The delivery service industry gained popularity in Berlin just over a decade ago, when companies like Berlin-based Lieferheld introduced platforms for customers to order meals from restaurants, restaurant employees making deliveries.
From around 2013, this model was effectively replaced by online and app-based services that hired their own delivery people. This allowed customers to order from restaurants that did not employ their own delivery staff and simultaneously created thousands of delivery jobs that offered flexible hours and required very little training.
Today, the market for delivery companies extends beyond food and grocery services. Germany-based Mayd (Meds at your door) started delivering medicines to homes last year and has already expanded to 25 German cities and hired 900 workers.
“We will be active throughout Germany by the end of the year,” said Hanno Heintzenberg, co-founder of Mayd, adding that the company also plans to expand into Austria and France.
Another company, called Dropp, uses a similar model to deliver e-commerce products to customers in Berlin.
Dubious business models
A common argument in defense of app-based delivery startups is that they create jobs. Asked about a number of employee issues, a spokesperson for Gorillas, a Berlin-based grocery delivery service, was quick to point out that since 2020, Gorillas has hired 15,000 people.
Today there are tens of thousands of couriers in Berlin. These work opportunities, with flexible hours and no German language requirements, provide income for many foreign students in Germany. However, numerous reports of workplace accidents, missing wages and union busting suggest that the jobs created by delivery companies could be exploitative.
The risk of serious injury or death is not the least of the concerns of delivery people. Surveys of bicycle couriers consistently reveal that around half of them suffer a serious traffic-related injury each year.
Besides the risk of traffic accidents, many delivery cyclists report musculoskeletal injuries resulting from carrying heavy loads on their backs over time.
In Germany, delivery people are considered dependent if they work for a company and use the company’s equipment. For most, simply using their company’s app to work qualifies them as dependent workers.
“This comes with certain rights, including the national minimum wage, health insurance, etc.,” said Johannes Kiess, deputy director of the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik Institute for Democracy Research at the University. from Leipzig.
However, couriers in Germany still face many common on-demand work issues.
“Yes, these workers are exploited with relatively low wages,” Kiess said. “They are treated as consumables. They are ‘jobs’ in the narrow sense of the word, rather than regular employment.”
“A serious lack of investment”
Last year, groups of Gorilla riders staged wildcat strikes to protest missing wages, sudden layoffs and other issues. Almost a year later, payment issues are still a problem for a number of Gorillas workers.
Gorillas provided this statement on the payroll issues: “As in large companies with many employees…there may be occasional payroll errors in individual cases…At present, approximately 1% to 4% of the masses salaries are affected by errors, which we endeavor to correct in a timely manner.”
However, a former Gorillas human operations manager, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect contacts still working for the company, said Gorillas’ human resources team had been severely understaffed since he started there a year ago. one year old.
His team received an average of 900 complaints about missed payments each month. About half of them were company errors, he estimated, mostly the result of an archaic system for tracking sick time and vacation days.
“There is a serious lack of investment,” said the former manager. “When you have 10,000 people in a company, you can’t pay people from an Excel sheet.”
He had offered to set up an SAP payroll system to solve the payment issues, but Gorillas didn’t want to cover the cost. However, they recently paid to launch a home record label, he noted.
Employees of grocery delivery chain Gorillas were seen protesting in Berlin last year against poor working conditions
Support the workers and make a profit?
Miguel Judez is a 27-year-old Spanish biotechnologist who has been living in Berlin for six months. He is about to complete a master’s degree in science communication and is also studying German at a language school. He started delivering for Flink, a grocery delivery app, in December.
“It’s better than expected,” Judez said of his work experience so far. “My bosses are all good people and I get a lot of free food.”
However, delivery companies that are initially viewed positively by employees tend to become more exploitative over time as investment funds begin to dwindle and they look for ways to become profitable.
Judez has already noticed subtle changes within Flink’s organization. Originally, he could block his availability to work around his class schedule. Then the system changed, and now he can only set up “notices of interest” for times when he would prefer to work. This subtle change inevitably results in working hours when they are not available, which can lead to absences and layoffs.
In the investment-fueled world of startups, promising companies earn hundreds of millions in investments. Gorillas made economic news for securing $1 billion (€960,000,000) in investment funding in its first year. Mayd had received €43m in January this year.
But these young and still growing companies also have a lot of costs. After subsidizing discounted deliveries for new customers, paying rent for more and more warehouse space as they expand coverage areas, and paying thousands of worker salaries, these investments end up dry up – and companies have to make a profit.
“After a period of intensive growth, Gorillas’ focus has shifted to building a strong and profitable business,” reads a statement provided by the company. “More than 25 of our micro-achievement centers are already operating profitably.”
However, employees who cannot afford to pay rent while waiting to collect their missing pay or recover from their injuries would say that profitability comes at the expense of their quality of life. Whether a company can offer delivery service at prices customers will pay, and also support employees with decent pay and benefits, remains to be seen.
Edited by: Hardy Graupner