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Gorilla warfare: Berlin’s delivery riders tell their stories

Before the headline-grabbing strikes at Gorillas earlier this month, we caught up with some of the riders keeping this booming, high-stakes industry in the game.

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Lieferando is one of the most popular food delivery services in Berlin. Photo: IMAGO / Stefan Zeitz

The lockdown economy has driven huge growth in Berlin’s tech delivery sector, filling city streets with legions of bike couriers, most of them expats out for limited contracts and flexi-hours. Before the attention-grabbing strikes at Gorillas earlier this month, we caught up with some of the riders keeping this booming, high-stakes industry in the game.

Arjun arrives five minutes early, at 15:25, for his evening shift in the main Gorillas warehouse on Torstraße in Mitte. He clocks in using an app, greets his colleagues with fist bumps, then puts on his mask and goes inside to receive a key from his supervisor for one of the sleek, black e-bikes out front. He checks the bike, grabs a helmet and picks a break time from a sign-up sheet – and with that, he’s ready to take his first order. He will spend the next seven and a half hours hanging out with his colleagues at the warehouse, then cruising along nearby streets when he gets an order, never straying further than 10 minutes from his base.

Gorillas is the new kid on the delivery block. Over the past year, Berlin’s home-grown start-up app has gone from owning a single warehouse on Danziger Straße in Prenzlauer Berg to covering 14 different areas across Berlin and 75 nationwide, as well as in major cities in the Netherlands, the UK and France. With one-year contracts and stylish black attire for its 1000-strong ‘rider crew’, the newcomer has set itself apart from other apps. Its image is all about speed, with the stated aim of delivering groceries “at retail prices” to customers within10 minutes of ordering. It pays employees €10.50 an hour and lets them grab free post-shift fruit and vegetables that are past their selling point.

“It’s really so cool out there, I’m having a great time,” Arjun says about the 20 hours a week he spends at the Mitte base. A student from India, he started his courier career with Wolt, the Finnish takeaway delivery company that launched in Berlin in August 2020. Wolt has grown from its launch in Helsinki in 2014 to operating in more than 170 cities across 23 countries and employing 40,000 “courier partners”. It offers workers a shorter contract than Gorillas, lasting six months, with a base hourly rate of €10 that can go up under a bonus system based on how many orders you complete and how far you cycle. According to the company, its couriers earn on average between €12 and €15 per hour.

Finding your crew

Even though the money with Wolt was higher, Arjun much prefers Gorillas. At Wolt, he rented his e-bike for €79 a month from an external company. There was a lot of time spent waiting outside on his own and his only contact with his supervisor was through an app on his phone. At Gorillas, he gets to hang out with other riders in an indoor communal area complete with tea, coffee and snacks.

“They’re not colleagues, they’re like my friends!” he says of the like-minded, young internationals who work with him, many of whom, he says, come from South America. “We communicate in English, but to be honest I should be learning Spanish!” says the law and politics student, who wears his Gorillas-branded t-shirt despite not being on shift. “It just looks cool, so I wear it all the time.” Talking up the social benefits of the job, he shows a video on his phone of a birthday celebration for his Gorillas colleague Carlos, with music blaring and a large spread of snacks and drinks. “I swear, man, even if there wasn’t any money, I’d still go,” he says cheerfully. “It’s like my home!”

As various employers jostle for pedal power, Gorillas likes to paint itself as the coolest delivery app to work for. The on-demand grocery service puts its riders “at the core of what we do”, according to its manifesto, which is peppered with buzzwords like “community” and “diversity” and even encourages use of the hashtag “#riderpride”. Gorillas offers occasional bonuses, like at Christmas or after it attained “unicorn” start-up status in late March by raising €245 million in its second round of financing, leading to a billion-dollar stock market valuation.

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The grocery delivery service Gorillas has joined a market fraught with disputes and union battles. Photo: Gorillas

An uphill climb

Delivery app workers don’t always have it this easy. Gorillas has joined a market fraught with disputes and union battles. Tensions in the booming sector boiled over during Berlin’s extreme cold snap in February, when up to 20cm of snow coated the ground and temperatures lingered far below freezing.

Workers at Lieferando, a Dutch-owned company that launched in Berlin in 2009 and has come to dominate the German market as part of the Just Eat/Takeaway.com conglomerate, were instructed by their Betriebsrat, a protected body of employees elected to represent their colleagues at company level, to sign in and report that they felt unsafe to work. The takeaway delivery app’s operations halted in the city for three days as a result. Lieferando now recognises its workers’ right to determine whether they feel safe to work, according to a company statement on its employment practices.

In the same statement, Lieferando claimed to be against hiring “gig workers”. The company offers a “comprehensive” package to its 10,000 “drivers” internationally as part of an “employment model that sets standards in the industry”. Employees get a similar six-month contract and payment structure to Wolt with a Germany-wide average wage of €12 an hour, with the rate increasing to as much as €16.50 in high-demand areas.

Lieferando’s workforce was originally offered e-bikes for free, available to collect for shifts from local ‘hubs’, but since the pandemic this has been phased out in favour of couriers renting e-bikes from external companies at monthly rates of €110, according to delivery workers who have organised themselves via the Free Workers’ Union (FAU). Lieferando says workers who choose to rent bikes are compensated for the costs.

The improved conditions that most couriers can now expect in Berlin, like secure contracts and winter protection, are a result of union action like that seen at Lieferando, according to Reza, a representative of FAU’s Deliverunion who has worked for Lieferando since late 2019. Couriering was a “relief from office work” and Reza liked being outside on a bike for a living. He found the job better than hospitality work, in which he used to work nights and be expected to do unpaid overtime. He became involved in union activity “more out of a conviction” than a complaint, he said.

Image for Gorilla warfare: Berlin’s delivery riders tell their stories

Tensions in the booming delivery sector boiled over during Berlin’s extreme cold snap in February, when up to 20cm of snow coated the ground and temperatures lingered far below freezing. Photo: IMAGO / Stefan Zeitz

Left in the cold

However, Reza’s opinion of the food delivery company has since gone down, particularly after a recent rift. While delivering orders, he received a text message from the company saying that he had been “standing in one place too long” and that he would receive a formal warning. This was due to a persistent glitch on his work app which was not updating the GPS. When he called his supervisor to explain, he was told to email the company, which responded with a copy-and-paste warning of the consequences of not working while on duty. Although the matter was later resolved, it left Reza thinking that the company did not value its couriers.

Lieferando was acquired by Takeaway.com in 2014, which merged in February 2020 with the UK-based Just Eat to form a food delivery behemoth consisting of several companies, operating under different names in different countries (but just Lieferando in Germany). The merger was controversial; the UK Competitions and Markets Authority delayed the merger until April 2020 due to concerns that it would result in “a substantial lessening of competition”.

More seasoned Berliners may also recall Foodora, which originally started in Munich in 2014 and was bought out the following year by Delivery Hero, which itself was purchased by Takeaway.com in 2018. Following the finalisation of the deal in the first half of 2019, the parent company decided to discontinue the Foodora brand and merge all businesses under Lieferando. Next, Deliveroo pulled out of the market, unable to compete with the Dutch heavyweight, leaving Lieferando with a quasi-monopoly on the Berlin market – until last year’s Wolt intrusion.

Noah, a UK expat who moved to Berlin to work in the music industry, has experienced this creeping consolidation of the market in Berlin first hand. Struggling to support him- self solely through music, he started working for Foodora in 2017 through to their merger with Lieferando in 2019. “Overall, it wasn’t a bad job except for two horrible winter months,” he says.

He was able to work there while he learned German through podcasts. The job is less social than among the rider crew of Gorillas, but not having to deal with a boss or coworkers “suited me as an introvert”, Noah says. Plus, the job was “very easy to get”.

Noah felt his job change drastically after Foodora changed hands. Gone was the start-up culture, with the offer of free yoga classes and a real-life human to talk to when you had issues. He noticed a new and cold company environment, where you could receive warning messages like the one Reza got if you were deemed to be standing around. Delivery areas increased dramatically in size, so now you could be “finishing a shift at 23:30 in Neukölln then get an order in Wedding”. The flexibility Noah had enjoyed about courier work was suddenly gone – and with it, his enthusiasm. He was not offered an e-bike when they began to be phased into the Lieferando model and when his Foodora contract expired he was not rehired.

Bicycle race

Today, the couriers of Berlin are predominantly tricolored: orange for Lieferando, blue for Wolt, and black for Gorillas. Things are set to get more colourful – and more crowded – as new companies join the market. Flink, another Berlin start-up, is positioning itself as a challenger to Gorillas, while Uber Eats has also arrived in the Hauptstadt. Meanwhile, the DAX-listed Delivery Hero is planning its return to Germany under the name Foodpanda, two years after it sold its business here.

CEO Niklas Östberg has said the company will be delivering takeaways and “everything else”, with a test phase to start this month. Amazon got the green light from regulators to take over Deliveroo in April 2020, leading to an influx in funding and plans to publicly list the company. As a result, we may soon see that teal-coloured, beleaguered brand return to Berlin’s streets.

And then there’s the grassroots offering Khora, an underdog by design. This food delivery collective was founded by former Deliveroo rider Stefano Lombardo and promises its riders better conditions as autonomous freelancers. The takeaways are more expensive with this local alternative, which has shirked investment but struggled to break out of its sparsely covered territories in Neukölln, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain as a result. Digital giants like Lieferando, Wolt and Gorillas are hardly quaking in their boots as they focus on their own battles for dominance. So it’s go big or go home in this highly competitive sector – but the legions of couriers are here to stay.