Wolt couriers in Tbilisi go on strike

Wolt couriers in Tbilisi go on strike
Wolt couriers gathered in front of the company's local office in Tbilisi. / bne IntelliNews
By Mack Tubridy in Tbilisi February 7, 2023
On a typical Sunday afternoon, relative calm resides over Chavchavadze avenue in Tbilisi's elite Vake neighbourhood, as people stroll along the wide, tree-lined sidewalks and pop in and out of boutique shops. 
But on Sunday, February 5, the main street was flooded by a long convoy of honking scooters and motorcycles driven by Wolt couriers, who are highly visible because of their electric blue jackets and cube-shaped backpacks. 
Just days earlier, Georgian couriers for the Helsinki-based food delivery company declared a strike. They demand higher wages and changes to how Wolt measures delivery distance. But another source of workers' ire was the recent announcement by the company of a new remuneration system, which the couriers insist will lead to decreased earnings. 
Striking couriers first gathered across from Rustaveli metro station in the city centre. Then they rode to Tbilisi State University's library to show solidarity with taxi drivers, who on the same day were also protesting for better work conditions. Their final rallying point was outside Wolt Georgia's headquarters in the Vake neighbourhood.
In front of the company's local office the striking couriers stood scattered in groups, laughing, smoking, and some played games on their phones. A throng amassed next to a nearby convenience store, where couriers bought coffee and sandwiches. 
Wolt delivery workers are not unionised. Those involved in the strike said they coordinated their action through a closed Facebook group.
Among the couriers present at the Sunday action was Vasili Demetradze, who told bne IntelliNews that he started delivering for Wolt after the bar where he used to work was closed because of COVID-19 restrictions.
"My wages at Wolt were fine before. It was also nice to choose my own work schedule. But last year my wages never went up, and rent prices have doubled. Everything has gotten more expensive," said Demetradze. 
The cost of living in Tbilisi has risen dramatically over the past year, largely due to an influx of around 100,000 Russians fleeing the effects of war and mobilisation. Rent prices in Georgia's capital city were up more than 103% y/y as of December 2022, according to an analysis by TBC Capital
Demetradze said he earns on average GEL 2.50 per order, or just under one dollar. With these kinds of wages, he barely manages to cover his monthly living expenses. Demetradze added that he would unlikely be able to afford the cost of fixing the scooter he uses for making deliveries were it to need repairs.
As with many gig economy workers, the couriers are not directly employed by Wolt. Instead, they are self-employed "partners," as the company calls them. This means they do not receive the same kind of labour protections usually granted to workers in Georgia. It also means there are no formal channels through which to collectively negotiate better work conditions with Wolt. 
The Tbilisi strike came less than a week after hundreds of Wolt couriers in Prague launched a one-day strike in response to the recent changes in how the company calculates payment for deliveries. According to those workers, the changes will lead to a 20% reduction in wages. 
So far this year, Wolt couriers in Finland and Israel have also organised strikes. In 2022, similar actions were organised in Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Denmark, and Malta.
The February 5 strike is not the first of its kind in Georgia. Around 100 couriers for the delivery service Glovo launched a strike in March 2021 after the company abolished reimbursement for the distance couriers travel to reach a restaurant or store. At the time, the striking couriers pledged to form a union for gig economy workers. 
Demetradze remembered past talks of organising a union, an idea that never materialised.
"I'm not sure what happened with all of that. People were interested. But today I see that there's solidarity among us. That's for sure," he said. 
Wolt Georgia said in a statement sent to bne IntelliNews that the company "respects the right of partner couriers to peacefully express their protest. However, the aggressive and offensive form that yesterday's protest turned into is completely unacceptable to us."
The company added that only "a small group of partner couriers" participated in the strike, claiming they used "physical and psychological pressure" against workers who did not want to participate. 
"We encourage everyone to have a constructive dialogue, and the management is ready to listen to all the issues that concern our partner couriers in a dialogue format," said the company. 
Wolt did not specify what behaviour exhibited by striking couriers on February 5 it considered "aggressive" and "offensive."
Regarding workers' demands for better pay, Wolt argued that the new remuneration system "will more fairly calculate the amount of delivery compensation based on performance efforts, which will positively affect the earnings of partner couriers."
In response, workers announced another strike for February 15, to take place in front of Georgia's Public Defender's office in Tbilisi. They are also threatening Wolt with legal action. 
Wolt was founded in 2014 in Finland and today operates in 27 countries. Last year, the U.S. food delivery company DoorDash acquired Wolt for $3.5bln.

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