Freedom News

Yellow rucksacks: Ukraine’s delivery workers protest for the first time

As delivery apps take hold in Ukraine, couriers are coming out to protest declining wages and conditions.

They just appeared on the streets of Kyiv one day, these people with large yellow rucksacks and a memorable slogan on them, Glovo. Now you don’t need to go anywhere to order a double hamburger, sushi, salad or any other dish from several hundred cafes. A couple of clicks on the Glovo app and a courier jumps to it – by bike, moped, car or on foot. If you want to make money on deliveries, the Glovo company promises you up to 20,000 hryvnya (£640) a month – and you still get to enjoy your “complete freedom”. The main thing is desire and effort. It’s easy money.

The issue is that even after working exhausting overtime, no one has seen this kind of money from Glovo. And a recent re-organisation of the company’s bonus system – which encourages couriers to work even more – has brought Ukraine’s delivery workers out to protest for the first time ever.

The Ukrainian branch of the Spanish Glovo company is one of the fastest growing in Europe. Between December 2018 and March 2019, the company’s turnover increased tenfold, and half a million Ukrainians installed the Glovo app.

There’s roughly 5,000 couriers working for Glovo in Ukraine (mostly in Kyiv), and their wages depend on the number of deliveries they make.

Glovo’s HR office is based in a small building next to a high-rise in the city’s central Pechersk district. The office doesn’t have any signs or identifying mark, and this is where on Monday 22 July people with the company’s yellow rucksacks began to gather – mostly young men between 20 and 30 years old.

Several days ago these couriers were told that their system of bonuses was being changed, to which the delivery workers decided to respond with a protest.

Couriers receive 17 hryvnya (£0.50) for taking a delivery, and then 5.5 hryvnya (£0.17) for every kilometre they travel. They can also make a few extra hryvnya waiting for an order at a cafe or restaurant, and sometimes they also get tips, Evgeny (name changed) tells me. But you can’t make a huge amount like this, the main earner is bonuses.

For ten successful deliveries in a week you receive 400 hryvnya (£13), for 20 – 900 (£29), 40 – 2,200 (£71), and for the heroes who make 70 or more deliveries a week – 4,200 (£135). At least, that’s how it was.

Glovo’s new bonus system removes the 10 delivery bonus, which, for people who use it to make some extra money on the side, makes their work worthless. “According to the current frequency of deliveries, 20 deliveries is at least 25 hours of work,” Evgeny tells me. And the new top bonus of 5,000 hryvnya (£160) is attainable only by making 100 deliveries a week, not 70.

The company claims that they’re encouraging the most motivated couriers this way – now couriers can earn more. But given that the average time to make a delivery is 45 minutes, to make a 100 deliveries requires a courier to work 75 hours a week – 11-hour shifts everyday without a day off. And that’s only if the orders come in smoothly, one after another, which practically never happens. In reality, you’d need to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week to get the 5,000 hrvynya bonus. The only way to do this, courier Maxim jokes, is to start carrying two rucksacks.

Even now, when some couriers have devoted a significant part of their time to making deliveries for Glovo, there’s no guarantee you can make 70 orders in a week. A small group of couriers share their experience of working for Glovo outside the company’s HR office, which has closed during the protest.

“Last week I worked six days, from Monday to Saturday, from eight in the morning to 11 at night, with one day off. I’ve got a family, they practically don’t see me. And I was eight deliveries short of 70,” one courier tells me. “Even under the old bonus scheme, I would come home so tired, that some of my relatives started thinking I was using drugs,” says another. “For the first three weeks I thought I was going to die,” a third courier remembers. These kind of fears aren’t unjustified. In April this year, a courier for the Yandex.Food service in Russia died while at work. He was found to have suffered a heart attack, which doctors believe may have been caused by overwork.

A common opinion among Glovo couriers is that the company’s app works, to put it politely, strangely. The system should automatically issue an order to someone who’s located nearest the cafe or restaurant. But in fact, an order may not come at all or you may have to travel quite far to get it, despite the fact that other couriers are definitely closer.

As a result, whether you get an order or not (and this is what your wage depends on) turns out to be a semi-mystical event, and every courier has their own ritual of summoning one. Some hang out near McDonalds – Glovo’s main partner and the source of between a third and a half of all its orders. Others drive around town, trying to pass by as many different delivery points as possible.

If something goes wrong, the workers complain, it’s always the courier’s fault. Every “mistake”, even if it’s the app’s fault, can lead to a minus in a user’s rating. And it’s an individual’s rating that defines how many hours a day you can work – and therefore earn. “You make a wrong turn and they take it off your working hours.” “You stop to have a coffee or go to the toilet and that’s it, you’ve got no orders.”

Glovo itself doesn’t bear any responsibility. Workers don’t even have a civil contract with the company, let alone an employment contract. The people who work for Glovo 14 hours a day are merely users of the smartphone app. This is why legal norms and guarantees do not extend to the couriers, and if there’s an accident, the company doesn’t help and offers no compensation.

“The worst thing is that we haven’t got any insurance,” one courier tells me. “When I started, on my first day, I had my second order and a car knocked me down on Olimpiyskaya Street. I wrote the tech support centre that I couldn’t collect the order. The only thing they did was say ‘get better’ and took some working hours off me. That’s it.” The workers has to cover everything, including petrol and mobile internet.

This is why Glovo has few people working for it who have been there longer than three or four months. There are only stories about a “friend” who’s been working since Glovo launched in Ukraine, or the “golden age” of a guaranteed minimum wage of 60 hryvnya (£1.90) an hour. But many couriers think that the situation has gotten worse recently. There’s an opinion that the company sees the departure of experienced couriers – who are used to the old rules – and is continuing to hire more and more workers.

In my conversation with the couriers, there’s more talk of alternatives apps – and Glovo’s main competitor, UberEats, comes up.

“Everywhere has its pluses and minuses. You can make some money here. From the start Glovo positioned itself in terms of better wages and more orders. Plus, their partnership with McDonalds gives 50% of orders automatically,” the couriers say. “For me, the difference between Uber and Glovo is that with Uber you get a normal schedule. You get up at 10 and you’re off. No one bothers you. You take some hours off [with Glovo] and it doesn’t matter whether your head hurts, you feel sick, something’s happened. They take the time off you and your rating goes down. Then it’s back to work as fast as you can and you get a wage of 1,500 hryvnya [£48]. And you don’t know what to do with it.”

Pavel, a train operator by training – and now a bike courier for Glovo, comes over to me to get his message out. “We’re all around 20-30 years old, and this is our most active working period. The old system [of bonuses] motivated us to stay in Ukraine. And now thanks to these changes, I’ve started thinking. I really don’t want to leave my country. I want to make a living here.” He knows about labour migration firsthand. He worked in Lithuania for a year, and he doesn’t want to go back there. “I nearly opened my veins there,” he admits.

An hour and a half later after the start of the protest, there’s not many people left, perhaps 20. The couriers admit that there’s not much solidarity in their ranks. “We came out of the system for a moment and everyone else is getting orders.” There’s no trade union that could organise the couriers to protest or define their rights – and this is why the situation hasn’t reached the active protest phrase, unlike in Barcelona, where couriers burnt their rucksacks outside the company’s office. But the company has still had to cancel an info-session for new couriers in Kyiv, and this means that the protest has been heard. Moreover, several couriers have found that they’ve already been banned from the Glovo app and can’t take any more orders. Other couriers turned off the GPS on their phones and tried not to turn the app on.

On my way from the Glovo office to the metro I meet another Glovo courier on a moped. He’s heard about the protest and agrees with what the protesting couriers say, in principle. The system isn’t ideal, he says. But the courier believes that he can make 100 orders a week on his moped and make more money than before, despite all the barriers. During the protest he managed to make several deliveries, for example. And it seems that working 14 hours a day, seven days a week, without an official employment contract and even a basic social safety net suits him fine.

Sergey Movchan

This article originally appeared on Political Critique (Ukraine). It was translated with permission.

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