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Europe Went Bananas for Gorillas. Then Its Workers Rose Up

The CEO and cofounder of grocery app Gorillas looked nervous as he shifted on the spot. It was June 28 and Kağan Sümer was facing a crowd of riders protesting about missing salaries and injuries they claimed were caused by hauling heavy bags of booze around Berlin. Sümer tried to find common ground with protesters, but was met with a pantomime groan when he pointed to a bike tattooed on his arm to prove he was “a rider at heart.” When he tried to say he supported the protest—“I like that you’re fighting for your rights”—a voice from the crowd shot back: “You have to give people their rights, they shouldn’t have to fight for them.”

It shouldn’t have come to this. Founded in May 2020, Gorillas, part of a new wave of gig economy startups delivering groceries in minutes, had claimed to be on a mission to rethink a broken business model. While courts in Spain and Italy were ordering other delivery apps to make their riders employees, Gorillas did just that from day one. Gorillas also tried to establish a type of corporate social mobility so riders could, if they wished, be promoted into its head office. The rider uniform, all black with minimal branding, was also a departure from the garish outfits produced by rival firms. “Every rider should be proud to be part of the crew—that’s why we provide the best and most stylish apparel,” Gorillas claims on its website.

Riders, however, say these efforts are superficial. Internationally the company, which is yet to turn a profit, has made headlines for reaching a valuation of $1 billion in just nine months, a record for a German startup. But in its home city of Berlin, Gorillas’ reputation tanked as the relationship between management and riders broke down. Throughout 2021, rider complaints about working conditions turned into strikes, protests, and blockades outside the company’s warehouses and offices.

Against this backdrop, Sümer’s efforts to present himself as one of the “crew” infuriated protesters. “In a family of flat hierarchies, there’s no clear relation between a boss and a worker,” says Yonatan Miller, cofounder of the Berlin Tech Workers Coalition, a group that helps tech workers in the city organize. Instead, he argues, blurred power structures such as those found at Gorillas make it difficult to understand who is responsible for sick pay or other issues. Gorillas has also been accused by workers of union busting, a claim the company denies. “We value constructive dialog with our employees,” a spokesperson says.

But in the past month, that dialog has been dragged into the courts. On November 23, the German capital’s labor court rejected Gorillas’ attempt to block the election of an internal works council—a common feature within big German companies designed to complement unions. Gorillas’ lawyer argued there had been shortcomings in the way the works council had been set up. The judge said this might be true—and could cause problems for the works council in the future—but it was not reason enough to stop the election going ahead.

Discontent among Gorillas’ Berlin couriers broke out in February 2021. During a bitterly cold snap, riders in the city said they did not have the equipment to safely meet their 10-minute delivery target on icy roads. That complaint gave birth to the creation of the Gorillas Workers Collective, a group that organized riders against a range of other concerns, from accidents caused by broken ebikes (which Gorillas provides) to the weight of bags and payroll problems such as delayed or miscalculated salaries. “It appeared to be an exploitative system,” says Oğuz Alyanak, the lead Germany researcher for the Fairwork Foundation, a project based at the Oxford Internet Institute that scores labor practices at platform companies. “As I went to the protests and started chatting with riders, I realized that there were a lot of different layers of problems here.” A Gorillas spokesperson says rider safety is a priority, that bikes are professionally maintained, and that it is currently updating its rider kit. “As in any large company with many employees, there are occasional payroll errors. However, these amount to a small percentage,” the spokesperson adds.

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Gorillas presents itself in such a way that the public perceives it as an alternative to the gig economy, says Alyanak. “But when it comes to the actual work that’s done or the problems workers face, there’s nothing alternative about it.” Instead it’s under pressure to perform in a crowded market of delivery apps, jostling for market share with ​​Lieferando, Wolt, and Uber Eats, among others. That competitive atmosphere means riders are under pressure to meet Gorillas’ 10-minute delivery target, according to Bernd Kasparek, a researcher at Berlin’s Humboldt University who focuses on work, housing, and health within migrant communities. But the way Gorillas operated also meant that disgruntled riders had a natural meeting point at their local warehouse, where they would go to collect orders. “People would stay even after their shifts and sit in front of the warehouses, spending time with the others,” Kasparek says. “So that was very conducive for organizing.”

When riders started the process of forming the works council in June, their relationship with management deteriorated further. According to a Gorillas insider, who asked not to be named because they weren’t permitted to speak on the company’s behalf, there was a sense that the works council could “destroy” the company. Management feared it would be dominated by people the insider describes as “anti-business” who made what they call “unreasonable” demands such as a €20 ($22) base hourly salary. Yasha, a member of the Gorillas Workers Collective who declined to share his surname because he didn’t want to jeopardize future employment opportunities, says the base salary riders were calling for was around €18 ($20), an amount he says was “not illegitimate at all.” Yasha also disputed that the protesters were anti-business: “If the character of the strikes were anti-business, why would they request an hourly salary and not the [government takeover] of the company?”

For the works council to become a reality, an election had to be called to choose who would sit on the electoral council. The election was organized for June 3 and, under German labor law, anyone could take part except management and people who had the power to hire or fire. But when head office staff turned up, around 50 people were turned away, a Gorillas spokesperson told Capital at the time. “A lot of the head office staff that came were rejected,” Yasha says. The Gorillas Workers Collective asked for the job descriptions of people who wanted to attend the meeting in advance, he adds, so they could disqualify people with managerial roles. “Had Gorillas done that, there would be less confusion,” Yasha adds.

The election only exacerbated tensions and, later in June, the Gorillas Workers Collective started organizing wildcat strikes—a term used to describe strikes untethered from a recognized union— which are unlawful in Germany, where industrial action is heavily regulated. “The idea of employees just going on strike and blocking a warehouse was unprecedented,” says Kasparek. At the June 28 protest, the Gorillas Workers Collective sent the company a list of 19 demands, which included a deadline by which missing salaries should be paid, a demand that cargo baskets be added to bikes, and a demand to reduce the six-month probation period. Yasha, from the Gorillas Workers Collective, said promised changes did not materialize. A Gorillas spokesperson, however, pointed to a November blog post detailing recent improvements, including the introduction of cargo bikes as an option for delivering heavy orders.

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In June, Sümer even suggested he would embark on a summer bike tour, stopping in every city where Gorillas operates to talk to employees. Such a tour never took place; a spokesperson says Sümer instead focused on implementing “operational changes.” In early October, two people turned up to a protest with bikes. Wearing face masks, oversized Gorillas-branded hoodies, and helmets, they tried to encourage the group to get back to work. The protesters later identified the duo as chief commercial officer Ronny Gottschlich and chief operating officer Adrian Frenzel. The Workers Collective claimed Gottschlich and Frenzel were acting as incognito strikebreakers. Gorillas maintains they were not incognito, with a spokesperson saying “the management team regularly ride” and the duo were “well known” by the company’s riders. Gorillas has more than 12,000 employees worldwide.

Then, as autumn turned to winter, Gorillas seemed to change approach. On October 5, dozens of riders were told their contracts had been terminated because they had taken part in “unauthorized strikes.” Alexander Brunst, Gorillas’ general manager for Germany, told Der Spiegel that the company had been forced to act because the strikes were “destructive” and carried out by a group that “refused to enter into dialogue.”

In November, Gorillas went to court, trying—and failing—to block the creation of the works council because it claimed there had been “serious errors” in its formation. “We regret that the court, contrary to our legal opinion, rejected the application and did not allow the termination of the current works council election,” a Gorillas spokesperson says, adding that the company “fully supports” the forming of a works council, provided it is “done properly and includes all employees.”

Later in November, Gorillas announced it would pilot a new franchise model in Berlin, a move that workers see as an attempt to fragment their organizing efforts. The company says the new legal structure would help warehouses respond better to local conditions, and that the election of a works council “remains possible for each entity.” But the timing and location of the pilot have been met with suspicion, especially because it echoes a system already in place at one company in particular: Amazon.

“Every single [Amazon] fulfillment center that distributes your toys, computers, and clothing is a separately registered entity, and this is exactly what's happening at Gorillas,” says Miller, who believes it could mean Gorillas workers would have to replace a Berlin-wide works council with one for each warehouse. “It's a very sophisticated way of maneuvering around one large works council and instead creating a fragmented structure.” An Amazon spokesperson confirms each of its buildings in Germany was set up as its own company, but disagrees this is a franchise system. “Democratically elected works councils have been in place at almost all German Amazon fulfillment centers for years,” the spokesperson adds.

There are not only parallels with Amazon. Gorillas’ recent efforts to form a Dutch holding company also echo attempts made by some of Europe’s biggest retailers facing organizing efforts in the country, according to Maren Ulbrich, secretary of Germany’s second largest union, Verdi, which represents a range of occupations in the services industry. “H&M, Zara, and Esprit have also gotten rid of supervisory board elections in the past by switching to a Dutch corporate form,” she says.

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Ultimately, critics argue, Gorillas has grown too much too fast. At protests, workers vocalize their frustrations at the company’s expansion into other cities at a time when they feel basic issues remain unresolved at home. The company insider also claims the pace of growth at Gorillas has created a culture clash among staff. “We grew so fast we lost control of some things,” the insider says. “People joined who were not positively infected by the ‘Gorilla spirit.' They just wanted to earn their money and go home.” But the company’s vision is arguably at odds with those doing the daily graft. In August, while workers were protesting on the streets of Berlin about missing pay and faulty equipment, Sümer was telling a real estate conference about his plans to expand into Africa, where the company could, he claims, deliver clean water. Sümer said he was thinking about ways to use Gorillas’ logistics network to improve people’s lives.

But a gulf is emerging between what the company says and what it does. Gorillas claimed it wanted to reinvent the gig economy. Eighteen months after it was founded, it might have achieved a lofty valuation, but its workers claim they are mired by the same issues that have plagued the gig economy since its inception. “To the outside, [Gorillas] always communicates that everything is cool,” says Kasparek. “They say that the works council is definitely something they want for their workers—but in court they try to block it. This is quite a mismatch.”


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