In Tbilisi, delivery drivers learn their power lies in stopping work

A protest campaign in Georgia shows the potential of self-organisation by delivery drivers.
Across the world, labor is under attack from the growing trend of classifying workers as “independent contractors” rather than employees. In Georgia, delivery drivers are now turning the tables. While employees face a much more complicated process to organise legal strikes, the drivers’ status allows them to stop work by just turning off the app — potentially wreaking havoc on the company.

Editorial note: Since this article was written, Georgia’s ongoing political crisis has reached a new peak, garnering the attention of an international media concerned with purported threats to democracy. What the international media has repeatedly failed to show interest in, though, is the everyday material concerns and struggles of the working class. With this piece, we resist that trend and bring you the story of one such grassroots struggle.

Outside an unassuming building in a Tbilisi neighbourhood, dozens of delivery drivers are gathering. Some are on their motorcycles or walking around, while others are trying to squeeze in through the front door – or, indeed, coming out with brand new delivery bags.

It is 29 January. Most of these men – and they are predominantly men – are here to protest recent changes to the terms and conditions of their work for Glovo, an international on-demand delivery company operating in the Georgian capital.

But others, often unemployed and struggling during the global pandemic, are desperate for work – exactly what the company is counting on. What these willing new drivers are not told, however, is what they face if they sign up to Glovo: becoming de facto employed by the company – but without any guarantee of work or workplace protection.

Among the protesters is a young man on crutches leaning on a motorcycle, who tells me he suffered an accident that morning while out delivering. He was rushing to make a delivery, he says, while it was raining and his vehicle slipped during a turn, hitting a pole. “If you don’t rush, you won’t make the bonus system,” he said.

Later that week the driver contacted Glovo about his injuries, only to receive a boilerplate email saying the company’s insurance does not cover damages to third parties by motor vehicles – this should be covered by car insurance obtained independently. He is now stuck paying the full bill; he and his car are too damaged to continue to work.

“You’re risking your health in order to get a decent wage and provide for your family,” the driver said.

All or nothing

Glovo’s yellow rucksacks whizzing around on scooters have long become a fixture of the Tbilisi cityscape, where the company, headquartered in Spain and with operations across Europe, has been active for three years.

But the Spanish company’s telltale rucksacks have acquired a new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic, when they became essential for deliveries of food and medicine in the city. Jobs are being shed everywhere in Georgia, and shops have mostly been closed due to lockdown, producing a demand for both Glovo’s services and jobs.

Glovo advertises itself as a flexible way to make money: couriers have ultimate freedom and big paychecks. As one satisfied worker told me in August: “We don’t have working conditions, we have the application, access, and Glovo is a middleman company, we deliver orders.”

The Glovo application is the primary means of communication with the company and keeps records of couriers’ work. The whole company model is built around the ease of starting work: you download the app, go to a training session, get the branded equipment and off you go. The drivers themselves are “in charge” of their work schedule.

But two aspects of the business set up suggest the opposite, and that the company’s incentive-based model works against people who want to work fewer hours. Indeed, Glovo’s designed incentive system operates more along the lines of “all or nothing”.

First, Glovo’s rating system for drivers, which is necessary to access a work schedule and therefore pick shifts. This system rates drivers according to a number of factors: their ability to work high-demand hours (35% of a driver’s score), the total amount of orders they have completed and their average number of deliveries per hour as compared to the fastest Glovo courier (10%). The remainder of the drivers’ scores comes mostly from a combination of customer ratings and order history.

Second, and most importantly, Glovo’s bonus system. Drivers receive bonus payments according to how many orders they complete in a single week – and these targeted bonuses make up the high wages that Glovo claims in its advertising.

On average, a driver makes three lari (£0.65) per order – and according to the drivers I spoke to, they complete one and a half orders per hour, giving a rough hourly rate of 4.5 lari (£0.98), minus the costs that drivers are solely responsible for (fuel, transportation maintenance, insurance).

If someone wanted to work 20 hours a week, that would amount to about 30 orders if there were no technical or other problems.

Since the first bonus payment (100 lari, or £21.95) kicks in at 120 deliveries per week, a driver working 20 hours a week would not be eligible for these additional payments. Their take-home income (without including costs) would be roughly 90 lari (£19.75) a week, which amounts to 360 lari (£79) per month. This is if the driver’s rating was kept sufficiently high to access the shifts where the higher number of deliveries per hour were possible, if the wait time at pick-up locations was kept short, and if there were no problems with the Glovo application or customer.

As far as insurance goes, just like most of the Glovo service contract, all the responsibilities rest on the courier while the company profits. Drivers must buy their own vehicles, their own fuel, their own equipment and their own insurance.

Meanwhile, the company charges food or retail providers over 30% on orders placed through the platform and it charges the customers a fee for each order or a monthly membership. There are extra charges if a customer orders under the minimum amount, and all “partners” (courier and food providers) are charged mobile application fees.

It also appears that Glovo does not pay any taxes relating to couriers’ work in Georgia: the latter are classified as independent contractors, and couriers themselves are only required to pay 1% income tax in the country.

According to official filings, the company reported that it did not pay any taxes on profits in 2018 and 2019, due to losses incurred.

This comes in a situation where the company’s limited overhead costs, which are paid largely by drivers, are enviable by any business standards - and the global pandemic has made its existence indispensable, thus increasing revenue.

“We are compliant with all laws and regulations in all the countries in which we operate,” said Glovo. “We can, if required by law, share the exact amounts paid in tax in both 2019 and 2020.”

The spark

Reacting against changes to the bonus system – which clearly incentivises working 80-hour weeks at breakneck speed – and the reality of not being treated as employees, Glovo workers decided to organise.

The initial outrage began last August, when Glovo amended the bonus rates from 130 deliveries per week for a 250 lari (£54) bonus to 180 deliveries for a 350 lari (£76) bonus, and 120 deliveries was switched to a 100 lari bonus.

Drivers told me that it would take 80 hours a week to reach 120 deliveries. Even if they managed to raise their deliveries per hour to an average of two, they would still need to work 60 hours a week to receive bonus pay of 100 lari. In order to qualify for 180 orders – which would be an additional 350 lari – they would need to work 90 hours at two orders per hour minimum. In Georgia, Glovo forbids shifts of more than 12 hours, so drivers must fit 180 deliveries into 84 hours, which means they work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

The drivers protested, but privately, out of sight of the media and activists. (“I feel like a slave on a ship,” one driver told me at the time.) And in response to these protests, management told drivers: if you don’t like it, leave. Couriers claim that the company subsequently hired hundreds of new drivers afterwards.

Then, in January, the company changed the rate of pay for kilometres travelled from 0.40 to 0.30 lari. This came after the bonus changes in August took effect, but changes like shortening wait time at restaurants – which would have significantly improved the couriers’ condition – were first promised and then reneged.

In response, despite fears of being “blocked” – when couriers are locked out of the Glovo application and so are unable to work – more and more couriers joined the protest, honking their horns, magnifying their growing numbers. “They are skinning us alive,” one driver said.

In most parts of Tbilisi, aside from a couple of neighbourhoods, couriers say it is impossible to make their bonuses even if they work an 84-hour week – because there are not enough orders to fulfill. In areas of town where the order quantity is high, they often push themselves physically, getting into traffic accidents: every second counts if you want to make your bonus.

Glovo couriers thus see themselves as being left out in the streets, constantly left holding the bag whenever anything goes wrong. They do not receive consistent support from the company when they have technical difficulties with the app or problems with customers. Drivers often have to wait outside restaurants for deliveries, checking in every few minutes whether their order is ready - often without the right to wait inside, sit down or use the bathroom. In that sense, there is a feeling among drivers that their everyday problems are not being addressed and are often hidden.

“This last year has been one of the most challenging on record,” said Glovo in a response to openDemocracy. “For a period of time during the pandemic’s peak, we had a number of issues with our live support team due to a sudden surge in orders. During that time, we didn’t have the staff we needed to meet the increase in demand. Today, that issue has been resolved.”

For drivers – though they may be “independent entrepreneurs” – Glovo is the company they work for; the Glovo app is in the hands of the company and it continuously works in the company’s favour. At the January rally, many drivers complained that there were daily problems with the way in which their distance metres were working.

Couriers, especially the seasoned ones, know Tbilisi very well. Some added that they compared the distance travelled on their Glovo apps against Google Maps, and claim that the Glovo app – which they have to pay for – is shortchanging them on distance. Since a large part of the pay they receive per delivery comes from kilometres traveled, they cannot afford these daily incorrect measurements.

Glovo said that changes to pay in 2020 were “brought in to address the imbalance that existed between short- and long-distance deliveries”, but “acknowledge[d] that the structure does sometimes have problems [in its] integration with Google Maps, especially where addresses have not been properly updated. To address this, a payout structure was put in place to cover any minor issues with distance calculations. As a result, our distance payout is one of the most competitive in the market.”

Just the beginning

Both couriers and Glovo know that Glovers’ – as the drivers call themselves – work stoppage has the ability to wreak havoc on the company.

Drivers’ official status as independent contractors makes their ability to stop work as easy as turning off the Glovo app, while employees have a much more long and complicated process to organise legal strikes of any kind in Georgia. There are many improvements necessary to achieve just and decent work, but perhaps this is just the beginning of couriers fighting back both locally in Georgia – and in the future, transnationally.

According to the workers I spoke to, Glovo’s local management in Georgia often justifies unilateral changes in terms and conditions, and buys time when couriers demand better working conditions, by using the fact that it’s an international company. Management in Tbilisi has to “call Barcelona first” before they can agree to any demands being made, drivers said.

One courier told me that after months of hearing that they must first contact the company’s Spanish HQ to address grievances, he and other couriers decided to look up the working conditions for Glovo couriers in Spain. They found that Spanish drivers worked eight-hour shifts (as opposed to 12 in Georgia) and had guaranteed hourly pay, even if no orders were placed. This is largely the result of a protest and legal campaign fought by Spanish drivers.

On 10 February, Glovo satisfied some of their demands, such as reversing the kilometre compensation rate back to 0.40 lari and increasing the “bundled” pay by 50%. The company has also stated it will look into reducing wait times at restaurants. In a statement, Glovo called the strikes “regrettable” and said that it had “always maintained an open dialogue with our community of couriers”. “Having considered [couriers’] requests, we have reached an agreement on new tariffs that satisfies both parties,” the company said via email.

This first public reaction to Georgia’s gig economy – in an economic landscape largely bereft of decent work or opportunity and hit hard by the global pandemic – should come as a reminder: even in the global economic “periphery”, people deserve decent work and wages.

Sopiko Japaridze is the co-founder of Solidarity Network Workers Center, a member-driven labour rights group in Georgia. She has been a labour and community organiser for 12 years.

Photo: Sopiko Japaridze

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