Gig economy delivery workers around the world have been rejecting the ‘contractor’ or ‘freelance’ label imposed by many of their employers and have been working towards employee status to secure more benefits, job stability, and other rights. However, earlier this month in Berlin, employees of grocery delivery startup Gorillas launched a wildcat strike in order to protest the conditions of their employment and the unexpected firing of a delivery rider. The treatment of Gorillas workers by their employers demonstrates that, in the convenience economy, securing employee status is still not enough to guarantee a safe and secure working environment.
Riders and other low-wage workers at Gorillas have found that their employee status has not solved many of the fundamental problems with being a convenience economy worker. “This hard distinction of gig being bad jobs and non-gig being good jobs is a misleading dichotomy,” said Yonatan Miller of the Berlin Tech Workers Coalition, who has worked with the Gorillas Workers Collective, supporting the striking riders.
Gorillas emerged as part of a trend that was catalyzed by the coronavirus lockdown, when several new startups began to fulfill the need for home delivery services. While delivery workers all over the world have complained about their treatment during the pandemic, much of the criticism in liberal media has been targeted at the people who use these services. However, Miller doesn’t think that the blame for the kind of exploitation workers face can be put solely on the shoulders of consumers, and points out that many people who work in the convenience economy also use the services of the same companies.
“People are really crunched for time and there is this whole economy of convenience, both psychologically and also in terms of stress,” said Miller. “I think there are clear winners, but those are venture capitalists and the managers, and it’s not so much about consumers versus the lower-paid, more migrantized workers.”
Perhaps no delivery startup founded during the pandemic has been more successful in monetizing this stress than Gorillas. Gorillas was founded in May 2020 and is the fastest startup in German history to hit “unicorn status,” a $1 billion valuation, only nine months after launching. It has already opened a warehouse in the United States, with the goal of expanding rapidly in many markets around the world.
Gorillas claims to be a new kind of delivery service—not exploitative like other so-called gig economy jobs. Gorillas’ workforce draws on young people who flock to Berlin for its reputation as a mecca for music, art, and parties, as well as its relatively low cost of living. The workforce consists of a high percentage of migrants, with many of their riders hailing from Spain, Turkey, and Latin American countries, with English and Spanish being used by riders more commonly than German to communicate.
Gorillas touts their employee benefits, and their company “manifesto” states that riders are the heart of their business. They point to the stylish apparel, new eBikes, techno music at their warehouses, and cool company swag as benefits for riders looking to join their team. They also tout competitive earnings, adequate safety equipment, and job security as selling points—claims that are disputed by the Gorillas Workers Collective, a group of riders, warehouse workers (or ‘pickers’), and technical employees who point to the many exploitative practices and safety risks at their jobs.
Pretty much since the inception of Gorillas as a company, riders and pickers have complained about their safety. Riders have pointed out that the bags they are required to carry are too heavy, causing back issues. They also held another wildcat strike in February when they were asked to deliver during Berlin’s biggest snowstorm in a decade despite unsafe streets. The Workers Collective also has brought attention to the fact that the riders are expected to essentially work as shock absorbers by carrying their packs on their backs as opposed to on the front of their bikes, often to the detriment of the riders’ health.
The most recent wildcat strike highlighted another common complaint of Gorillas workers: the sometimes arbitrary dismissal of riders by management. Gorillas uses a six-month probationary period during which they can fire workers for any reason. Because of the youth of the company most of the workers at Gorillas are recent hires, meaning most are on probation and subject to being fired without cause. One rider named Santiago (or Santi for short) was fired on June 9, which prompted the current strike. Within hours, operations were shut down at the warehouse where Santi worked, located near Berlin’s famous Checkpoint Charlie, as workers surrounded the facility to protest. Over the course of three days, workers protested at many different Gorillas locations around Berlin. At first management called the police, but then later backed off, and the strike was allowed to continue. Self-organized strikes without legal recognition like this are almost unheard of in Germany.
Prior to this strike, the workers were organizing a Works Council, which the management had attempted to disrupt. Gorillas workers do have a slight advantage for organizing when compared to many other delivery and gig economy workers: they have a central place of work. Instead of simply delivering from grocery stores or restaurants located throughout the city, Gorillas owns and deploys deliveries from their own warehouses. This centralized location makes in-person organizing easier to accomplish and actions such as the wildcat strike more possible.
Gorillas workers have played on the company’s touted promise of “delivery in less than 10 minutes” to push their own slogan: “We organize in less than 10 minutes.” Through their organizing, workers have pointed out a problem that plagues many allegedly better alternatives to gig-based work: that, for the most part, their working conditions do not significantly differ from their seemingly less-protected brethren who work as contractors for delivery startups.
“The CEO’s framing is that this [isn’t a gig economy job]. I would push back on that for several reasons. It is still an incredibly precarious job, they have one-year limited contracts with a probationary period. So anytime during that six months they can be fired for any reason during that period. Which is what happened with Santiago; he was fired during this probationary period,” said Miller. “So when you [compare being an employee at Gorillas to] something like Instacart in the US, it seems more stable, but it is still precarious.”
There is a divide at Gorillas between the lower wage workers and those who work on the technical end in software—the latter do not face the same conditions as the riders and pickers and have been more hesitant to organize their workplace. According to Miller, management has attempted to use the tension between the tech workers on the software side of the app against the lower wage riders and pickers.
“On one hand, the company is promoting the riders saying ‘we are not about politics, we are about riding,’ but when it comes to the electoral assembly they want to emphasize that they are all kinds of different workers,” says Miller. “And to an extent that’s true. Every organizing labor struggle should be about all the workers. But the riders and pickers are definitely the lowest paid and the most precarious workers so it makes sense to center them in a workers’ struggle.”
However, the Tech Workers Coalition has been working with software developers and other tech workers at Gorillas to help them understand the benefits of organizing. “A number of different software engineers at Gorillas have reached out to us… A number of them are very solidarish, and others are more skeptical, so that’s why we are in conversation with them,” said Miller.
The quick organizing of the riders and pickers and the wildcat strike at Gorillas has garnered a lot of support from other convenience economy workers throughout Germany. Riders at Liefrando, Dominos Pizza, and United Private Hire Drivers, among others, have supported the strike and even joined the picket line with the Gorillas workers. So have many politicians with Die Linke, the left party in Germany. While the strikes were stopped after three days, it is clear that worker organization has made a large impact within the company.
“Management for the first time [has acknowledged] a lot of the issues … but now they are saying they want to look at the heavy weight of the backpacks, they want to look at the warning system and the determination process,” said Miller. “So it remains to be seen when they will implement this and the details, but the fact that they are responding after a mere three days of strikes is incredible.”