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Bike couriers are ready to organize
”Either the labour movement wakes up or we lose everything we've won”
Low wages, precarious conditions and a colleague who was fired after talking with the union. Workers at Foodora now intend to fight.
"I was fired when I asked the union for help." Bicycle courier Carlos Gomes tells the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter how food delivery company Foodora fired him after he had been in contact with the Transport Workers’ Union (Transportarbetareförbundet). He had received no sick pay while he was home with pneumonia.
He received the notice by text message, which ended with "Cheers man, stay strong stay cool!"
A few days earlier, Proletären visited Stockholm and met with Carlos Gomes former colleagues. They wish to be anonymous, not to get a similar text message as Carlos Gomes did.
We meet around the corner from their work place on Östermalm.
– We have been with the company for different amounts of time and we have different experiences, but I feel that the discontentment amongst us has increased in recent times, says Peter.
Arne is one of the veterans at Foodora. It may not sound like much of an achievement given that Foodora opened in the city as late as the summer of 2014. But few have coped that long. It's stressful, the pay is bad and employment conditions are uncertain.
Peter and Arne, along with four other colleagues – Ahmed, Sebbe, Zacharias and Chen – show me the bike garage where they start their work days. It’s an ordinary bicycle cellar and not much more. There’s not even a bathroom. In the worst case, they can use the ones at Foodoras office further up on Styrmansgatan. They have to clean the premises themselves, but aren’t allowed to during work hours. That shows.
Fifty bikes are crammed in rows.
– The garage has been broken into several times and we’ve had our bikes stolen, says Ahmed.
Maybe that would be a problem primarily for the company, if it weren’t that employees have to use their own private bikes on the job.
– Those applying for jobs get their bikes inspected. If your bike isn’t good enough, you don’t get the job, says Chen.
Recently a mechanic has been in place for one and a half hours per day, but the workers themselves have to pay for any spare parts needed. If you get a flat tire far from the garage you must either take the bicycle to the nearest repair shop – at your own expense – or fix the flat tire yourself.
– But then you have to log out from the app first so you don’t do it during work hours, informs Zacharias.
The workers get the orders through an app on their phones. A customer orders food from a restaurant in the city centre, a courier gets the order and goes to the restaurant to pick up the food.
– The restaurants have no obligations to us, so we sometimes have to wait quite a long time, says Sebbe.
All the waiting time costs money for the workers as part of the salary is commission based. On weekdays, they get 70 Swedish kronor per hour plus 20 per delivery. On Fridays after 5 pm and all weekend they get no hourly wage at all, but 75 kronor per delivery.
Few workers get working hours to fill a full time 40 hour week.
– A work day can vary quite a lot. The shortest shift I’ve had was an hour and a half, says Ahmed. That’s as long as the travel time to and from work.
– But if you ask for more work you can get it. Especially if you are well liked by the boss.
When the food is ready the courier takes it by bike to the customer. The destinations are often in the city centre of Stockholm, but sometimes further out of the city.
– I've been riding both to Aspudden and Årsta for example, says Chen.
Zacharias tells of when he had such a big order that it would not fit in the pink Foodora box, so he had to go twice.
– I pointed it out to the manager and thought I would get paid for two deliveries. "Good job," was all he said.
All orders received before the end of the workday has to be delivered by the courier. Even if their shift ends in ten minutes, and the order will take three quarters of an hour to deliver.
Who gets an order depends on how close to the restaurant the cellphone is located, and the statistics on how fast you are with the bike.
At the job interview, or the "onboarding" as it is called in Foodora language, some are ordered to ride to a certain place, take a selfie and then ride back again while the interviewer times them.
Those who pass the test and get jobs are employed on monthly contracts. If you’re lucky, after a while you can get contracts for three whole months.
The working schedules are posted on the Internet a few days in advance.
– Today is Wednesday and I don’t know if I'm going to work on Monday or not, says Arne.
Of Foodora’s more than 400 employees in Sweden, there are about 280 in Stockholm.
– It is impossible for us to know exactly, but about 70 percent are immigrants, says Peter.
– So Foodora can present themselves as socially responsible as they provide jobs for recently arrived people. But they don’t do us a favour by giving us jobs. We do them a favour when we work under these conditions!
Foodora, in turn, states that short-term contracts are good for the employees who get the flexibility to adapt the work for other jobs or studies. Ahmed thinks it's bullshit.
– Wouldn’t students deserve decent working conditions? And all the parents that must support their family on this job, how good is "flexibility" for them?
In the union’s contacts with Foodora the company has refused to sign a collective bargaining agreement. The nature of the job, working alone, combined with the fact that many don’t speak Swedish makes it difficult for employees to speak to each other about the problems. But the six couriers Proletären meets with try, along with some other colleagues, to organize a resistance from the floor.
– There are a few of us, but we need more people, says Peter, who doesn’t want to single out any particular path forward.
– The most important thing is that we workers talk together and do something.
But then there needs to be more of them.
– The more people we are, the less anonymous we have to be, says Arne.
Who are the people ordering food through Foodora then? In 2016, the company had an offer with discount coupons and a lot of people tried Foodora, says Zacharias.
– Then the customers were quite diverse, but now it’s more upper middle class. During the day they have lunch in the office and in the evenings we make home deliveries, often on Östermalm.
– Sure, sometimes I think that people could fix their own food, but I like to ride the bike and I enjoy working as a bike courier, says Ahmed.
When unemployment is high and many are queuing up for jobs, the opportunities for companies to offer precarious work for low wages open up. Especially for immigrants who don’t know the Swedish labour market well and speak bad Swedish.
– That’s how this market economy works, says Peter. Workers are played off against each other while the companies make a profit.
– And the trend doesn’t seem to stop. So either the labour movement wakes up and comes back to life, or we lose everything we have won by fighting.
Are you a Foodora employee? Would like to join your colleagues in the fight for better working conditions?
Email Foodorasthlm[at]hushmail.com. The address is to the bike couriers interviewed above.