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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Sky-High Gas Prices Push Europe’s Gig Workers to Strike

A year ago, Anna (not her real name) would spend eight hours a day driving for food delivery platforms Just Eat and Deliveroo to earn £150 ($200 USD) a day in her home city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Now to get close to that figure, Anna says she has to work 12-hour days. That’s before she subtracts tax, insurance, and fuel out of her earnings.

Like many platform workers, Anna—who asked that we not use her real name because she’s worried Just Eat could terminate her account—says she is trapped between pay cuts made by delivery platforms, increased competition for jobs, and the rising cost of fuel. Anna relies on diesel, which spiked this month to a UK record of £1.79 per liter ($8.95 per gallon), partly in response to the war in Ukraine. 

“The increase of fuel and all living costs have just gone through the roof,” she says. “During this time, Just Eat has dropped their prices, and it's just not right.”

Platform workers who say their wages are being eroded by rising costs are going on strike this week. Anna is planning to join other Just Eat, Deliveroo, and Uber drivers to take part in a six-hour strike in Belfast on Wednesday, organized by the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU). “We're just trying to get the price back up to somewhere where we're not working on a loss,” she says.

The ADCU claims Just Eat has slashed its fees by 25 percent, a figure Just Eat disputes, although the company has provided no alternative number. That pay cut brings its fees in line with the “already abysmally low” rate paid by other companies operating in the city, including Deliveroo, according to the union. Deliveroo declined to comment on the impact of rising fuel prices on its workers’ earnings.

Similar grievances among Just Eat workers are not only being raised in Belfast, where the company only uses self-employed couriers—they follow other protests already taking place across the UK. In March, Just Eat drivers in the southern English region of Kent also went on strike, demanding higher wages to compensate for soaring fuel prices. Just Eat and Deliveroo drivers held several strikes in another town in the eastern English region of Essex.

“Everything is going up, but the amount they are paying us is decreasing, and they are hiring more people, so it is becoming oversaturated, and there are not enough jobs,” Just Eat driver Jimmy Zane told local news.

The fuel crisis is sparking protests in another important European market for the gig economy: Germany. Workers for the Just Eat subsidiary Lieferando also went on strike on Tuesday in response to rising fuel costs. "Lieferando pays above-average mileage allowances with 30 cents per kilometer, which is the highest possible amount for tax-free payments,” says Nora Walraph, a spokesperson for the company. But this amount is no longer enough, according to Oğuz Alyanak, the lead Germany researcher for the Fairwork Foundation, a group that scores labor practices at platform companies. “With the increasing gas prices, this is now untenable,” he says. “This is way below the accumulating costs for a lot of the workers.”

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Fuel prices have spiked in tandem with the cost of crude oil. During the pandemic, demand for crude collapsed, pushing prices down. But as life around the world has returned to normal, oil markets strained to meet demand, prompting prices to jump. In January 2022, the price of a liter of diesel at the pump was £1.77, a 47 percent increase compared to a year earlier, according to British insurance company the RAC. Petrol was also up 42 percent. The fallout from the war in Ukraine has made the situation worse, as countries including the UK rush to cut ties with Russia, one of the world’s largest oil exporters. On Monday, UK fuel prices peaked at new records.

Food delivery companies are not the only platforms affected. “I have to work an extra five hours a week to make up for the fuel rise,” says Abdurzak Hadi, who has been driving for Uber in London since 2014 and is also a member of the ADCU union. Uber spokesperson Matt Keirle says, “We know rising fuel prices are a challenge, and we’re actively considering how we can support drivers.”

But Uber is responding differently to fuel prices spiking in different markets. In the US, the company announced on March 16 it would charge passengers an extra fee of $0.45 or $0.55 per trip and claimed 100 percent of that money would go directly to drivers. In France, the company said it is tweaking the fare structure to increase the base fare. But in the UK, Uber told WIRED, it is still considering its options, asserting that driver earnings in the country are at an all-time high and that the increase in earnings is higher than the increase in fuel.

Hadi, however, disputes this. “My earnings are the same as last year,” he says. “But my expenses have gone up, and Uber is not covering that.” After expenses, Hadi claims he earns under £8 ($10.61) an hour, below the UK’s £8.91 ($11.81) minimum. “They are under an obligation to make sure I earn minimum wage after expenses,” he says, referring to the UK Supreme Court decision in February last year that ruled Uber drivers were entitled to the minimum wage. After that ruling, Uber said in March 2021 that drivers would be entitled to the National Living Wage of £8.72 ($11.55) an hour, although that number is rising in April to £9.50 ($12.60).

The result of the spike in fuel prices means drivers are working longer and longer hours to compensate for the rise in expenses.

Until last week, Anna says, she was working shifts that lasted from noon to midnight. “You're just burning yourself out, you're working these hours to get a decent wage, and it's just not sustainable,” she says. Last week Anna says she made the decision to cut her hours to part-time only, even though she was trying to save for a mortgage. “To tell you the truth, I'm completely burned out. I can't do it anymore.”

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