What’s distinctive about Germany’s platform economy? How are platform workers in the country organising themselves to fight for better working conditions? The Gig Economy Project spoke to Oğuz Alyanak, Fair Work researcher in Berlin, to find out. Interview available as a podcast and in text.
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.
Germany is Europe’s largest economy, and it’s also a key site for Europe’s digital labour platforms, both as a major market and a source of venture capital funding for start-up’s in the gig economy.
Berlin, in particular, is the second most popular city in Europe for venture capital funding, and is the home of Delivery Hero, one of the world’s largest food delivery platforms, and Gorillas, the first European tech start-up to become a ‘Unicorn’ – achieve a valuation over €1 billion – within a year.
And where there is digital labour platforms, there is platform workers. Over the past 18 months, Berlin has been one of the hotbeds of platform worker resistance in Europe, most notably at Gorillas, where workers have dared to shutdown warehouses at a moment’s notice to fight for better working conditions, and established the first Worker’s Council at a food delivery platform.
Oğuz Alyanak, a cultural anthropologist at the Technical University of Berlin, has been following all of this through his work as a post-doctorate with Fair Work, the academic-action project which rates digital labour platforms based on how fair their working conditions are. Alyanak was one of the authors of the German Fair Work platform ratings report in March, and has also been actively involved in the movement of food and grocery delivery workers in the city, attending demonstrations and picket lines.
The Gig Economy Project caught up with Alyanak in Berlin to get his thoughts on the movement in Berlin and the platform economy in Germany more broadly. In this podcast, we discuss:
01:30: The Berlin food and grocery delivery workers movement
17:12: The recent jobs cuts in the sector
23:30: What’s distinct about Germany’s platform economy?
28:16: The problem of sub-contracting in the platform economy
33:50: The platform economy beyond delivery
AN ABBREVIATED TEXT VERSION OF THIS PODCAST IS ALSO AVAILABLE BELOW
The Gig Economy Project: You have been closely following the food delivery workers movement in Berlin for more than a year. Can you give us your reflections on this?
Oğuz Alyanak: I find the whole movement fascinating and groundbreaking. What started small, with the Gorillas workers about 15 months ago, turned into an avalanche. It’s definitely [had an impact] in Germany, but we also see the repercussions of it in Europe.
I was a new post-doctorate with the Fair Work project around late May [last year] and I remember that there was a demonstration going on a couple of street down from where I live. And this was a Gorillas warehouse. I knew about Gorillas, that they were the big name in the grocery delivery sector at that point, and I wanted to go and see what it was all about. I went there, and there was about 50 people in front of the warehouse. It had been shutdown and [the strike] was in response to a worker that had got fired, his name was Santi. There was not just a lot of workers, a lot of media and police [as well], also community activists there.
As Fair Work, we captured a clip of one of the warehouse manager’s talking to the workers. And the workers were basically saying: ‘How can you ensure us that just because we are raising our voice, just because we are saying that we need improvements, how can you ensure that we’re not going to get fired for demonstrating?’ And the warehouse manager said: ‘No, that’s impossible’. And then a couple months later, with other wildcat strikes taking place in the city, we have seen that Gorillas has fired many more workers, in various rounds.
This did not lead to workers stopping the demonstrations, they continued growing actually, and I attended numerous wildcat strikes, some of them were organised in tandem with unions as well. We shutdown a number of warehouses with the workers. They demanded their pay to be made on time and in full and proper channels for appeals and representation.
I was told later that the idea of a Workers Council – which the Gorillas workers now have – came to them earlier than the initial demonstration I attended, so it was already something discussed starting February or March . But back then it was just a couple of workers that were trying to organise, and some of those workers are still organising in Gorillas, others have moved to different platforms and are organising there. So what started as a demand for better working conditions, and rights and payment, has turned into an actual institution, a Workers Council, as of the end of 2021.
In that initial demonstration there was a lot of hope, but there was also [the thought] ‘is this really going to happen?’ Because this is a first in the platform economy really, we are not talking about traditional sectors in Germany where a Workers Council is a given. This is a sector where workers sometimes come and go, many of them come from different countries, don’t speak the language, don’t know much about the German labour law.
What started with workers at Gorillas has garnered enough interest, both in terms of media but especially in terms of community activists, labour lawyers, researchers, and it has turned into an actual institution which functions today. That makes me very happy and that keeps me hopeful for what’s going to come next in different platforms in Germany.
GEP: I think Berlin is unique out of major cities in Europe whereby workers are organising through collectives, which is like an informal trade union. It’s not just the Gorillas Workers Collective, there’s Lieferando Workers Collective, Getir Workers Collective, there’s even Dropp, which is an e-commerce business-to-business delivery company that launched in October, and it already has a Workers Council. What do you think are the advantages of workers organising in this way rather than through mainstream unions, and what are maybe some of the limitations of it as well?
OA: Workers Councils (WCs) are quite unique to Germany. In any private enterprise that has more than five employees, the workers have the right to form a WC. They are essential, because they are really the only channel through which you can raise your voice and demand things through the company you work for.
The WC is the first step to start the process of representation. The second step is union representation. The unions here are still trying to figure out what’s going on in the platform economy. For the riders, for example, they are still trying to work out which union is responsible for them. There’s still this ambiguity. I know this because I remember when Gorillas’ workers began this process of having a WC, they reached out to a couple of unions, and the unions were so unsure if this is a venue they want to operate in. A lot of workers were disheartened by this and thinking ‘do we really want to be represented by this union that doesn’t seem to really be interested in our cause?’ Of course today when we think of what the Gorillas workers have achieved and all the visibility they have got in the media, [the unions] are realising that this is something that they need to take part in.
I remember Gorillas workers demonstrating in Kreuzberg [a part of Berlin] in September-October, and one of the Minister’s of Labour came to the demonstration because they realised by then that Gorillas is big news everywhere, not just in Germany but internationally, and the Minister said to the workers ‘first form a WC, and then do your strikes’. That is the venue through which politicians listen to you, and that is problematic in itself of course because if things are wrong at work and things need to be amended immediately – if you are not getting paid, if you cannot get social security benefits, you can apply for sick leave and sick pay but you receive it lower than expected – these are fundamental problems and you want it fixed as soon as possible and are not going to be willing to wait another year for a WC, as in one year you may not even be working for the company.
So that was kind of a tension point, but eventually the WC got formed because it had to be formed. With no WC and no union representation, a lot of the wildcat strikes were deemed illegal in court. So the workers that got fired, they didn’t get their jobs back. But the strikes didn’t fail, let me underline that very clearly. The reason why we are still talking about what’s happening in this economy and all the activism is due to those strikes, and we owe it to all the workers who lost their jobs, who puts themselves on the line to take us to the point we are at.
So there were a couple of tension points: one being the Workers Council, which is a long haul process and takes a lot of time and energy to form, and the second being the fact that they can basically lose their jobs from going on a strike without the union representation.
These things eventually have to change in German law, and it’s not me that’s been saying this, it’s the workers that have been saying this. They’ve been saying it out loud for the last year. The question is, who is listening? Are the politicians listening? Is there going to be change? Because we know the platform economy is going to stay with us and the workers are going to keep on facing similar conditions and demanding similar things in the future as well. We already see it with other platforms. This is not just Gorillas anymore, it’s Lieferando, Dropp, there are other platform workers in this city who are also thinking about how can we form a collective and ultimately form a Workers Council so that we can demand our rights.
GEP: Talking about job losses, we have seen Gorillas fire 300 workers from its headquarters recently, and there’s also been reports that Gorillas workers on the ground have been fired. Gorillas has exited four countries altogether as well. Getir has cut 14% of its global workforce, about 4,500 workers. Zapp, another grocery delivery company, has fired staff. This is all in response to the inflation crisis and the easing of the pandemic, which means these companies aren’t growing as fast as they were. What phase are we going into now in this sector and what’s it going to mean for workers on the frontline?
OA: What we saw since Covid was an inflation of this market. These companies have had so much money thrown at them. Companies that you mentioned, like Gorillas, became ‘Unicorns’ within their first year. There’s a reason for this. We were all stuck at home and wanted deliveries, so there was high demand and there was an opportunity that investors saw.
I remember last year, around May to June, platforms were competing for delivery workers, they were saying: ‘Here’s a sign-up bonus for €100, €150 or even €200, get your friends and you’ll get another sign-up bonus’. I remember talking to my colleagues back then and our verdict was this is not going to last, this is a tech bubble and it’s going to burst at some point.
What we are seeing now is money from investors not coming in any more, and investors telling these CEOs to tighten belts, cut down costs. We know that none of these platforms are making profits, it’s all based on speculation. It’s all based on a future where there’s going to be one monopoly, maybe a lot of the workforce is going to be automated, and then it will become profitable.
What is the first place where you are going to cut down costs from a CEO perspective? Workers, because you can fire them. That’s what’s happened. We are seeing a lot of workers being fired. That itself reminds us once again that this economy has to change so that it respects its workers, because the way it functions right now is that it sees its workers as dispensable beings.
GEP: Fair Work published its second study of the platform economy in Germany in March. What can you tell us about the platform economy in Germany that is particularly distinctive or interesting?
OA: One thing that is distinct is that in Germany, for example in the case of Uber, it has to work on a subcontracting model as opposed to an independent contracting model, as we see in some of the other countries. A subcontracting model is not great, it comes with a lot of problems, but at least it comes with a contract for the workers, so it comes with certain social security benefits for example.
In France right now there’s a big debate about whether food delivery couriers should be independent contractors or if they should be provided with contracts. All the platforms in the food and grocery delivery sector that we have rated in Germany are working with employment contracts. That comes with certain benefits: you know that there’s a minimum wage you are going to be paid, you know there are options for sick leave and holiday pay, you know that it comes with an insurance, you don’t have to look for your own insurance. These are certain things that I see as working better.
For contracts, there’s a tripartite structure of unions, politics and workers councils working hand in hand to make sure certain legal minimums are met. It doesn’t mean they are always met, but at least there’s a legal infrastructure for it. If you feel like there’s something wrong that’s in contradiction with your contract then you have every means to take your company to a labour court and demand your rights. It doesn’t mean you always have the knowledge or financial means to deal with that process, because it’s a long process, but the path is there at least.
GEP: In terms of sub-contracting, I spoke to a Lieferando [Just Eat] courier in Berlin who said that he is employed by Lieferando, but he thinks only 5% of Lieferando’s couriers are employed by the company and the rest are sub-contracted and don’t have permanent contracts. Clearly sub-contracting is a big issue. Do you think that’s something that should be regulated at the German or European level?
OA: I haven’t heard about this from Lieferando riders per se but I have heard it from Wolt riders. This is just something I heard from a worker so there’s not solid data to back it up, but it looks like these companies which are working on employment contract models are tinkering with the idea of moving into a sub-contracting model. This is not the direction that I personally nor Fair Work as a project would like to see, because we know that sub-contracting models are not necessarily fair.
If you look at Uber and Free Now in Germany, the workers are left at the mercy of the sub-contractor. So the sub-contracting model becomes yet another way for the platform to say: ‘I’m not going to deal with the consequences if a worker gets injured at work, it’s no longer my responsibility’.
I remember in one interview I had with a driver, he couldn’t get his money back from the sub-contractor. [I asked] two questions: why didn’t you take the sub-contractor to court? But more importantly, why didn’t you bring it to the attention of the platform and say ‘I have hundreds of Euros I’m waiting to get back?’ The driver said: ‘Yeah, but the guy that I work for, I fear he might do something bad to me if I bring this to the attention of the platform I work for, so forget it, it’s just a couple hundred Euros I would rather have my family and myself safe.’
The other thing is we don’t really know the kind of contracts each worker has because there are so many sub-contractors out there. What kind of contracts are workers signing with these sub-contractors? To what extent are platforms necessarily regulating these contracts and regulating the working conditions that they promised they were going to provide for these workers? Can the platforms prove that they do regular checks on their sub-contractors to make sure all the workers are treated fairly? I think the answer is ‘no’.
As researchers we can only go to so many drivers, so many riders, so many sub-contractors to be able to have a grasp of this entire economy. It’s not a couple of sub-contractors we are talking about, there are hundreds of them. What kind of sample can we even think about? How can you even think about doing research on this?
We are here as Fair Work to evaluate these platforms to make sure that they are being fair. If they are allocating responsibilities that they themselves should have in the first place and then forgetting about it, and then coming to us and saying ‘it’s not our responsibility, we have a sub-contractor’. Legally they are right, but that’s not fair. That’s not something I can take as an answer in Fair Work reports to provide them with any points for ensuring they meet certain thresholds.
GEP: Fair Work doesn’t just look at riders and Uber drivers, it looks at all aspects of platform work. Sometimes we perhaps don’t pay enough attention to cleaning and care platforms, for example – what about those platforms in the German context?
OA: In the case of cleaning and domestic work platforms [in Germany], the majority of them, possibly all of them, work on independent contractor models, so you don’t have employment contracts like you do in the food and grocery delivery sector. That means first of all that there’s no guaranteed wage. There’s one exception, but for most of the platforms it’s the workers who decide how much they are going to charge.
Let’s say that Ben is a new worker that came from Scotland to live in Berlin and he doesn’t know what to do, he doesn’t have qualifications, he doesn’t speak German, he says: ‘Okay, I’m going to do babysitting or cleaning on the side so I can make a couple of bucks to afford the place I’m going to rent’.
He goes on to the platform interface to look, and it says: ‘You should be charging around €11-12.’ Then he begins to talk to other workers who are charging €9-10, some of them are charging €15-16, but they have bigger CVs and regular clients. So he says: ‘Okay I’m just going to charge €10’. Out of that €10, the platform might take about 30-40% in your first couple of cleanings or your first couple of babysittings. And even if they don’t take it you still have to take into consideration your own insurance, your own train ticket if you have to go to work. Rarely, but sometimes they bring their own cleaning material. You have to think about all the unpaid labour for the time you put into this work. And all of a sudden you may be making €8 an hour which is under minimum wage in this country.
Or, Ben does a cleaning job and cuts his hand, he cannot work for the next week, or he catches Covid; then you are screwed. You can’t work, you have to explain to your clients: ‘I cannot come to work’, and maybe your client is going to say ‘I don’t want to work with you anymore’, so you lose the job. That’s without even talking about the week’s income that you lost which you depend on to be able to pay your rent.
You can also have problems with your client, especially in these domestic work platforms. We’ve seen issues of sexual harassment, and racism – which is prevalent in all the platforms, we see this often. What does the platform do in these cases? Does it provide legal consultants? No. It usually tells the worker: ‘Find your own way of dealing with it, take them to the court’. In these independent contracting models, there isn’t really many channels for you to take.
We have written about this in the report, but this is something we cannot just keep writing about, things have to change from the politics side. For media, there has to be more attention. Riders are important because they have started a movement, but it should not come at the cost of forgetting that there are also a lot of precarious platform workers, who are working in different platforms that we don’t even think or write about.
To sign up to the Gig Economy Project’s weekly newsletter, which provides up-to-date analysis and reports on everything that’s happening in the gig economy in Europe, leave your email here.
Support us and become part of a media that takes responsibility for society
BRAVE NEW EUROPE is a not-for-profit educational platform for economics, politics, and climate change that brings authors at the cutting edge of progressive thought together with activists and others with articles like this. If you would like to support our work and want to see more writing free of state or corporate media bias and free of charge. To maintain the impetus and impartiality we need fresh funds every month. Three hundred donors, giving £5 or 5 euros a month would bring us close to £1,500 monthly, which is enough to keep us ticking over.