– This platform works in such a way that we never know what the rules are – sometimes a bonus is given, then it is recalled. Workers can never be sure whether the working conditions they know are permanent or if they would be modified in a while. We want to change this and this is one of our first demands – says Łukasz Ostrowski, a trade union organise and co-founder of the union of delivery workers co-operating with Pyszne.pl, the Polish version of TakeAway.com. He is also associated with Konfederacja Pracy (Labour Confederation), one of the most militant structures within the All-Poland Trade Union Association (OPZZ).
Interview by Małgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.
Who came up with the idea to form a union of food delivery workers? What demands do you have?
This idea was circulating somewhere in the Labour Confederation. I also wanted to get involved in organising a union beforehand, and I had been in contact with union organisers. At that time, however, I was not yet in touch with the delivery workers themselves. Then I met Stanislaw Kierwiak, who is now the president of this union. He had previously been involved in a slightly different type of employee advocacy, such as filing complaints with the State Labour Inspectorate.
We started to work together and then the idea of how to reach out to the workers also appearead. If I remember correctly, it was Michal Lewandowski, president of the Labour Confederation, who came up with it. The idea was to place multiple food orders and then talk to the delivery workers who would come. So we ordered food from about 60 delivery workers…
… and you started talking to them about why it was important to set up a union organisation? How did they react?
Very differently. However, there were more positive reactions, which even surprised us.
We feared that the idea would not be liked, that the reactions would be downright hostile. But not – the young workers were interested in what the action was and we often managed to have a longer conversation with them. They would take a break and talk to us.
On the other hand, there were a few more sceptical reactions. Certain workers were just used to working hard and ‘managing to live somehow’, as they put it.
Have you met Poles or rather migrant workers?
To work for Pyszne, it is mandatory to speak Polish. Therefore, the only foreigners working there come from Belarus and Ukraine. They form a little less than 50 per cent of all employees, which means the majority are Poles.
It is a myth that this kind of work might be only a part-time job. Sure, there are seasonal workers who want to make some extra money during holidays, but more often there are people who want to stay in this job for longer. There are also people for whom this is the job number two, allowing them to earn extra money, just as important as their main job. It is possible to reconcile the two, because at Pyszne it is you who indicate the time when you are available to work.
And those people from whom you ordered food later became trade unionists?
Ah, it wasn’t that easy… We also had to contact people on social media. For platform workers, social media like Telegram play the same role that the workers’ canteens at the factories used to have. In these places people meet, gather, organise. Of course, it was not so easy to gain the trust of the workers on Telegram only, live communication is different, after all. But despite all the obstacles we managed to find a certain number of people interested in unionizing.
We managed to break through the barrier to organising unions in industries where workers are employed on a civil contract, not standard work contract basis. There, there is a requirement, quite absurd by the way, that the first 10 people joining the union must have worked for at least six months.
So what are the first demands of the food delivery workers’ union?
We are about to meet with the company, which has responded positively to our request to meet. We will see how this meeting will actually look like, whether the company will approach these talks with as much openness as they have declared in their emails.
First of all, we want to demand that seniority allowances be reinstated and included into the contract. Previously, seniority allowances existed – after a year or so of seniority, a worker gained an extra PLN 3 per hour. However, the company has now taken advantage of the fact that the minimum wage in Poland is to be increased and has already announced an increase in the hourly rate. But this increase has been made at the expense of seniority allowances, which will no longer be added! Everyone is to earn the standard 23.70 PLN (approx. 5 euros).
I think that the demand for the return of an allowance that used to function is not excessive, and I hope that the company will be ready to make some kind of settlement on this issue.
We also want to write these rates into the contract, because Pyszne.pl constantly changes the working conditions. Employees can never be sure whether they are getting something permanently or maybe for a while. This was the case a year ago with the weekend and winter work allowances. Now the same story is repeating with the seniority allowance, so we will start with that.
The second, very important thing is the scope and form of work. A while back, an informal rule was established in Pyszne.pl that you start on your own bike to and you work in your district. At least that is how it was presented. On the other hand, it later turned out on a number of occasions that the work was not confined to any zone at all. Instead, the platform’s notoriously impenetrable computer algorithm made strange decisions and assigned people an order to deliver… 12 km away.
That is, if we are to stick to the example of Warsaw, the worker could be convinced that he works only in Ursynów, and here he gets orders for Bielany [that is, a worker based in a southern district of Warsaw would need to go the northern outskirts of the city – MKF].
Something like that. Although it was never formally written that one works only in a specific district, this is how the matter was presented. And there’s a problem. Once the worker has completed such an assignment, the return journey, the 12-kilometre return journey, is not paid. In winter, this is particularly inconvenient. Delivery workers can’t just get on the bus with their bikes, there are incidents where they are asked out. So we want some kind of monetary compensation for particularly onerous returns.
The algorithm is capable of allocating an assignment at the end of a shift in a very remote restaurant, with a long commute to the customer. Even if there is half an hour or even several minutes left before the end of the shift. The algorithm can nevertheless assign an order that will take much longer to complete. You can theoretically ask the coordinator to take off such an assignment, but they do not always agree. The work takes longer, people are upset because they also have their own plans, they would like to go somewhere after their shift, meanwhile they do not know when they will actually finish.
Can it also happen that an employee is ready to work, but there are no orders?
This is unlikely to happen, because Pyszne.pl pays an hourly rate. That’s why the company does not employ an excess of workers: it takes as many people as are actually needed, and sometimes not even enough. There is no shortage of orders, and the company constantly encourages people to work; there are bonuses for completing a sufficient number of tasks. The other thing is that until recently, these bonuses were completely unrealistic and promoted working beyond one’s strength – in order to get a substantial bonus, one had to do around 250 hours a month.
However, the situation at Pyszne is different from, for example, Glovo. At that platform, there is no guaranteed hourly rate, employees have to literally fight for orders, and the company encourages this, by employing too many workers.
Will you be trying to enter platforms such as Glovo with the idea of starting a union too?
It’s a question of the future.
I would be very glad to do something like that. However, we first have to achieve something here in Pyszne.pl. The workers must see that something can be done. Then, I hope, a momentum will follow and unions will also appear in other companies.
For now, the success is that applications to join our union are already coming not only from Warsaw, but from cities all over the country.
Who will be your dialogue partner on working conditions?
A certain number of delivery workers are employed directly by Pyszne. In Warsaw it is a small number of people, because here they find workers through Trenkwalder employment agency. The fact that this dispersion of employment is not large makes things easier for us. Some of the couriers are employed by Takeaway.com, the parent company, which uses different names in different countries: in Poland Pyszne.pl, Lieferando in Germany and so on.
Our labour organization is of inter-company type. This means that after we have found 10 people in one company that meet the requirements, then we can accept even individuals from other sites. At Takeaway.com we have few members compared to how many Trenkwalder employees have joined, because Takeaway, at least in Warsaw, only employs people who work in this place for very long. Nevertheless, thanks to the fact that the union is inter-company, we have the opportunity to act, for example, at the headquarters of Pyszne – a real, physically existing place in Warsaw. We can demand, for example, that a union information desk appears there. If we only unionised the couriers working through the agency, Takeaway could send us away, saying: wrong workplace! Your members do not work here.
There are also attempts to organise platform workers in other countries, there have been organised protests by couriers in Spain or Germany. Do you have contact with them, do you exchange experiences?
We have come into contact with the workers’ council in Berlin, which was set up relatively recently, a few months ago. Their situation is also difficult. The company uses a great deal of anti-union repression, much worse than at home! We spoke to a Polish delivery worker living in Berlin who was dismissed illegally by the company. We expect the German court to reinstate him.
The situation of this workers’ council is quite complicated. In Germany, workers’ councils operate alongside trade unions. And the union, which is active in this company, is … integrated into the system. It has political influence, links to politics, while the council is rather anarchistic. Coming back to the anti-union repression – the company sued the council for embezzling money, because German labour law states that when a council or workers’ committee organises its elections, it gets certain funds for this purpose. The company accused these employees of embezzling money – they claim that elections cost too much. This case is still in court. In our country there are no such problems so far.
A few years ago, when, for example, on groups for Uber drivers on social media, calls to organise and protest were usually met with laughter. Other drivers commented that in order to earn more, you had to work more. If you now manage to build a couriers’ union, does that mean that something is changing in platform work? Are attitudes changing?
Of course, there is a section of people who are still prejudiced against trade unions or protests. They still rely on individual forms of survival, such as taking on jobs in several places at once. But some people are beginning to take a different approach.
Is this already a qualitative change? It’s difficult for me to compare these earlier attempts to operate in Uber and our union.
In fact, whether you can organise people also depends on how intensively you try, whether you can find people, even a few, who are open to change to begin with. Many people react with scepticism and only when an organisation is already in place do they start to see the good things about organising.
Maybe it’s not so much that attitudes have changed, but that no one has simply tried so seriously to organise platform workers before? Let’s also not forget that Pyszne.pl does, however, employ people directly. On a platform like Uber, the dispersion of employees is incomparably greater.
I will also admit that I still meet people who have fears that if they join a union they will be fired. We reiterate that there is no such risk. Union membership can be anonymous.
So you want to fight for seniority allowances, you want to correct the most anti-worker moves of the algorithm, you go to talks with the company, what’s next?
These talks are the first step. Step two: to expand the organisation as much as possible. In Warsaw, in other cities. We are going to run an intensive campaign to encourage people, to talk to them, to explain what our union is about and why it should exist.
People are not familiar with labour law, they don’t know why the existence of a union should be important to them. For the union to survive, as many people as possible need to sign up. This is our goal for now.
Author’s note: Soon after this interview, the delivery workers from smaller Polish cities staged a spontaneous protest against unequal pay conditions – the fact that in some cities, a bonus for work in difficult winter conditions was offered, in others not. On 19 December, there were hardly any delivery workers circulating in cities of Lublin and Białystok in Eastern Poland. This only proves how dynamic the situation is, and that delivery workers are truly motivated to do something about their working conditions. The meeting between Pyszne.pl and the union still has not taken place.
The interview has been first published in Polish by Nasze Argumenty, official partner of Cross-Border Talks.