The Gig Economy Project spoke to Zeynep Karlıdağ, rider at food delivery company Gorillas and member of the Gorillas’ Workers Collective, about their wave of wildcat strikes and warehouse blockades in Berlin.
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.
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust
Dotted in neighbourhoods across Berlin are small ‘Gorillas’ warehouses. Out of these warehouses comes riders bearing groceries, to deliver to homes “faster than you” can buy it yourself from the shop, the company’s slogan promises.
Gorillas has been described as the fastest European start-up company ever to reach ‘Unicorn’ status; the ultra-fast app delivery company launched in spring 2020 and was valued at over €1 billion just nine months later. Gorillas has continued to rapidly expand, operating in cities across Germany as well as France, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.
But take a closer look at its Berlin warehouses (otherwise known as ‘dark stores’) over the past couple of months and you will see something interesting. The ‘Gorillas’ are revolting. In an unprecedented wave of wildcat strikes across June and July, the company’s riders have been blockading the entrances of warehouses and shutting down its operations.
The riders, who are employees of the company, have been organising as the Gorillas Workers Collective, and have turned the company’s slogan on its head: while CEO Kağan Sümer promises “delivering in under 10 minutes”, the GWC are “organising in under 10 minutes” – the GWC respond to the sacking of a colleague or unsafe working conditions with immediate direct action. And they have got Sümer’s attention – videos circulating on social media show the workers directly confronting a nervous-looking CEO, who has refused to agree to a long list of demands but has responded with somewhat desperate and bizarre appeals for unity.
To find out more, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator Ben Wray spoke to GWC’s Zeynep Karlıdağ. In this podcast, they discuss:
1.23: How did the Gorillas Workers Collective get started?
6:13: The wave of wildcat strikes in June and July
14:43: Gorillas’ delivery model and rider accidents
19:46: What would decent working conditions look like for riders?
25:39: Gorillas Workers Collective’s informal mode of organising
29:41: An international movement of riders
A text version of this interview is also available below.
GEP: How did the Gorillas Workers Collective get started?
ZK: I started working for Gorillas in the middle of February, but the Collective began to be organised either at the end of January or in the beginning of February. So I joined them at the end of February, and I was one of the first members of the Collective. When I first joined we were having meetings of only four people, and we had to be anonymous because we were all on probation periods so if the company found out we were doing something we could be fired very easily.
While we were working and meeting once a week, talking about the problems and possible solutions, one of our friends shared something on Facebook and it was about workers’ strikes in general. After his post, on his shift, he was told that he was fired. We didn’t know what to do, then we talked to our lawyer and people from some unions, and we realised the company had made a mistake when it comes to the signature [when firing him]. We always experience this by the way – sometimes I feel like the workers of the company know more about German law than the company itself.
We chose three people among the Gorillas Workers Collective to be the initiators of a possible Works’ Council. These people are legally protected (not on probation). So the three representatives were visiting all the warehouses, giving out leaflets and everything, but meanwhile the other members of GWC had to be anonymous, because we were still on the probation period.
In the warehouses we were talking to our colleagues and when they were talking about their problems [at work], we were telling them: ‘Hey do you know about this Collective, I heard they were having meetings once a week, maybe you can join them?’ On 3 June, the workers made a general assembly, which is an important step for creating a Works’ Council, and then the elected Council members – people who have the responsibility to organise the WC – were elected.
I feel like after that day a lot of workers at Gorillas saw there were a bunch of people who were trying to do something for the workers at Gorillas, and after that day workers began to reach us more and more.
Then the week after that we heard about Santiago’s situation. When we heard this issue, we were all telling each other that a colleague got fired, and we met at the warehouse and it was all organic and spontaneous, we were not planning anything. We just went there and we found each other at the front of the warehouse all together, so it was very organic and our strike started.
GEP: After the first wildcat strike in early June, there seems to have been a wave of strikes and blockades of warehouses over the past six weeks or so. Can you explain how it has developed from the first strike?
ZK: We had a lot of problems so that’s why we wanted to organise a Works’ Council. The issue is that this company is just one year old, and we were complaining about the same basic things for about a year. So when Santiago got fired and we went to the warehouse and started this strike, it was like this triggering point for our problems.
At first this strike was for Santiago’s re-instatement, but then we just expanded the meaning of the strike, because we had been talking about these problems for a long time and the company didn’t hear us at all. And with these strikes the company realised we exist, despite the fact we are actually the ones which make this company run.
On that day, we tried to talk to the management about the re-instatement of Santiago, and they said they cannot do anything and we openly told them that if they couldn’t change the situation we were going to resist at another warehouse and do the exact same thing. We went to the closest warehouse, we blocked the doors there, and it was successful.
We talked to the management again, and we told them we want the re-instatement of our friend and we were giving them a deadline, we were going to wait until midnight, otherwise we were going to block the busiest warehouse. Because when we block warehouses it is a huge damage to the company. I mean it’s very simple: we are simply blocking the doors, the warehouses are very small and sometimes one person is enough to block one warehouse. But when we block warehouses they have to seize up operations, and they cannot make money, and they lose their customers.
So on the second day we went to the busiest warehouse and did the same thing, and again unfortunately there was no response from the company. So the next day we decided that we were going to block another warehouse but this time we didn’t inform the management, we didn’t tell them anything about the strike. So on the third day we went to the Kreuzberg warehouse, it’s one of the most chaotic warehouses, and it was again successful, and after that point the other strikes have all been spontaneous. We have been striking for 6-8 weeks, but this first one was the only one where we were prepared beforehand.
It is because each week we are receiving an e-mail from the management and they are doing worse things. For example we got a message from a colleague saying they were fired during a Zoom meeting without any explanation. These things that the company does are not acceptable – we are human beings.
Over two weeks ago we made another protest at the HQ of Gorillas because each month our salaries are miscalculated. But this time the discrepancies were like 700 euros or 300 euros, so people even couldn’t pay their rent. And each month we are trying to solve these problems, and we are fed up with this situation. Payment issues is not the only issue.
On that day when we made our protest [at the HQ] we made an assembly with the workers and made a demand list all together. And then even the CEO [Kağan Sümer] came to our protest and his hands were shaking. I’m very proud of that because I think that it’s a sign of workers’ power; the power of solidarity. We submitted the demand list to the management, with two of the demands we set a deadline for two days, and for the other demands we set a deadline for two weeks.
If you read the demand list it is ridiculous, because the first thing we demand is to be paid on time. And we demand that we want to have proper bicycles. These are very basic issues and we know that the company has the money because they are expanding each week, they can solve these problems in one day. For a year they were saying ‘we are a new company, a new start-up’, and now they have no excuses at all. They are just nodding their heads, and we are talking to them and getting no response. We set a deadline for two weeks, and after two weeks we are getting prepared in case the company doesn’t meet our demands.
So we created this bike tour on Saturday, and the idea behind it is that the CEO proposed to make a bike tour with the other companies’ management, and the motto was ‘always be riding’. And we thought actually that can be a good idea, and the workers of this company are always more powerful and more successful than the management of this company, so we thought maybe we can make something with this bike tour idea. So we basically took his idea and applied it, and our motto is very similar to their motto: theirs is ‘always be riding’ and ours is ‘always be striking’.
GEP: The company, Gorillas, only launched in Spring 2020 and has grown very, very quickly and it has this promise to customers of making deliveries in no more than ten minutes, and its slogan is “faster than you”. It’s all about delivering to people’s houses very quickly. Is it possible to have this super-fast delivery model without exploiting its riders?
ZK: It is possible to do it in ten minutes, because there are different warehouses in different neighbourhoods, and our delivery area is limited. I think it’s 2.5 kilometres, so it’s not very far. And we use this type of bike which is faster than standard bicycles, and we can deliver in ten minutes. But sometimes if some worker just starts working in the company they can feel a bit stressed out to deliver in ten minutes – I was also like that [at the beginning] – because in the warehouses, some managers can be very demanding.
But mostly the problem is the brakes system with these bicycles, and not having proper bicycles, [which means] there are a lot of accidents happening. I just talked to a colleague who told me that her bicycle brakes were not functioning properly, which is why she had an accident; she broke her nose and ended up in hospital. And this is not the first case. We know that a lot of people end up in hospital. Because of these brakes I have also had an accident.
In our warehouse, the bicycles have one front brake and one pedal brake, so sometimes the front-brake is very strong, so when you use it you can just flip. They are not suitable for delivery. And some of the brakes are not functioning at all. The company has a lot of money and it is not hard for them to provide us with proper bicycles.
We did a safety training and in this training, for example, it says that delivery bicycles have to have two different brake systems, which our bicycles don’t have at all. Or for example, the training says workers can carry a maximum of ten kilos, and until two weeks ago we didn’t have a tool to measure the weight of the bags. If you work there for a long time you can suffer from back-pain, it can affect your spinal cord and you can have long-term damage. Our lives are very cheap for the company.
GEP: The company employs workers directly and pays an hourly wage rather than using a gig economy model like other new app-based food delivery companies, Deliveroo for example, where workers have to provide their own bike. So you are given a bike and equipment by the company, but clearly that has not stopped Gorillas from operating an exploitative model. What would decent working conditions look like for riders?
ZK: Providing proper equipment shouldn’t be that hard. The company has to provide proper bicycles which do not cause any accidents. They should have cargo equipment or baskets. Some bicycles do not have any suspension, and we have to cycle on a lot of cobble stones, and you cannot imagine how hard it is to cycle on cobble stones while carrying however many kilos of bottles, because your are just shaking.
Apart from that, all of these companies use apps, so if you want to work for these companies you need to have smartphones, and they require internet to use these applications, but we all use our own mobile phone. The company gives a small amount of money for internet data. I can accept this because right now there are bigger problems, but still we are using our own private mobiles for our work, and if something happens they can say ‘ah, but it’s your phone’.
We need proper helmets, because we are riding bicycles. In Gorillas they provide helmets but we all share the same helmets, and with Covid it is not something very nice. And these helmets are black and there are only small holes in them. During winter it is okay but during summer wearing black and closed helmets is like you are making your brain boil.
We need proper rain equipment. In our warehouse we all wear the same rain equipment, and most of the time they are dirty and so we don’t even want to touch them, or some don’t want to share them with others. I know some other companies provide individual rain jackets, but in Gorillas they started to provide winter jackets one month after a strike that happened last winter. And we need visible jackets for summer.
Also we need proper shoes because we are all wearing our own shoes and if it rains they are getting wet and stinky, because as the rain equipment is not proper our own clothes are all wet. And they never tell us that you can go home and change our clothes; you have to wear these dirty rain jackets or let yourself get wet.
I don’t know the other companies warehouses but I can say for Gorillas that these warehouses are very small. We don’t have proper heaters in winter and during the summer we don’t have any proper air conditioner. They are small, with a lot of riders, pickers and warehouse managers inside, and we don’t fit. We have to wear these masks, and it is not easy to breath.
However, if you visit the HQ of Gorillas, you can see that they have everything. Riders and pickers, the workers are the ones making this company run but they have the least privilege, they don’t have any kind of privilege actually.
GEP: The Gorillas Workers Collective is not officially a union, so all the strikes are unofficial strikes. Are you planing to continue with this way of organising, or will GWC join an official trade union?
ZK: For me, I enjoy these wildcat strikes. This is not because I am striking, but because I realise this is the only way that the company hears our voices. And not only the company. I’m new to Germany, I only came here in December and during these wildcat strikes they were telling us ‘hey do you know what, this is something very rare in Germany’. And I think that this is nice that we got the attention of people, because if nobody does anything against these type of working conditions, it will just continue forever and ever.
So we needed to take an action like this, but at the same time from the beginning there have been some unions supporting us. Some of us are also members of some unions, for example I am a member of NGG and FAU, and I know that people from these unions are helping us a lot and really supporting us. But, we are not a workers’ group in these unions. Some of them want us in their union as a workers’ group, but this is something that needs to be discussed in the Collective.
GEP: The GWC appears to be a very young group of organisers, and very democratic and grassroots.
ZK: In our collective, yes we try to be as democratic as we can be. We make decisions based on consensus. If one person is against a decision, they have to explain the reason why they are against this decision. But at the same time this situation can take a lot of time, because for example our meetings last like five hours, there was one which was seven hours, but it is nice because everybody is happy at the end. And when we don’t have five hours to make a decision, we go according to the vote of the majority.
GEP: The Gorillas strikes have been noticed internationally, there was a solidarity action in London from the IWGB union in support of the strikes. I think for a lot of riders across Europe it’s been quite an inspiring struggle to watch. Do you feel like you are part of an international movement of riders struggling for better working conditions and rights?
ZK: I think it’s very surprising and exciting for me because we have a Twitter account and people from other countries are writing to us and actually, yes, this is getting bigger. I cannot say this was our aim because when I first joined the Collective I just went to find out what these people are talking about. And then I find myself in front of the warehouses blocking them, talking to the people, motivating the assemblies; I mean it’s very strange. These strikes are very spontaneous, everything is organic, but it’s going well so far. We have a banner, it says that ‘we organise in under 10 minutes’; we just hear something, we go there, everyone sees each other, we have assemblies and everything just continues.
To contribute to the Gorillas Workers Collective’s Solidarity Fund, payments can be made to:
Name: fairsichern community e.V
Intended use: SPENDEKX6HV9