Migrants Under New EU Directive in Germany

Jan, a seasoned food delivery courier with over four years of service at Lieferando, has reached a tipping point. Frustrated with the platform’s persistent low pay, capped at a meager 12.6 euros per hour, he takes to social media to voice a stark reality:

‘Dear good people and colleagues, it’s time to face the truth. Lieferando’s bonus system won’t change on its own. My years here have shown me their consistent disregard for our well-being. It’s a cycle they’ll continue until they vanish from the market.’

Their call to action ignites a wave of solidarity among fellow couriers, sparking discussions on the possibility of collective action to demand fair compensation.

Jan’s plight resonates within a vibrant community of couriers, who, fueled by shared grievances and aspirations, have self-organized on various social media platforms. This digital congregation, bolstered by the support of trade union representatives from NGG, becomes a bastion of self-governance and mutual aid. Through my research into the governance of digital labor platforms in Germany, I’ve observed how these online forums serve as crucial hubs for couriers. Here, they exchange information, offer support, and mobilize for change, challenging the precarious working conditions imposed by platforms like Lieferando and Wolt.

Lieferando workers are increasingly vocal against the platform’s questionable practices, which clash with German labor laws. This newfound assertiveness is spurred by strike calls and the advocacy of union representatives and engaged employees. Florian voices concerns over Germany’s restrictive strike laws, noting, “Unlike other countries, the right to strike in Germany is limited, with political strikes prohibited and others permissible solely within collective bargaining contexts.” This limitation has led to the rise of social media as a vital tool for couriers, offering a platform for unmediated, spontaneous organization. Without collective bargaining protections, these digital forums become crucial for initiating grassroots actions against unfair labor practices on platforms.

What do couriers have in common? They’re all migrants, earning minimum wage in Germany. With the EU Directive adopted on March 11, 2024, platform workers now have a chance to secure better working conditions. Initially, Germany was hesitant to adopt this Directive, but now platform workers might see a future with enhanced labor protection. In the hopeful scenario of regulating platform work across Europe, it’s clear that ensuring inclusive access to the labor market for migrant workers remains a challenge. Given the dominance of platform companies in the European market, especially in delivery and transport, over the last decade, it’s crucial to prioritize the migration background of platform workers. This should be a fundamental principle of future platform cooperativism in the food delivery sector, reflecting the ongoing debates about the power these companies wield.

One can already observe the dominance of large labor platforms in the food delivery sector, creating new forms of work that often exploit vulnerable people. Migrant workers are essential to the operation of these food delivery platforms. Regardless of current EU regulations, the platform economy heavily relies on the affordable labor of both EU and non-EU migrants, minorities, and low-skilled workers. The flexibility and minimal administrative requirements of platform work allow these workers to make a living while staying active in the labor market. However, they often encounter language barriers that hinder their ability to claim their rights, limiting their capacity to organize, stand in solidarity with peers, or directly confront the platforms. Despite facing significant obstacles to integration into the labor market, platform work remains a vital income source for many migrants who are blocked from traditional employment options, such as full-time contracts or back-office positions. While it offers them a temporary job, the absence of viable alternatives leaves them susceptible to precarious living conditions.

The majority of migrant workers in the food delivery sector operate independently, waiting for food orders and delivering them to customers. They often belong to a larger community of couriers who frequently switch jobs or work for multiple platforms simultaneously. For example, Sadir, a courier I interviewed, worked for Lieferando for four years while also seeking additional income from Wolt. Despite not having immediate face-to-face interactions or direct oversight from a specific individual, they still find ways to communicate with their colleagues through online channels like Facebook groups or informal WhatsApp chats. The question arises: can secure online communication via social media platforms serve as a pillar of digital solidarity, facilitating self-organization, self-representation, and a cooperative movement?

However, with the new EU Directive, there is an expectation for couriers to unite and collectively represent themselves to negotiate their professional status, bonuses, and earnings within a legal framework. A potential solution may lie in self-organized and online-driven actions that could bring about changes in their labor rights. Solidarity, as a cooperative principle, can ensure shared values among migrant and non-migrant workers and a commitment to protecting their labor rights. Future platform cooperative principles in the food delivery sector can draw on lessons learned from previous research experiences on solidarity and union activism. Self-organized actions on social media platforms provide a unique tool for couriers to communicate in their native language, aided by automatic language translation tools available on these platforms. Social media has the potential to bridge the language gap and unite couriers.

While the new Directive aimed at enhancing the working conditions of platform workers represents a step forward in improving the welfare of migrants in precarious situations, it doesn’t automatically ensure greater social protections for the most low-skilled workers with migrant backgrounds. A clear example can be seen in the situation of migrants in Germany, who face challenges navigating the country’s regulations and bureaucratic procedures due to their lack of familiarity with them. Despite the concentration of migrants in Germany’s major cities, those who lack proficiency in the German language encounter more obstacles in seeking employment beyond the digital platform labor market compared to their native colleagues. Inclusive platform governance alone cannot address the legal and social impediments faced by migrant platform workers. Local authorities must take many steps to safeguard unregistered workers. Communication can be challenging for platform workers who do not speak the host country’s language, making it difficult to establish further cooperation and communication outside the online setting. As workers are drawn to the flexible work arrangements of delivery platforms, which give them a sense of control over their work, they heavily rely on multilingual apps to accept work, resulting in long-term dependence on these apps to earn a decent living.

The intersection of migration backgrounds and algorithmic management regulation is particularly pronounced in the context of food delivery couriers. These workers, often low-skilled and subject to precarious income, are highly vulnerable to the arbitrary practices associated with algorithmic management. Due to their limited technological proficiency, low-skilled workers struggle to navigate the algorithmic decision-making systems employed by labor platforms. In such cases, algorithmic design may exacerbate their exploitation, perpetuate unfair treatment, and contribute to feelings of insecurity. Effective platform governance is crucial for establishing dignified labor standards, especially for migrant workers who may have limited technological proficiency.

The proposed regulatory changes outlined in the Directive carry significant weight in governing the algorithmic decision-making processes of labor platforms. However, additional measures are needed to address the transparency gaps and ensure non-discrimination in algorithmic management. It’s important to recognize that digital platforms serve as intermediaries in a multifaceted market, involving clients, service providers, and advertisers, facilitating a range of social and economic interactions. These platforms operate as businesses increasingly reliant on algorithmic decision-making, information technology, and personal data to drive their profitability. For instance, platforms like Wolt or Lieferando function not only as digital platforms but also as business entities and labor organizations simultaneously.

The dominance of delivery platforms has a profound impact on workers’ lives, from frequent shifts in control and performance measurement to the reproduction of algorithms and techniques. This reality affects the well-being of all workers, regardless of their ability to influence their working conditions. The pressures of expedited delivery, tight schedules, and the pursuit of extra income and bonuses often lead to psychosocial stress, income unpredictability, and discriminatory practices—all exacerbated by algorithmic management.

An example of this impact is illustrated in a question innocently posed by Marco in a Lieferando social media group:

Have you ever suffered xenophobia or prejudice in the street while being at work?

Responses from fellow couriers flooded in, revealing a disturbing trend:

Sure! Several times, not only once and not only Germans, but most of them were Germans. I had luck that I was not beaten up on one of those occasions… (..)!

The EU regulatory framework offers guidelines that have the potential to benefit millions of workers in the platform economy by affording them employment status and social protection. In envisioning a fairer future for platform cooperatives, it’s crucial to consider several factors, including the inclusion of migrant backgrounds as a guiding principle. Social media platforms can play a pivotal role in fostering ad-hoc meetings and cooperation, facilitating solidarity and collective representation among migrant workers.

While the EU Directive regulations can serve as a foundational step for legal guidance in platform cooperativism, it’s imperative to acknowledge that further actions are necessary to ensure that migrants have access to decent living standards and equitable working conditions. This includes initiatives aimed at facilitating their social integration into host countries and enhancing their skill development opportunities.

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