The latest of the ongoing worker strikes in Turkey in the fast delivery sector has entered its third day on Thursday as gig couriers working for the online food and fast delivery application Yemeksepeti resumed their walkout over a low pay raise proposal with record inflation levels affecting the country's employees.
A convoy of hundreds of pink-clad delivery bikers working for Yemeksepeti and its affiliated fast delivery app Banabi rode through Istanbul's pouring rain, blaring horns and waving to supportive drivers as they drove their pink motorcycles in busy traffic to gather in front of the company's headquarters in the Şişli district.
For the third day in a row, couriers are braving the cold weather to resume their protest and sit-in. They shouted slogans and lit flares, demanding the company revise its 32.8% pay raise offer.
According to figures released by the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) on Thursday, the country's annual inflation rate hit 48.7%, its highest level since April 2002. This figure was significantly higher than in December when consumer prices also surged by 36.1%. The sharp rise in inflation coincides with the global rise in prices throughout the world as a side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to skyrocketing energy prices and the depreciation of the Turkish lira by nearly 40% in 2021.
Hailed as heroes at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, gig couriers helped millions stuck at home during lockdowns while keeping the economy running, leading to a boom in online delivery platforms and their business volumes. However, their working conditions and lax regulations remain in constant debate in Turkey, with dozens of couriers killed or injured in accidents under the stress of timely deliveries expected by customers and mandated by businesses. A significant portion of their income also depends on pay per delivery and tips, forcing couriers to work long hours.
The rise in fuel prices especially hit contracted couriers, also known as artisan couriers or gig couriers, who are basically self-employed and are expected to cover everything by themselves, from their uniforms to social security premiums. In addition to registered gig couriers, which are believed to have reached 20,000 in Istanbul alone, there are also hundreds if not thousands of couriers in large cities who are of a migrant background, employed by smaller shops and restaurants accessible through online platforms including Yemeksepeti. It is not clear whether they are in the country illegally, have proper licenses or are covered by any social security or insurance.
Ali Rıza Küçükosmanoğlu, the chairperson of logistics workers trade union Nakliyat-Iş whose members arrived at the scene to support the protest, told reporters that couriers throughout Turkey have been joining the strike to support their fellow laborers. "Today, there are protests and press releases in Ankara, Eskişehir and Izmir. There are also protests in Antalya. Our colleagues from Adana, Bursa and depots from various other regions, display their inclusion in this resistance one way or another. They either turn their engines off or launch slowdowns," he said.
Following the press release, four representatives from the protesters entered the company building to meet with company officials.
Küçükosmanoğlu had stated earlier that the company fixed its pay raise to the 50.4% minimum wage increase announced by the government. "There is no wage increase here apart from the legally-mandated minimum wage setting. The wage policy applied here for years was always at least 20%, 30% higher than the minimum wage. When the minimum wage was increased by 50.4%, the company declared it as its own increase of 30%," he said.
The strikes have been growing in a chain reaction since last week when workers at Chinese Alibaba-owned online shopping platform Trendyol managed to get a nearly 40% salary raise.
Several couriers from rival firms, including Hepsiburada and the three largest cargo and courier companies, halted work to hit the roads with their motorcycles and called on locals to boycott these firms.
The strikes also underline Turkey's growing youth unemployment problem, Küçükosmanoğlu told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) by phone, adding there are as many as 30,000 couriers who work as independent delivery contractors in Turkey.
"The majority of these people are university graduates, who can speak two or three languages, but can't find a proper job," he said and added a nearly 50% minimum wage hike is not enough to meet basic needs and pay the bills. Turkish youth unemployment was above 22% in November, according to official figures.
Most couriers are also not covered by social security or health insurance while they "work day and night" to meet online order volumes that have gone through the roof since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, he added.
Some companies threatened to fire striking workers but they are defying intimidations, Küçükosmanoğlu said and added that no one was fired so far, also thanks to solidarity from society and on social media.
Courier Mustafa Korkmaz told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Wednesday that the company, for which they worked so hard for it to attain its current prestige, had not provided any contacts to listen to their demands.
"We want TL 5,500 ($407) net pay and pay per parcel, and we want it in accordance with the overall courier market. The company keeps on announcing that its value has increased but offers us the minimum wage (TL 4,500). This is as if telling us that 'we are getting by over your back.' This a culmination of yearslong issues," Korkmaz said.
One courier, who went into the company headquarters on Wednesday but left soon after, told Ihlas News Agency (IHA) that company officials said that they were working remotely due to the pandemic and there was no one to speak to. "Now we are waiting to hear on our demand to have an online meeting," the courier said.
Another courier stated that the company does not care about the safety of its employees. "Yemek Sepeti offers us the minimum wage and tells us, for example, to make TL 6,000, TL 7,000 per month, we have to distribute 1,000 units of parcels. To carry 1,000 parcels, we have to ignore traffic rules, driving at 100 kph on this avenue among cars. And this is putting our lives in danger.
"When we call for our rights, they tell us 'we are a big company, what rights you are looking for?' When it comes to working, they set Europe as an example, but for wages, they point to hunger-stricken people in Africa.
"We barely make ends meet. I have no savings. After paying the bills, the rent, food expenses and my child's expenses, I don't even have a penny in my pocket at the end of the month," said courier Sinan Inan, who has been with the company for almost a year and said he works up to 12 hours a day.
Yemeksepeti declined to comment to Reuters on the strike.
The company was Turkey's first online food deliverer when it launched in 2001, and now has more than 27 million users and more than 60,000 member restaurants. In 2015 it was bought by the German-based Delivery Hero.
Yemeksepeti is usually praised for customer satisfaction and convenience, support for social issues and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and is noted in the country for its work environment.
However, the company also faces frequent accusations of charging hefty commissions from affiliated businesses, unfair competition, monopolization and deployment of misleading promotions for customers.