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Bolt Food couriers on strike in Tbilisi

24 March 2021
Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media.

On Wednesday, Tbilisi witnessed another protest by food delivery drivers unhappy over conditions in the increasingly expanding convenience services in Georgia.

On 24 March, several dozens of couriers from Bolt Food gathered near the Sports Palace in Tbilisi demanding increased pay. Some also called on the company to reinstate couriers that they alleged had been suspended for speaking out against their work conditions. 

Bolt Food, part of the larger Bolt company which also runs a taxi service, employs several hundred couriers in Georgia.

Davit Sikharulidze, 24, who joined Bolt Food when it launched in Georgia in December, told OC Media he was fired after being active in articulating demands and organising protests. Other couriers also reported that the company blocked them from the Bolt Food app without warning and began hiring replacements instead of responding to their grievances.

It is unclear how much Bolt Food pays drivers. Several told OC Media that the payments they received per delivery had dropped to ₾3–₾4 ($0.90–$1.20) since the service launched. One said they received ‘at least ₾4’ and an additional ₾0.40 ($0.12) per kilometre travelled for long-distance deliveries.

According to Sikharulidze, this previously stood at ₾7–₾8 ($2.10–$2.40). He said couriers had expected this to reduce following the initial launch of the service, but not to such an extent.

Several couriers said that even when they were at work for an entire day, this could result in only one or two orders in a day. They called on the company to balance this with some form of payment for hours worked. 

In a list of demands lodged to Bolt Food on Tuesday, the drivers also demanded that their remuneration include distance covered to reach food pick-up locations.

‘Sometimes it’s longer than the rest of the journey to deliver [the food] to a consumer’, Sikharulidze said.

In a statement to OC Media, Bolt Food said that in the past few days, ‘some partner couriers stated their unhappiness with the terms of their partnership with Bolt Food’.

‘During these days, we have also identified organised activities by the same group that have disrupted our service and work of other partner couriers. In response, the accounts of such couriers were suspended from the platform. The company will not tolerate any kind of organised violent actions against its active partners, which interfere with business operations of Bolt Food, or the partner restaurants.’

The company declined to comment further on what kind of violent incident or incidents they were referring to.

Bolt Food also highlighted that couriers were not employed in the company under an employment contract, and that details of payments were regulated under a ‘partnership agreement’.

‘For courier partners, the minimum guaranteed pay for each delivery is 50% more than in other delivery services on the market’, the statement said.

‘Partner couriers are free to choose if and when to work on Bolt Food platform’

Bolt, formerly known as Taxify, are based in Tallinn, Estonia, and claim to have operations in 40 countries. 

Striking ‘partners’

The ‘strike’ by Bolt Food couriers was announced on 23 March. Legally, they represent contracted service providers, or ‘partners’, that remain outside the recently enhanced labour protections in Georgia.

While some ‘independent contractors’ are attracted by a flexible work schedule instead of full-time or part-time fixed hours, in most countries, including Georgia, they are not covered with regular benefits like paid leave, health insurance, overtime pay, or protections against workplace discrimination that are usually enjoyed by employees. Critics say this leaves them more vulnerable to exploitation, including worsening contracts.

According to Giga Bekauri, the youth leader at the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC), which has supported the Bolt Food couriers, Georgian delivery service workers were currently self-organising to form a consolidated union specifically dealing with their labour problems.

Davit Sikharulidze, who originally attempted to start an independent local union, told OC Media that the protest was ‘part of the global struggle underway in the delivery sector’. 

‘We have cases where Uber taxi drivers fought their court case in the UK, we have the victory of Glovo [courriers] in Spain… the alternative is companies getting rich at the expense of these boys being out on the streets for the whole day for pennies’.

In February, the UK Supreme Court issued a landmark judgement in favour of Uber drivers, forcing the company to treat them as employees and entitling them to the minimum wage and paid holidays.

Wednesday’s protest by Bolt Food couriers followed an earlier demonstration of drivers of another on-demand food delivery platform, Glovo, in Tbilisi on 29 January. 

Such drivers, who are overwhelmingly young, represent a new category of the urban workforce that are increasingly being hired in an expanding gig economy in Georgia. The companies have seen a boost in business during the pandemic, which caused both layoffs in other industries as well as higher demand for delivery services.

[Read from our partners at oDR: In Tbilisi, delivery drivers learn their power lies in stopping work]

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