• Politics
  • Red Flag: Delivery business is booming, so why is Durstexpress firing its workers?


Red Flag: Delivery business is booming, so why is Durstexpress firing its workers?

A giant corporation making huge lockdown profits will stand down thousands of staff. Nathaniel Flakin visits a Friedrichshain demo to hear their story.

Image for Red Flag: Delivery business is booming, so why is Durstexpress firing its workers?

A giant corporation making huge profits from home delivery will stand down thousands of staff. Nathaniel Flakin visited a Friedrichshain demo to hear their story. Photo: Nathaniel Flakin

In the last year of semi-lockdowns, everyone has learned to love delivery services. From Berlin to Bamberg, if you want crates of beer or mineral water brought to your door, two of the top hits are Durstexpress and Flaschenpost. For a consumer, these two companies seem identical. But behind the scenes they rely on two very different business models, with very different working conditions.

On January 20, a press release announced that Flaschenpost would take over Durstexpress. One startup swallowing another, nothing strange in the new economy. Except that Flaschenpost is taking all Durstexpress’s customers, but not all its employees. Hundreds of workers — according to union figures up to 2,400 — have gotten Kündigungen, or pink slips.

On Thursday afternoon, up to 200 people gathered in front of Durstexpress’s headquarters in one of those chic former warehouses on the waterfront in Friedrichshain. René Rix, a driver for Durstexpress, spoke to the crowd from a stage draped in the red-white flags of the union NGG. Had they ever been inside the bosses’ den? “It’s like the Hotel Adlon,” Rix said — while his workplace in the Teilestraße in Tempelhof “doesn’t even have proper toilets.”

Delivery services are booming. One driver estimated that business shot up 300% since the initial March lockdown. Recently, Durstexpress management called its employees “heroes”. But now, Rix and 450 other workers in Berlin have been told that their employment will end on February 28. Multiple Durstexpress warehouses are closing as part of the fusion. That is why several dozen workers from Leipzig and Dresden came to Berlin for the protest. (A rally last Thursday in Leipzig drew 200 as well.) At least four members of the Bundestag showed up to offer support in Berlin — elections are not far off, after all.

Durstexpress and Flaschenpost: Two different business models

Durstexpress might seem like a plucky startup, but it was actually founded in 2016 by Dr. Oetker, which is more than a traditional family business selling pudding. The Dr. August Oetker KG is a global conglomerate with with 400 companies and €7.4 billion in revenue. It controls the Radeberger breweries, among many other things, and still technically qualifies as a Familienbetrieb, as it’s privately held.

Flaschenpost, in contrast, is an actual startup, founded in 2016 in Münster. (Its name, by the way, plays on the German word for a “message in a bottle.”) It appears the Oetker consortium built Durstexpress to compete with Flaschenpost, but eventually gave up. At the end of last year, Oetker shelled out almost a €1 billion to buy the competition. Now Oetker is fusing its own company into its former competitor.

But then why not keep all of Durstexpress’s employees? A quick search shows that  Flaschenpost is currently hiring in Berlin. But Durstexpress offered employees traditional working conditions, where Flaschenpost relies on a startup ethos. 

Had they ever been inside the bosses’ den? It’s like the Hotel Adlon. A workplace in the Teilestraße in Tempelhof “doesn’t even have proper toilets.”

Durstexpress employees explained at the rally that they have contracts with a fixed number of hours per week. The competitor only guarantees a minimum and maximum number of hours. This is the kind of “flexibility” that the new economy loves. And Flaschenpost appears to copy Amazon’s panopticon, with a computer monitoring employees every second and keeping a record of when they go to the bathroom. 

No wonder Flaschenpost beat out the competition. It sounds very “efficient,” combining Taylorism with Big Brother. So it’s unsurprising that the company wants to get rid of the old Durstexpress employment contracts. They keep the option of rehiring the same workers with much worse conditions.

Flaschenpost workers were also at the rally yesterday, expressing solidarity. Next week, workers in Berlin are trying to found the first Betriebsrat or works council in the company’s history, and get some modicum of control over their workplace.

Dr. Oetker: A merciless approach

Christoph Geznel, a worker who had come from Leipzig, was calling on his colleagues to “turn despair into a determination to fight.” He has worked for Durstepxress for one and a half years, carrying a beverage crate up four flights of stairs, dozens of times a day. In German this is called Knochenarbeit or “bone work.”

He had always been told that his job was secure, so the pink slip arrived like a bolt from the blue. He was always employed by an Oetker company, so it’s not even like the owners changed. And if those owners don’t want to play fair, Christoph promised that he and his colleagues would “fight mercilessly” and “until the last day.”

A huge corporation that has made enormous profits during the pandemic, throwing thousands of workers onto the street so they can implement worse working conditions. So much for a family business.

Red Flag is a weekly political column by Nathaniel Flakin.