Turkey’s flagship online food ordering company is failing to deliver on workers’ rights

Turkey's flagship online food ordering company is failing to deliver on workers' rights

According to a nationwide motorbike couriers federation, at least 203 couriers died in traffic accidents in Turkey between the onset of the pandemic and April 2021, a tenfold increase compared from pre-pandemic years.

(Alamy/Tolga İldun)

In April 2021 while delivering groceries in a dense suburb of Istanbul, Ahmet passed through a small puddle while making a turn. He slipped and fell from his motorbike, sustaining injuries to his hand that still bother him to this day. Ahmet, 30, who drives for Banabi, the grocery branch of Turkey’s flagship delivery company Yemeksepeti (Turkish for ‘Food Basket’), blamed the accident on the cheaply made tyres that his employers require their couriers to use. It wasn’t his first crash.

“I’ve been driving motorbikes for nearly ten years, but the bikes that the company provides for us to use have tyres that will cause you to slip and fall, even during the summer while making a small turn on a straight road that isn’t wet,” Ahmet told Equal Times in December, preferring not to use his real name for fear of retribution. “On one hand, they want us to be very quick, on the other hand the equipment beneath you is no good.”

Founded in 2001 as Turkey’s first online restaurant delivery service, Yemeksepeti has grown rapidly, particularly since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the company added more than five million users, according to its own figures, taking its total user base to 19 million. The company is one of Turkey’s most popular food delivery apps, with its main competitor being Getir, a Turkish company that has also grown extensively, even expanding abroad in Europe and the United States. International rivals including Uber Eats, Glovo and Deliveroo do not currently operate in the Turkish market. In 2015, Yemeksepeti was purchased by the German giant Delivery Hero for more than US$500 million. In 2019, it launched Banabi, a grocery delivery service,

With unemployment at double digit levels in Turkey, the company has been able to tap into a ready pool of riders, willing to jump on their bikes to deliver. But alongside the rise in demand, and in the number of couriers on the road, has been a growing death toll.

According to a nationwide motorbike couriers federation, at least 203 couriers died in traffic accidents in Turkey between the onset of the pandemic and April 2021, a tenfold increase compared from pre-pandemic years.

Riders’ groups blame poor equipment and inadequate training, as well as the gruelling pace of delivery that the apps demand of drivers, which pushes them to take risks on the road. Istanbul, with its population of 15.6 million people, suffocating traffic, steep hills and massive crowds is a dangerous place to be a motorcycle delivery driver. Drivers take risks such as running red lights, zipping down sidewalks, and heading the wrong way on one-way streets in order to make fast deliveries.

The riders for most delivery app companies are independent contractors, who pay their own taxes and insurance, and invoice the company for their services. But even those riders that have an employment contract, like most of the workers at Yemeksepati, are not guaranteed their full labour rights: “Neither the government nor the parliament are taking any action to protect those working in this sector. Workers are employed without a union and therefore without security. Many workers appeal to the courts to access their union rights. However, due to the long duration of the trials, it is not actually possible to access this right. Delayed decisions by the courts lead to delayed justice,” says Erkan Kıdak, a researcher from the department of labour economics and industrial relations at Turkey’s Pamukkale University.

“As a result, unions are left powerless against employers. State institutions and the government in general pave the way for the weakening of unions. This situation reinforces the vulnerability and insecurity of the workers,” he adds.

Although Yemeksepeti employs most of its workforce directly (which was forecast to reach 12,000 by the end of 2021, from just 3,000 workers before the pandemic), the working conditions are challenging. For example, Banabi grocery drivers must make four deliveries an hour, and they’re penalised if they take more than 15 minutes for a single order. Ahmet works eight hours a day, six days a week with a half hour break each day, earning Turkey’s net minimum wage of 4253 Turkish lira (US $310) a month plus 500-600 TL (US$36-43) from the tiny fee of 1-1.5 TL that he receives for each delivery, in addition to occasional cash tips from customers.

In a good month, Ahmet might walk away with 5000 TL (US$364). But it’s not enough to get by.

Figures from one union determined in December that the minimum living expenses for a single person is 4927 TL ($360), however, the cost of living in Istanbul is considerably higher than the rest of the country. Rents in the city soared in 2021 while the price of consumer goods continued to climb as the lira’s value declined and inflation reached alarming levels. Delivery drivers are also expected to perform cleaning tasks at their warehouses, and they have to pay their own transportation costs getting to and from home and work, a significant expenditure given rising petrol and public transit prices in the light of tax hikes and inflation.

Union busting

“Couriers employed by companies like Yemeksepeti have started to become members of unions in recent years,” Kıdak says. But the tech companies have pushed back hard, working to break up unionisation efforts and to prevent riders from being able to demand workplace protections.

Banabi workers began to organise in early 2020 according to the Yemeksepeti Workers’ Committee spokesperson and labour activist Kaan Gündeş. Within months, the company moved to block them.

In Turkey, workers in certain sectors have the right to access an online, state-run system where they can choose to become a member of a labour union. Couriers would usually be part of the transport and shipping sector, but Yemeksepeti officials changed the drivers’ definition in the system, labelling them office workers. This meant that they were effectively stripped of their right to join a union. It also prevented them from getting early access to vaccines, because while transport workers were considered a priority for shots, along with teachers, healthcare workers and journalists, office workers weren’t.

“This is a tactic frequently used by employers in Turkey,” says Gündeş. The country was named one of the ten worst in the world in terms of workers’ rights in the 2021 Global Rights Index by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). When the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Turkey a year later and Banabi workers realised they were unable to receive the priority access that they deserved, Banabi drivers launched a campaign demanding their rights.

However, the company forgot to change the occupational status of Banabi drivers in three provinces, Yalova, Düzce and Manisa. Workers in these provinces realised they were able to sign up for vaccine appointments, while their colleagues in the rest of the country could not. This made national news in June 2021, raising the profile of the drivers’ struggle to unionise.

In July, Yemeksepeti founder and CEO Nevzat Aydın filed objections in court to block the Banabi workers’ unionisation efforts, another tactic used by employers, which often results in an extended and demoralising legal process.

“In spite of all the pressure, Yemeksepeti workers continued to organise. Eventually, a majority of Yemeksepeti workers became members of the All Transport Workers’ Union (TÜMTİS). The Ministry of Labor and Social Security issued TÜMTİS a certificate of authorisation to arrange a collective bargaining agreement. This time, the company filed a lawsuit in court in objection of the union’s authorisation certificate. The judicial process is ongoing,” Kıdak says.

In September, a number of the country’s largest and most important labour unions, trade associations and consumer unions declared a boycott of the company.

Amid mounting pressure, Aydın resigned from his position at the beginning of November. But Gündeş says the company has continued with the policy of disrupting the unions. He also accuses the company of putting huge pressure on employed drivers until they resign, then replacing them with independent drivers. Kıdak also says the company is trying to convince employees to switch to the independent contractor model.

Delivery Hero and Yemeksepeti didn’t respond to requests for comments.

Gündeş says that the ultimate responsibility for the drivers’ struggles rests with Delivery Hero. As it has expanded globally, Delivery Hero companies have lost high-profile court cases over workers’ rights in several countries, including Canada and Australia. In both cases, the company closed its operations in those countries.

In Istanbul, Ahmet is currently seeking compensation for his injury in court while still driving for Banabi full-time. Despite the major obstacles he and his colleagues face, he remains optimistic that change is on the way. “We will continue to struggle until Yemeksepeti joins a union,” he says. “We will continue to grow and organise.”