Work insecurity: the high cost of ultra-fast grocery deliveries
’Everything you need, just a click away’ (and a maximum 30 minutes wait on your sofa). The advertising claim is well known, especially since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Among other major processes of change, the pandemic impacted on people’s consumption patterns. Forced to spend long periods of time at home and to social distance from others, people began to work remotely, order more food from home, buy more items online, or do their grocery shopping through a mobile app.
In a matter of months, all these sectors boomed: high levels of demand, ambitious growth and expansion plans, huge investment rounds ... the result was more openings and jobs, as well as a boost in the market value of start-ups that kept multiplying, such as Dija, Gopuff, Getir, and Gorillas.
The latter, based in Germany, reached a market valuation of $3 trillion (€2.77bn). However, now back to the ‘new normal’, forecasts were no longer so rosy, and the tables were turned.
At the end of last year, Gorillas was acquired by its Turkish rival, Getir, for $1.2bn (€1.1 bn). A few months earlier, the company had laid off 40 percent of its workforce in Spain in a drastic downsizing of its business in the country, as well as half of the employees at its Berlin headquarters.
The lay-offs were only the most visible face of how the plans of these startups took a drastic turn. The real cost comes behind the scenes, the process from when you order the product on the app until you receive it 15 minutes later on your doorstep. And the ones who suffer from it are their workers.
"The hyper-competitive business environment has seemingly led through into the organisation of quick-commerce work, resulting in an increased precariousness for workers," underlines the policy study "Back to the Dark Ages? Quick Commerce and the Changing Landscape of Retail Work", published this week by UNI Europa and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS).
Their main conclusion is that despite the assumption of better working conditions than other digital platform workers, the reality looks different.
With the professionalisation of this model and pressure from investors for more profits, the workers interviewed for the study revealed that this pressure falls on their shoulders, resulting in low morale, high workloads, unpredictable work shifts, high levels of stress, high turnover of staff and excessive algorithmic control.
"You are treated like a number," said a delivery driver in a dark store (warehouses closed for direct sale to the public) in Spain.
Direct employment does not always translate into a reduction of the precariousness of their workers, the study points out.
Although the model employs some of its staff on an hourly basis or on a set 9am-5pm schedule, shops are generally open from very early in the morning until around midnight, and algorithms manage the number of staff needed each week, or in which shifts to be staffed.
So a shop may have seven delivery drivers per shift one week, and three the next. The systems are automated, explain workers in these stores, who tell how they get penalties if they take more than seven minutes off, or do not meet strict delivery times.
With the assignment system, "basically you are riding to the warehouse, and like one block away, you already had another assignment", explained another rider in Germany.
The algorithm does not measure whether it snows, thunders, rains or whether the worker’s back hurts from carrying multiple orders or there is an overload on the bike. If the targets are not met, an official warning. If the rider is going too slowly, an official warning. After three strikes, they are out.
And even with a single warning, workers in Germany can be dismissed during their probationary period — which can last up to half a year, the report says.
"In probation, you can terminate without a reason. It’s very regular. When people are in probation, they could miss one shift, and we’re told, ‘just get rid of them’", recounts a store manager in Germany.
In addition, the bonus system that complemented these salaries has changed, and targets became "unrealistic" and "unattainable", interviewees explained to UNI Europa. This makes these jobs less attractive: workers in these ‘dark stores’ earn between €10.85 per hour in Spain with Getir or Glovo, and €12 per hour in Germany with Gorillas.
The study also shows how some of these workers have to take on multiple jobs in order to pay for their basic needs each month.
With this in mind, the authors put forward several proposals. Firstly, that the directive on platform workers should be pushed forward to ensure minimum labour standards in the EU.
Secondly, specific provisions on enforcement should be included in the EU labour directives, as the implementation of national and EU labour law is a member state competence.
And third, that some form of coordination and support could be provided at EU level, e.g. through a European Labour Authority that can act beyond cross-border issues.