Gig Economy Project – ‘Suppressing democracy’: Flink closes in Freiburg on eve of Works Council election

German Q-Commerce platform Flink claims it has shutdown its operations in Freiburg for “purely” economic reasons, but its sacked workers disagree.

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Picture by Donald Trung Quoc Don (Chữ Hán: 徵國單)

FIFTY riders and pickers at Flink were told they were sacked on Friday [13 October], just days after voting to establish a Works Council.

In a hastily arranged Zoom meeting, Flink regional manager Albert Danckert said the closure was with immediate effect, with the doors locked that same day. Danckert refused to take questions from the workers.

Flink, a German Q-Commerce firm founded in 2020, has also announced the closure of its ‘Hubs’, more commonly known as ‘dark stores’, in Passau, Müllheim an der Ruhr and the Lövenich area of Cologne, claiming that all of the closures were purely for economic reasons.

Flink workers in Freiburg, a student city in south-west Germany with a population of about a quarter of a million, have been dismayed by this explanation, having previously being told by the company that the dark store was among the best in southern Germany and among the top three in the whole of the country. 

Many workers believe that the vote to establish a Works Council on 6 October, with the election of the members of the Works Council due on 16 October, was the real reason behind the closure. A Works Council is an industrial relations body which gives workers rights to official representation within a company.

“Given Flink Freiburg’s success as a Hub, given how workers continued to be hired in the week of the closure, and given how planning for the months ahead was ongoing up until Friday [13 October], it must be concluded that the decision to close the Hub was a sudden one – not the result of long term thinking,” Bruno (name changed for anonymity purposes), a founding member of the Works’ Council, told the Gig Economy Project.

“There is only one immediate change which could have given sufficient cause for the sudden and unexpected closure of Flink’s Hub in Freiburg on Friday. Namely, Flink workers determining to found a Works Council.”

READ MORE – Flink: As bad as Gorillas?

Bruno also cited the company’s “hostile” attitude to the establishment of Works’ Councils elsewhere in Germany. The Gig Economy Project reported in March on Flink’s successful efforts to frustrate the creation of a Works’ Council in Berlin. Works’ Council founders were sacked in what they believe was a clear case of “union-busting”.

Asked by the Gig Economy Project to respond to the Freiburg worker’s claims, a Flink spokesperson reiterated that the closure of Freiburg and the three other Hubs were “purely” driven by economic factors.

“Despite a few good signs earlier this year, those locations did not perform up to our expectations and were not able to support our path to profitability, opposed to many other locations in Germany and the Netherlands where the trend is very positive,” the spokesperson stated. “The closure is purely due to the economic key figures not matching our expectations.”

“We are working to find socially acceptable solutions for the employees of all locations affected.”

Like all companies in the Q-Commerce sector, Flink has struggled to manage declining demand following the end of the pandemic, while rising interest rates has led to venture capital investors pulling back on subsidising the deliveries of Q-Commerce start-up’s. Flink’s French subsidiary filed for bankruptcy on 5 June.

Nonetheless, the company still has a significant partnership with German supermarket giant REWE, a shareholder in Flink along with US food delivery platform Doordash, which owns Wolt in Europe. The REWE partnership means Flink has avoided some of the supply chain troubles of its rival, Getir, with reports of the Turkish platform struggling to stack shelves in its ‘dark stores’ and running low on cash. Getir sacked 10% of its staff worldwide in August.

Bruno acknowledged the wider economic context facing Flink, but said that while these “may well be necessary causes for the closure of the Freiburg Hub, they were not sufficient causes”.

“Doubtless, it is nonetheless possible to believe that Flink’s closure of its profitable Hub in Freiburg at the same time as employees were about to found a Works’ Council is just an unfortunate coincidence,” he added. “It is much easier to believe that Flink’s Hub in Freiburg closed suddenly on Friday because Flink’s leadership decided to suppress democracy in the company.”

GEP NEWSLETTER: The crisis of Q-Commerce may be existential

Bruno explained that in the weeks running up the Works’ Council vote, the company had been acting in a positive manner towards the initiative, even organising for the vote to be held in the dark store with pizza and drinks.

However, the workers had also felt pressure to vote against launching a Works’ Council, having been warned by the regional manager that “‘you know this is not in the company’s interests, you know this is going to slow down work processes’”.

“I saw it as a strategy to convince workers to vote against the Works Council,” Bruno, who is also part of the Flink Workers’ Collective, a national initiative, said. “I think if workers had said they didn’t want the Works Council, I don’t think the Hub would have closed.”’

He added that he believes Flink’s hostility to Works’ Councils’ is “ideologically” motivated.

“Obviously a Works Council would have given workers more power and enabled us to block certain things the company wanted to do, like firing workers arbitrarily or swapping shifts arbitrarily,” he explained. 

“Flink doesn’t think that’s in its interests, but that’s from a specific ideological position: there are many companies that welcome Works’ Councils and see the benefits they can bring.”

As for the 50 sacked workers, those still in their six-month probation period will receive a salary for another two weeks, and the rest for a month. The search for a new job begins, in the context of a recession and rising unemployment in the EU’s largest economy.

“The majority of those who worked at Flink in Freiburg are foreign students,” Bruno said. “Many have relied on this job – which does not require German fluency –  to make ends meet despite the high rents and tuition fees for non-EU students. 

“Most are being dropped into the cold currents of Germany’s increasingly anti-migrant political climate and shrinking economy with pay only till the end of the month.”

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