Britain’s major courier company is Deliveroo, famous in perhaps equal measure for its bright blue bags and for its worker exploitation. The company has fought hard to stop its workers unionising while paying wages that can dip to as low as £2 per hour, according to the IWGB.
Riders here have won few victories against the multinational corporate giant. In Greece, however, things have gone a little differently. Last month, riders there won a stunning victory against Efood, the Greek arm of the European courier multinational Delivery Hero. Efood is the largest courier company in the country, delivering from 15,000 stores in 90 cities.
Efood’s profits soared during the pandemic, up 26.7 percent last year to €21.3 million. Despite that, the company planned to let 115 riders’ contracts expire in a bid to reduce costs and exploit new labour laws that make it easier for platforms to hire workers on a ‘self-employed’ basis, rather than with employee contracts. These riders were informed that they would have to become self-employed, riding for the company on a freelance basis (like Deliveroo riders in Britain) – a change which sparked widespread protest.
Riders conducted a four-hour strike which saw between 1000 and 1500 of them take to the streets of Athens – the largest ever mobilisation in the sector in Greece. Consumers supported workers, getting #cancel_efood trending on Twitter and reducing the company’s Google rating from 4.5 stars to one.
The strike forced Efood into a swift U-turn on the expirations. Additionally, riders will now get unlimited contracts, rather than the previous three months fixed-term.
The success of this strike has several lessons for unions trying to organise in the digital economy. First, consumer action isn’t always futile: while boycotts can be difficult to organise, with a few notable exceptions—the recent Nabisco strike in the US was supported by a widespread boycott effort—members of the public utilising social media and other digital platforms to shame companies and deprive them of future business can be an effective method of changing decisions in the boardroom.
A short business blackout, for example, could be less consequential than a long-term decline in consumers. 72 percent of consumers depend on reviews to decide whether or not to trust a business, and ratings impacts SEO and other algorithms, meaning a lower rating deprives a company of potential revenue.
Second, the 1000-rider protest in Athens represented almost half of Efood riders in the entirety of Greece. Efood is, of course, a smaller operation than Deliveroo, with delivery force numbers a quarter of those of Deliveroo relative to the national population. In Thessaloniki, however, a mass meeting of riders was reportedly attended by every E-Food rider in the city – a major victory on its own terms.
Unions in Greece have organised a huge portion of the workforce, and this is the primary source of their strength. In the UK, unions struggle particularly to unionise young private sector workers, making the gig economy—which depends on this demographic—a corporate dream – but success on this magnitude will only yielded with similar numbers.
Perhaps, however, the solution for workers lies not within but away from these corporate giants. Across Europe, CoopCycle, a federation of worker-owned courier platforms, have set up courier co-ops in 63 cities. The member co-ops use and develop shared software, allowing new cooperatives to get off the ground without needing to pay for expensive app development.
One recent addition to the federation that exemplifies the benefits of worker ownership is Wings, a courier company operating in North London. Unlike Deliveroo, Wings pays all its riders London Living Wage and grants the right to sick pay and other benefits. All its deliveries use zero-emission transport like bikes, and most critically, workers have a voice and stake in the business, governing the enterprise democratically on a one-member-one-vote decision-making basis and receiving a share of any profits.
Similar models are appearing elsewhere in the gig economy, too. Alongside the success of CoopCycle, Eva, a co-operative ride-sharing platform like Uber, has managed to become the second most popular taxi app in three Canadian cities. What makes this particularly impressive is that Eva has already outcompeted Lyft, a global giant that raised $2.3 billion in its IPO. In the UK, cities such as Cardiff and Edinburgh boast worker-owned taxi companies, proving cooperatives are a viable alternative in the fight against multinational giants.
The trickier step is finding investment for worker-owned enterprises. Wings received a grant from Islington Council, alongside funding from Coops UK’s Accelerator programme – but there might be another source of funding that has as yet gone untapped.
Like riders, independent restaurants feel exploited by tech giants who use their large market share and companies’ reliance on them to charge exceedingly high commissions. Deliveroo charges an average of 20-25 percent commission on every order, and restaurants have no choice but to remain on the platform because that’s where the customers are.
Deliveroo also harvests and controls data, giving the company a knowledge of our eating habits that means substantial advantage in the chase for customers, even if more restaurants decided to go it alone. There is also growing concern about the emergence of dark kitchens owned by Deliveroo: these kitchens, springing up in cities across the UK, are used to create cheap, simple meals, and eliminate independent restaurants from the supply chain. These problems create space for new multi-stakeholder cooperatives owned by both restaurants and riders, guaranteeing fair rates for both.
These kinds of ideas provide scope for how workers might outcompete the companies that exploit them further into the future – but today, unionisation and building worker power in the gig economy remain the most urgent task at hand. The Greek riders’ defeat of Efood, alongside other victories recently won in countries like Spain, suggest the tide may be turning ever so slowly in our favour. The full extent of the corporate reaction remains to be seen.