"ReWolt" against Wolt
Workers united will never be defeated!
What do we want? Workers’ wages! When do we want them? Now!
Such slogans echoed loud on the square in front of Zentrum Kreuzberg at U Kottbusser Tor on 19 June 2023 as 50 Wolt workers – many with a migrant background – and sympathisers took to the streets to protest against non-payment of wages, as well as the absence of paid sick leave, occupational safety and other labour rights provisions.
Their 10-metre-long banner read "Wolt owes us money and rights", followed by the logo of the campaign, called "ReWolt" – a play on the company's name and the word 'revolt'. Some of their placards read "Sick Leave for All" and "Stop Wage Theft". Revolutionary songs in different languages were played and slogans shouted against Wolt and wage theft.
Delivery riders' struggles are nothing new in Berlin. Gorillas and Lieferando are well-known cases where workers have managed to form works councils. Neither are these struggles limited to Berlin or Europe. Workers from China and Korea to India, Brazil and Azerbaijan are similarly engaged.
More than 100 migrant #Wolt workers have not been paid since last December. This is outrageous and criminal, join and support the organized workers in labour court in our fight for their rights!
When? 27.07.23 , 11:15
Where? Arbeitsgericht, Magdeburger Platz 1, 10785, R509 pic.twitter.com/GsIWY61M9K
— Lieferando Workers Collective (LWC) Berlin (@LWC_Berlin) July 5, 2023
The Wolt Workers Collective in Berlin had called the protest. The recent movement in Germany began when a "fleet" – a term used to describe workers hired by delivery companies through subcontractors – of 120 migrant workers were denied payment for several months.
According to the workers, they had been hired by Wolt through a subcontractor who goes by the name of Ali, is supposedly Pakistani and runs a mobile phone accessories shop in Neukolln called Mobile World. Most workers are students and of South Asian origin.
At the first protest in April, workers cycled their way from U Karl Marx Strasse to the Wolt headquarters in Friedrichshain, where they had intended to deliver a charter of demands to Wolt management. The management however refused to come out of their offices and receive the charter. When protest leader Muhammad tried to put the charter in the company's letterbox, he was told Wolt did not have one.
What began as a campaign of unpaid fleet employees being denied wages has evolved into a collective struggle, which now also involves employees directly hired by Wolt. Their demands include payment of wages, occupational safety, workers' compensation, an end to the subcontracting system and paid sick leave.
Couriers denied wages
"I am a migrant student from Pakistan and struggle to live here," said Muhammad. "My wife and I work odd jobs to make ends meet. Wolt has stolen three months of my wages and I am not alone. We are many migrant students facing the same situation. Most students are even afraid of protesting because they are migrants. I went to the Wolt store eight times to claim my wages. Ali repeatedly denied and finally said that he has not been paid by Wolt to pay our wages. When we have delivered orders on time, the least we deserve is to be paid."
His colleague, Shiwani, who is from India and has also been denied wages, said that she is a student in Berlin and it is already difficult to cope with the challenges of high rent and tuition fees. She joined Wolt as a rider in December.
"It was freezing weather, but we would go door to door to deliver food," she said. "We would get severe pain in our hands because the weather was so cold. All the while, Wolt management sat in their heated offices. They get money to heat their offices due to our hard work, but then they deprive us of our meagre wages. We deserve to be paid! And we deserve at least a minimum wage per hour. This per-order payment system must be abolished!"
Many Wolt riders report that they are paid per order and not per hour.
Another rider of Indian background, Abhay, said that when he came to Germany, he heard about how workers’ rights were protected here. "When I joined Wolt, it was a roller coaster ride," he said. He said that they worked eight to ten hours in December and January, thinking that they might be paid to be able to afford their university fees and other expenses.
"What do I get after this work? Wolt denied to pay me. I thought they will pay me next month," Abhay continued. "But I have not been paid for November, December and January. Wolt has even denied before that we are their workers. We have everything to prove that we worked for Wolt. We want to be paid."
Joey, a Gorillas rider, read out a speech on behalf of a directly employed Wolt worker who did not want to be identified: "All subcontracted workers should be directly hired immediately and they should be given equal labour rights. Same rights for same work!" They also made a separate speech to express solidarity.
Victims of structural racism
They situated migrant workers' extreme form of exploitation in Germany within the larger context of the structural racism that migrant workers face in Europe. They talked about the recent drowning of the Pakistani, Syrian and other workers in the Mediterranean and condemned European apathy towards them.
Questions of structural abuse of migrant workers were brought up by German workers as well. Martin, a member of IG Metall (the largest industrial union in Germany and Europe), said at the protest that even though his union belongs to a different trade, it is important that workers see themselves as waging a struggle together.
He added that it was crucial workers demand solidarity, pursuing a common struggle with the trade unions in the same sector such as the NGG, Ver.di and others. After all, the struggle being waged was not only important for the sector, but also for the entire working class. "The more this precarious sector expands, the more it will undercut wages everywhere! This is why it is not just a question of solidarity, but rather a question of self-interest of every worker to support this struggle."
"If they are not prepared to pay the wages on time, if they are not prepared to pay wages sufficient for a living, then those companies should be expropriated without compensation. We need to make history out of a system which stands on exploitation, on racism, on war and oppression."
Expropriation is a topic that has been raised before on the streets of the German capital. In 2021, the Deutsche Wohnen Enteignen (Expropriate Deutsche Wohnen) referendum was successful, even though lawmakers have since failed to act on the will of the people, who voted in favour of expropriating the real estate company in light of the housing crisis.
"We are no longer willing to finance the profits of the shareholders with our excessive rents!" reads their website. The profits of companies enjoying the privileges offered to the capitalist class through precarious gig economy work are now increasingly coming under scrutiny. Some German school students also attended the protest to express solidarity with the unpaid migrant workers.
At the end of the protest, Theater X performed a street theatre piece highlighting the plight of delivery workers. Director Nika said that she sees the ongoing struggle of the Wolt riders as part of the larger class struggle in Germany. "Their struggle inspires us all!"
Muhammad, Shiwani, Abhay and several others have filed cases against Wolt for wage theft. The date of their hearing, announced at the protest, was 27 July 2023. They urged all participants to be there to support them. "It was encouraging that so many people came to our protest and showed solidarity," Muhammad said after the end of the protest. "We will win."
© Qantara.de 2023
Minerwa Tahir is a doctoral research fellow with the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (LMO) in Berlin.