ZOiS Spotlight 38/2021

Eastern Europe’s Gig Economy Goes On Strike

by Miglė Bareikytė 27/10/2021
The Courier trade union organised a strike of Delivery Club workers in Moscow. IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

The case of the Berlin-based online delivery service Gorillas has attracted considerable media attention due to the ongoing strikes and dismissals of striking workers. Gorillas – like various other delivery firms, including Wolt, Bolt, Lieferando and Uber Eats – is part of the booming gig economy, in which assignments are organised and allocated by algorithms on digital platforms. In some cases, the platform workers are employees, but in many instances, they are described as ‘partners’ of these companies and are self-employed or independent contract workers. The gig economy is part of the increasing flexibilisation of work which started in Western Europe in the 1970s and spread to Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With their strike action, the Gorillas workers had been campaigning for better working conditions. When it fired the strikers, the company claimed that in Germany, only trade union-organised strikes are legal.

(Trade union) organisation in the delivery sector of the gig economy is an ongoing transnational issue which, due to the various problems associated with this type of work – such as lack of fair wages and long-term social security – is increasingly gaining in significance. The key issues in the gig economy, namely working conditions and the methods of (trade union) organisation, are not the same everywhere, however. Although various media channels continue to report on the latest campaigns by delivery couriers in Western Europe who – alongside less visible precarious employees such as on-demand cleaners or sex workers – are perhaps the most visible group of workers within the gig economy, workers are organising in Eastern Europe as well. Protests and attempts at trade union organisation in countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Russia mark a new type of dynamic, media-savvy mobilisation of workers in the post-Soviet space, a region known for the weakness of its traditional trade unions.

Precarious workers organise in Russia

Maxim, a secretary with the Courier trade union in Russia whom I interviewed in summer 2021, mentioned three main actors in the online delivery services market in Russia: Samokat, Yandex and Delivery Club. The most important platforms, he says, are Russian; Wolt, Deliveroo and other Western European companies do not have a presence in Russia. However, Maxim also points to the growing influence of taxi platforms from China in regions such as the Urals and Siberia. In Russia, deliveries are made not only by bike or car, but also on foot. Many of the workers are male students, people who lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic or labour migrants from former Soviet republics.

Organising workers in precarious employment in the gig economy faces particular challenges in Russia. As Maxim explains, the Courier trade union, which was set up in spring 2020 after various dismissals and strikes involving delivery couriers, is not registered as an official organisation ‘in order to avoid being persecuted by the state or being classed as a so-called “foreign agent”’. Such categorisation under Russia’s foreign agent law would make Courier’s work infinitely more difficult. At present, Courier’s main objective is to create some unity among the country’s disconnected courier workers.

One of the critical problems that differentiates the gig economy in Russia from its EU counterpart concerns the financial penalties imposed on delivery staff. As Maxim explains, couriers are fined ‘if they are late for work, are not dressed tidily or neatly enough, argue with management or falsely report their location’. A further problem is the use of apps in the work: Internet coverage does not exist everywhere and the apps ‘lag behind [or] are faulty’. The online management system also causes errors: ‘In many cases, the delivery times and prices are calculated incorrectly.’ When immediate problems or errors occur, the couriers find themselves talking to a platform worker who ‘is not fully informed or authorised to take the appropriate action’, or end up chatting to a bot. The lack of social security, human contact and practical support, not to mention the instant dismissals and financial penalties, provides fertile ground for worker mobilisation.

New forms of activism are needed

Despite the pressing problems, organising precariously employed workers is challenging, partly due to the fragmented nature of work in the gig economy but also – in Russia – due to the size of the country. As Maxim explains, ‘the biggest problem affecting our members [is] that they are all widely dispersed. Communicating with them is not an easy task […]; here, all the workers in the platform economy are highly atomised, which meant that we had to come up with a different communication strategy’.

Courier focuses particularly on facilitating communication among its members via social media channels such as VKontakte, Facebook, Telegram, Instagram and YouTube. The Telegram group chats, Maxim says, support bottom-up organisation among couriers within Russia, based on location, area and nationality. The trade union’s main chat on Telegram is used as a forum for contributions and discussions about the latest problems and to share tips on job security and links to relevant articles and videos, to provide support for couriers facing acute problems and to organise Kurier’s own work. One of the trade union’s goals is to manage these diverse strands of communication. Another is to increase the couriers’ visibility. As Maxim explains, achieving visibility with the help of bloggers and activists, along with online communication, helps to solve some of the problems in this unregulated market. ‘We had several cases of workers being dismissed in Sochi and Novosibirsk. After the media campaign, they got their jobs back.’

Notwithstanding the steadily declining public trust in the potential of the Internet to strengthen democratic debate, efforts to build solidarity from the bottom up in Russia’s precarious employment sectors mainly rely on online communication tools, combined with offline action such as strikes. This demonstrates the extent to which the critical worker movements in Russia are specialised and focused on the gig economy. These movements are also an example of worker activism and organisation in Eastern Europe, which has its own historically rooted complexities and where workers are particularly disadvantaged due to the lack of labour rights, as the example of the financial penalties shows. And lastly, it also reveals the ongoing significance of communication-based action for critical movements. As Maxim says, ‘if a strike can’t be found on social media or the Internet, it never happened’. In Russia, alternative forms of trade union organisation, such as those which have emerged in the gig economy, have become an important tool in the campaign for better working conditions.

Miglė Bareikytė is a media scholar and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Siegen. She is currently conducting empirical research on conflicts around artificial intelligence and platform economies in Europe. Her general interests include media (geo)politics, media criticism and historically sensitive ethnographical research strategies.