“I have an account in the Wolt application which shows proof of what I should be paid,” he says. “I have taken screenshots, and in any case the app is still running.”

Wolt itself is taking legal action against the sub-contractor, which it says is called GW Trans. To Muhammad, the sub-contractor has always been known to them as Mobile World, and indeed there is a company called Mobile World Handels Gmbh which has an Imran Ali registered as a shareholder. Wolt Germany say they have never heard of Mobile World and insist the cases in question are about GW Trans, which is also being investigated by the Berlin Public Prosecutor’s Office. The Gig Economy Project tried to contact Ali but received no response. Welcome to the murky world of sub-contracting. 

To add to the murkiness, when the riders protested outside Wolt’s office in April to demand payment, Wolt locked the doors and removed the Wolt logo from their office. 

“Only criminal letterbox companies do that,” Martin Bechert, the riders’ lawyer, tweeted at the time.

Wolt Germany said at the time of the protest that they were looking into “whether and in what form we can support the employees of these companies in their demands”. However, Muhammad says that since then “they haven’t actually communicated with us”. Wolt Germany spokesperson Fabio Adlassnig told GEP that he can’t say more about the issue of unpaid wages now because of the live court case. 

READ MORE: ‘The alligators’: How Croatia legitimised the role of sub-contractors in the platform economy – Interview w/ Sunčica Brnardić

In most of Europe, Wolt hires riders on an independent contractor basis, but in countries like Germany and Croatia, where riders are generally employed, it uses sub-contractors. In Croatia, there have also been cases of unpaid wages. 

Asked about their system of sub-contracting, Adlassnig said: “Wolt employs more than 4,500 colleagues across Germany, all of whom have permanent contracts, health insurance and are paid well above the minimum wage. And we are constantly hiring new colleagues. 

“At times, we have reinforced our own fleet with couriers from companies such as Job & Talent and Zenjob, as well as smaller companies. We ended our cooperation with the company mentioned in this case in January 2023, after our compliance audits revealed obvious irregularities. Wolt has not worked with the company since January 2023.”

For Muhammad, the shift to sub-contracting in Germany came about after DoorDash, an American food delivery platform, bought the company in November 2021.

“They are using the American model in Europe now.”

He can see no justifiable reason to have sub-contractors in the platform economy, where riders are managed by the app.

“I have experience of both sub-contractors and being directly employed and I can say that I don’t want any sub-contracting system because they are very small companies, they don’t have any system for tax, for paying insurance; they are just stealing money,” Muhammad says. 

“Some of them are paying riders in cash. I think sub-contracting is a very bad system, because there are many loopholes which sub-contractors can use.”

The riders protested outside Wolt’s office again on Monday [19 June] along with riders from the wider platform workers’ movement, including the Gorillas Worker Collective and Lieferando Workers Collective. Banners read “Wolt owe us money and rights” and “Stop the Pseudo Subcontracting System”.

There will be another protest outside the next court hearing on 27 July at 11.15am. Muhammad says the experience of fighting for their wages has enhanced his belief in the importance of workers’ exercising their collective power.

“We feel solidarity from this movement, because when we had no money in our bank account they supported us and helped us organise protests,” he says. 

“I have the idea that we have to stick together and make a collective too so that if there’s anything that happens we can support each other as a collective unit.”

* Full name not disclosed for anonymity purposes

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