Unrest in unicorn country

Workers at grocery app Gorillas continue to protest poor working conditions. But what's the greater picture?

Protest at a Gorillas warehouse in Urbanstraße. <br><br>
Protest at a Gorillas warehouse in Urbanstraße.

Antonia Groß

Berlin-Kağan Sümer is wearing black: baseball cap, surgical mask - and a T-shirt with the white logo that has come to symbolise the strikes at the young, yet already controversial grocery delivery service Gorillas. In a video that did the rounds on social media, the founder and CEO stands outside the company's Schönhauser Allee warehouse. He's encircled by outraged employees lamenting working conditions at the company. 

"Take a deep breath," Sümer says.

It's a Monday afternoon in late June and actually Sümer himself looks like he needs a breather. He plays around with his left ring finger. An article in Der Spiegel describes Sümer as sweating. On Twitter someone wrote: "Kagan is being grilled." 

The mood in the workforce had been sour for weeks. On the Instagram channel gorillasriderlife2, employees post memes, photos and chat histories documenting management mistakes, and ridicule their supervisors.

Others have created a collective, the Gorillas Workers Collective (GWC), and organised a number of protests and strikes over recent months.

Platform workers have been protesting for years

It's by no means the first time Berliners working for delivery platforms have striked. Last winter, smack in the middle of the pandemic, Wolt and Lieferando couriers protested in Kreuzberg - and called on customers to boycott the services.

Similar protests took place as early as 2015 and 2016: Fodoora in Turin, Deliveroo in London, Uber in the US.

"You can actually say that we are in a wave of gig economy protests that has been ongoing for five, six years," says Stefania Animento. The social scientist researches platform-based work and protest movements at Berlin's Humboldt University. She's keeping a close eye on Gorillas.

The gig economy is characterised by short-term, freelance jobs that are doled out by large online platforms. Some gig workers say they appreciate the flexible working hours and the supposed autonomy. For example, some Gorilla workers are artists for whom the job has provided a welcome extra income - especially helpful during the pandemic. Some are students. Many are foreigners.

Digital platforms have been able to grow under the pretense of being intermediaries rather than employers. But the promise of flexibility means workers remain trapped in a precarious situation, writes Animento. Workers are highly dependent on the platforms but have insufficient social security coverage. For many, their German residence permit depends on the employment relationship.

Gorillas: 12-month fixed-term contracts

Kağan Sumer's company boasts that it is a "counter-model to the gig economy". It claims that - unlike other delivery services and temp agencies - it gives its workers employee status and provides bicycles.

The workers are paid an hourly wage of €10.50, but the contracts are limited to 12 months - six of which comprise a probationary period. Limited contracts are one complaint of many: Workers say e-bikes are often broken. There is a lack of adequate protection from rain and snow. Fire protection in the storehouses is poor. Salaries are sometimes not paid in full or are delayed.

Employees complain about sexist jokes and problematic behaviour by supervisors. There is little opportunity to communicate with management. "Rider support", a team that is supposed to take care of employees' concerns, doesn't even have a phone number. Emails are often left answered for days, employees say.

The stress of quick commerce

"In Gorillas, we see an intensification of tendencies that have already existed with other platforms," says Animento. This is linked to the core idea of Gorillas: "Faster than you". The start-up promises grocery delivery within 10 minutes for a €1.80 fee. Customers place their orders on an app. "Quick commerce" is nothing new. Getir - which has also set up shop in Berlin - has been operating in Turkey for more than five years.

A slew of fast delivery services have joined the fray to compete with Gorillas - such as Dax-listed company Delivery Hero, which is rolling out its copycat brand Foodpanda. A spokeswoman for the company told the Berliner Zeitung that an initial promise to shorten delivery times to seven minutes had been withdrawn. They're now planning on 10 to 15 minutes. Either way, it remains an absurd calculation.

Innovative start-up?

Gorillas says it has set up 100 warehouses in more than 40 cities, 21 of them in Germany, the rest in the UK, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and the USA. The company employs more than 10,000 people. Only 10 months after its birth in spring 2021, the company was valued at one billion dollars - giving it official unicorn status - after investors poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the venture. 

Investors are also interested a stable working climate - if only to uphold a certain image. Since Gorillas staff went public with their gripes about working conditions, the company's image as an innovative start-up has been crumbling. The protests have generated a lot of attention. And the staff know that the company is highly dependent upon them. "We do the job that counts," a courier said at one of the protests.

Logos everywhere.
Logos everywhere.dpa/Annette Riedl

Researcher Stefania Animento says that the protests show "a lot of knowledge about communication and networking. In other sectors it takes years to create this combination of protest forms." Basically, the protesters are fighting the company with its own resources. Just like gorilla advertising, the couriers are highly visible throughout the cityscape - whether they're delivering or striking. Riders' ubiquitous presence joined up with savvy use of digital channels advertises the company while directing attention to the workers' grievances.

Couriers switching platforms

With the protests and plans to boost worker co-determination, such as electing a works council, the employees are fighting back at one of the intrinsic qualities of digital-based work: the strong feeling of isolation in a firm where algorithms are the bosses, where apps plan shifts and evaluate the performance of workers.

Employment contracts are usually temporary at companies like Gorillas. Organising, which presupposes a workforce with a collective identity, is anathema to the concept. "Many jump from platform to platform. But constant change is also identity-building," says Animento. "Identity is then not created by the experience in one company, but in several."

Meeting in a Kreuzberg café, Ali* talks about how he started out as a courier at Lieferando in 2019, donned a blue Wolt jacket for six months after the contract ended, but then started riding for Gorillas in May this year. He says that, like him, a lot of other workers hop from one delivery service to the next. He's been politically involved from the outset and says that couriers from the different companies meet regularly in Berlin to share ideas.

Gorillas hit during its steep rise

Ali, in his late twenties, likes it best at Gorillas so far. He talks about how workers depend on the "rider ops", the supervisors responsible for the delivery staff. They are solely focused on fulfilling orders, Ali says. "If you have an accident, the rider op will see to it that another rider takes the delivery to the customer," Ali says. "You have to call an ambulance yourself."

The Gorillas protests have hit the company hard in the middle of its steep rise to success - and could impact the entire burgeoning industry. The global turnover of meal delivery services recently reached €107bn. Forecasts foresee 12 per cent annual growth. In Germany, sales are expected to rise from €2bn in 2019 to €3.2bn in 2024. But who spares a thought for the legions of delivery people generating these vast sums? 

The Fairwork project, docked at various universities, has been investigating the working conditions of platform-based work in more than 20 countries for three years. The project spread to Germany last year.

Fair pay, fair contracts?

The researchers assess platform-based companies based on five criteria: fair pay and conditions, fair contracts, management processes and co-determination. In 2020, Fairwork rated companies like Uber (1 out of 10 points), Lieferando (5 out of 10), or Berlin's BerlKönig (6 out of 10). Fairwork will include Gorillas in its assessment catalogue this year. Talks with the management are planned soon, but it is still too early to make an assessment, says TU employee Oğuz Alyanak, who is on Fairwork's German research team.

"It depends on whether the company can prove that it is making real changes. That it addresses the problems with wages, working conditions and co-determination." Fairwork only awards points if there is evidence. Promises are not enough. "You could say that if a start-up is growing so fast, the management can't handle it because the infrastructure is missing," says Alyanak. But that doesn't justify poor corporate governance, he added.

Gorillas' promises

At Gorillas, it is sometimes the promises made by the founder himself that cast doubt on whether he's truly interested in the concerns of the employees. In an email to the staff dated 11 July which was obtained by the Berliner Zeitung, Kağan Sumer writes, that yes, he is inexperienced. But he loves what he does. But then he writes: "Take a deep breath." A phrase that radiates neoliberalism. A sign of empathy it is not.

He goes on to compare Gorillas to a tree full of "delicious organic apples". He writes that there are people "who throw stones" to get the apples from the tree and says the team should "allow the resentment to pass through them" and become a "spirit" that transforms into "flames" and not be distracted from success. Followed by a few fire emojis.

It is the persistent protests of the workers that keep forcing Gorillas to take a stand on what is, to put it mildly, negligent treatment of the workforce. Last week, the company added Deena Fox to its management team, an HR professional who in the past has "built and led start-up human resources management, assisted IPOs and helped established corporations continue to grow", according to Gorillas. Previously, Fox worked at Hugo Boss and Amazon.

The gorillasliderlife2 Instagram account responded to news of the new hire rather cynically: "We don't expect anything good."

* Name changed by the editors