No Longer Taken for a Ride in Ghana

Picket line at Easter Strike. Photo by Adotey Hoffman. Licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.

Emerging Front of Gig Workers’ Organizing in Ghana

In the streets of Accra, Ghana’s capital, a new force is taking shape: the BF Couriers Association. Emerging from a dire need to challenge exploitation in the gig economy, this collective of tenacious couriers is reshaping the labor rights landscape, forging new unity. Couriers operate independently—they each have a bike and use an app to receive orders, which means they don’t rely on each other to complete their work. However, without a solid foundation, an engaged and proactive membership, a culture of learning, clear democratic values, and a healthy internal democracy, the group can easily be influenced by prevailing practices that threaten its stability.

To safeguard its future, the group is actively establishing a strong political direction and cultivating a robust democratic culture, essential components for enduring success. Most members of the BF Couriers Association (BFCA) are gig workers employed by Bolt Food, Ghana’s largest food delivery service. While their operations are primarily concentrated in Accra, the capital city where Bolt Food operates, the company’s ride-hailing services extend to other cities across Ghana.

The BF Couriers Association in Accra is structured into 10 zones, each comprising over 10 specific areas where couriers convene to receive orders. This organizational setup facilitates efficient operations and community building among couriers. To govern these zones, the association has established an Executive Council, with each zone electing three representatives to this body. The council’s responsibilities are multifaceted, including organizing local elections, negotiating fair wages, and promoting the safety and welfare of its members. Furthermore, the council ensures that the association’s operations are conducted with integrity and transparency, maintaining a steadfast commitment to equality for all members, regardless of socio-economic background, gender, age, race, or other factors.

Couriers are facing a steady decline in earnings, while restaurants are abandoning food delivery apps due to high fees, which particularly affects small eateries and startups that struggle to sustain themselves on these platforms. This restriction has stifled the growth of new businesses, and as earnings diminish, couriers find themselves working increasingly harder amidst growing competition. Despite this, the profits of delivery giants like Bolt Food and Yango continue to climb, largely driven by exploitative practices. The lack of transparency in payment calculations adds to the uncertainty, leaving couriers unsure of their actual earnings per delivery.

Bolt Food has introduced “batch orders,” allowing couriers to deliver two orders simultaneously, but they are only compensated for the journey from the first to the second destination, while each customer pays for the entire route from start to finish. This system is predicted to expand, potentially increasing to three or four orders per trip to boost company profits further. Additionally, many couriers report experiencing wage theft, receiving less than the initial amount quoted by the app. Despite their significant personal investments in motorbikes, fuel, and maintenance, couriers are pressured to work longer hours to prevent their earnings from plummeting, leading to widespread exhaustion.

The three-day Easter strike

The BF Couriers Association (BFCA) organized a pivotal three-day strike from March 29 – 31, 2024, driven by pressing concerns over diminishing earnings and the lack of a transparent payment structure. As Bolt Food continues to introduce new services and policies, couriers have noticed a troubling trend: their earnings decrease even as the company’s growth accelerates. Despite Bolt’s recognition as the most innovative Food Delivery Company at the National Innovation Awards, twice consecutively, the couriers—the very backbone of the company—are forced to work increasingly longer hours to counteract their falling earnings.

Equally important, the couriers voiced frustrations over Bolt’s autocratic decision-making process, which often excludes them from significant corporate decisions directly impacting their work and livelihoods. A prime example raised during the strike was the introduction of “batch orders.” While this policy boosts profits for Bolt, it complicates the earnings structure for couriers and increases uncertainty about payment calculations, exacerbating the challenges they face with each delivery.

Couriers who join these mobility companies are required to make significant financial investments as a basic condition of employment. This includes purchasing a motorbike, obtaining a license, securing insurance, and ensuring the bike is roadworthy, among other expenses. These upfront costs mean that couriers must bear a considerable portion of the investment risk and responsibilities that would typically belong to the delivery companies. Once they own their bikes, couriers are also responsible for ongoing costs such as maintenance and fuel, which are particularly burdensome given the rising fuel prices in Ghana.

In addition, under Ghanaian law, every worker employed by a company is entitled to retirement benefits. However, with the advent of app-based courier services, many gig workers find themselves excluded from these benefits. The gig economy has shifted the burden of investment onto the workers themselves, who must provide the essential tools for their jobs. Despite their substantial contributions to the growth of these companies, gig workers are denied the retirement benefits afforded to traditional employees, underscoring a significant disparity in how labor contributions are valued in the evolving landscape of work.

Riders face significant unpaid downtime as they are not compensated for the time spent waiting for orders, which often exceeds the time it takes to deliver those orders. This results in riders not earning anything during these periods of inactivity, despite being ready and available to work. The recent strike highlighted this issue and emphasized the need for a more democratic system within the courier community and between the couriers and Bolt Food. The strikers called for an inclusive decision-making process, where couriers have a say in critical policies that affect their livelihoods.

Currently, Bolt Food unilaterally controls decisions regarding the earnings scheme and the disciplinary measures, such as the blocking and unblocking of couriers from their platform, often without clear justification or input from the couriers themselves. This practice was a central grievance during the strike, as couriers demanded transparency and a voice in the decisions that directly impact their working conditions and income.

Glovo has exited the Ghanaian market

Glovo, once a leading player in Ghana’s delivery market, officially withdrew from the scene on May 10, 2024, citing dwindling profitability. This departure leaves Bolt and Yango as the predominant forces vying for market dominance. Glovo’s exit not only marks a shift in the competitive landscape but also results in significant job losses—approximately 30 direct staff members and hundreds of riders have been affected. Over the past four years, these workers have experienced a steady decline in earnings, exacerbated by inflation and substandard working conditions. This has forced them to endure longer hours just to manage the decreasing wages.

The departure of Glovo has also led to an increase in the surplus of riders, intensifying competition and tension among them. This oversupply offers an advantage to the remaining companies, which can now capitalize on the abundance of riders willing to accept lower pay as others opt out or disconnect from the platforms.

Furthermore, the persistent high unemployment rate, which reached 14.7 percent in early 2023, compounds this issue. With the number of unemployed youths in Accra swelling from 1.2 million to 1.3 million, these individuals, desperate for income, are more likely to accept whatever terms the delivery companies propose. This scenario fuels a cycle of oversupply, ensuring that delivery operations continue uninterrupted despite the challenging conditions. This dynamic underscores the complex interplay between economic forces and labor conditions within Ghana’s gig economy.

The call for better earnings among gig workers is growing louder, yet the challenge of mobilizing these precarious workers remains daunting. Without collective action, these riders risk further erosion of their earnings, jeopardizing their livelihoods and futures. This precariousness underscores the complex environment in which the BF Couriers Association operates, highlighting the significant and hard-fought gains they have achieved.

The association’s political maturation is evident in the innovative tactics they have employed throughout their struggles. These include organizing pickets in front of restaurants and leveraging social media to disseminate updates and engage the public during strikes. Such actions not only demonstrate their resilience but also their commitment to forging a path toward improved conditions and greater influence in the gig economy.

The BF Couriers Association has also made significant strides in building alliances beyond their immediate industry. They have actively sought to connect with workers in restaurants and food outlets, as well as engaging customers and the public for support and solidarity. High-profile endorsements from artists like Wanluv the Kubolor and engagement with social justice movements like #FixTheCountry have bolstered their cause. This proactive outreach has been complemented by ongoing collaborations with groups such as the Waste Pickers Group through various Workers Assemblies. These efforts vividly illustrate that solidarity, education, and positive publicity aren’t just supportive—they’re the lifeblood of our association’s continuing growth and impact.

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