Some 70 Bolt food delivery drivers in Ukraine are waging a digital strike after their wages were reduced by 50 percent, a move that built on the drivers’ discontent with lack of health coverage and cutbacks in bonus payments, a growing global phenomenon. The platform workers are turning off their apps each day at 2 p.m., making it difficult for the company to fulfill evening food orders.
“Transportation costs are the same, risks are the same, and money is half as much. It’s outrageous!” says Artem, a Bolt courier. Like many striking couriers, his backpack features a sticker supporting the strike.
Further cutting into drivers’ wages, he says, is the need to pay for constant bike or scooter repairs.
“For seven days of eight to ten hours of work, a courier covers more than 1,000 kilometers (622 miles) amid city traffic. Every day, you face potholes on the road, there is a constant need of repair, replacing some parts,” he says. “Income no longer covers risks.”
Bolt Founder a Billionaire, Workers Struggle for Pay
Although Bolt is a familiar brand in the United States for its green ride-sharing scooters scattered across urban areas, elsewhere in the world, the company rivals Uber as a delivery service, with 75 million customers in Africa and Europe, especially eastern Europe. In Ukraine, Bolt has 3.5 million customers served by fewer than 100 delivery drivers.
The company is valued at more than $2 billion, according to its Estonian founder Markus Willig, and raised $20 million in funding from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation this year. With total fundraising at $596 million, the company seeks to expand further into Africa and plans to add markets in Latin America and Asia Pacific through franchising agreements.
Yet, even as Willig, 27, has become the third richest person in Estonia through Bolt profits, couriers who daily face dangerous conditions receive no income when they are injured and cannot work.
“You constantly hear about couriers getting into an accident, receiving medical treatment, having surgery,” says Artem. “If you suffer yourself, there must be a certain ‘cushion’ for you not to starve at least for the duration of treatment.”
Bolt workers in Ukraine are calling for a return to the previous bonus and payment structure, and pay for waiting at restaurants for orders. They also want health and life insurance and say the company should seek legislative measures to ensure scooters are registered.
Platform Workers Join Together to Demand Rights
Well before the COVID-19 pandemic boosted home delivery services, the demand for couriers and other essential workers was increasing around the world. But because they are classified as “independent contractors,” platform workers are ineligible for the same benefits as workers in the formal economy, and typically are not covered by a country’s labor laws.
Like Bolt workers in Ukraine, couriers from Nigeria to Colombia are joining together to demand their fundamental rights to decent work—living wages, social protections like health care, and measures to improve job safety.
Workers at Bolt’s Ukraine rival, the Spanish-owned Glovo, pushed for an increase in wages and paid insurance, revealing brutal working conditions in the process. Across Ukraine, unions are engaged in creative campaigns to reach gig economy workers, a campaign worker rights attorney George Sandul discusses in depth on The Solidarity Center Podcast.
In Colombia, Rappi platform delivery workers last year formed the Union of Platform Workers (UNIDAPP), to counter fluctuating pay rates for individual delivery jobs, unexplained fines levied by the company, and the arbitrary barring of workers from the platform to accept jobs.
Bolt workers in other countries are taking action as well. Earlier this year, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain protested lack of safety for drivers following the murder of Bolt driver Gabriel Bringye. Research published by Oxford University in March found that Bolt and Amazon had the worst working conditions for gig economy workers in the UK.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, couriers at Bolt went on strike in March to protest lowered wages and what they say is a manipulated bonus system and unwarranted layoffs. Georgia couriers at Glovo also protested this past spring over lack of medical coverage for work-related injuries and changes to the app-based algorithm making it more difficult to get orders..
Bolt drivers in Lagos, Nigeria, part of the Professional E-hailing Drivers and Private Owners Association, went on strike in April to protest poor working conditions and pay. Bolt recently was forced to increase fares in Kenya after drivers in Nairobi threatened to strike over high fuel prices.
As Artem says, “We have to remind them that in a food delivery company, couriers are the ones who actually deliver, and without them the company does not exist.”