In Cyprus, Food-Delivery Riders Went on Strike to Be Treated Like Workers
Cyprus’s minimum wage doesn’t apply to students — hurting the young migrants who have to work to pay their university fees. Last month, food-delivery riders went on strike, exposing how student visas force people into casual, low-paid work.
On Monday, December 12, riders for Wolt, a Europe-wide food-delivery company, went on strike in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus. Later that week, riders in the resort town of Limassol followed suit. The workers taking action against the firm — mostly immigrants from India and Nepal — then mobilized others in Paphos, Larnaca, and the main urban centers of Cyprus. The workers demanded a pay raise, as well as a lowering of the commission that middlemen currently take from their paychecks.
In Nicosia, the striking workers rallied in front of Wolt’s headquarters, standing chatting next to their parked motorbikes. Seeing reporters like myself as well as the union officials from the Pancyprian Federation of Labor (PEO) — a socialist trade union affiliated to the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) — they gathered round to tell their stories. Jamie, a student originally from eastern Nepal, told me that, “The fleet managers make the rules to benefit themselves. We want the official franchise, Wolt, to put some restrictions on what fleet managers can do.”
Jamie had arrived in Nicosia one year ago, after paying a couple thousand of euro to a middleman who helped him apply to study at one of Cyprus’s many private schools. He pays around €4,000 per semester to a college that offers a student visa. Once enrolled in a Cypriot university, he has the right to work twenty hours per week when the school is in session and thirty-eight hours during holidays. There were not many choices for Jamie, as the Cypriot government allows third-country (i.e. non–European Union national) students to work in only nine specified industries — food delivery among them.
Jamie told me that there are days when he works more than eight hours, and he also has to toil away during the weekend. He does this not only to cover his local expenses, but to send money back home and to pay back the loan he took to get here originally. “I have been working with Wolt since last year. It has changed a lot, because last year they’d been paying well. I think it was a marketing strategy to attract lots of us [to work there], students and asylum seekers.”
Last year, the riders were paid between €2.40 and €2.60 per delivery, plus fifty cents extra to cover the gas. If the weather conditions made deliveries arduous, workers received another €1.10 a time — but now that has been scrapped. Today they get €2.26 per successful delivery, and out of that, a massive 41 percent goes to the middlemen known as “fleet managers.” In a press release, Wolt claimed that “average hourly earnings have been steadily increasing over the past six weeks and now stand at €8.50.”
But most Wolt riders aren’t directly employed by the company: indeed, some 80 percent of the 2,800 workers are employed via fleet managers, and only the remaining fifth get the prime rate of €8.50. There is not one single middleman, but different companies with which Wolt has direct contact. All charge the same percentage; according to Mihalis, a PEO union official, they have set that rate “simply because they can.”
One striker, Chris, a student from Punjab, talked about the long hours he must work — and the time he waits without receiving a dime. “In one hour, we can make eight euro, sometimes less than two euro, sometimes actually no money. If we wait here and do not receive any orders, we do not get any money. If the customer cancels an order, we do get maybe one euro.”
The firm also imposes other costs on workers. Jamie and other workers talked about how they had to buy Wolt vests, jackets, and backpacks, as well as their own motorcycles and mobile phones. Everything they use for their work comes out of their own pocket, and that is after the middlemen take a 41 percent cut. Chris said that daily he puts aside fifteen euro for gasoline and oftentimes he must repair his scooter: “Nothing is free. I have to pay for the motorcycle, pay for the fuel. That is ridiculous”.
Recently, Cyprus introduced a €940-per-month minimum wage for full-time employees — but it doesn’t apply to people who are currently in an educational institution. Jamie told me that there are months when he makes a thousand euro, but after everything is paid and after the middleman takes a cut, he is left with perhaps one hundred euro, part of which must be sent home.
At Wolt headquarters in Nicosia, two people from management came from inside the building and asked the workers to come in groups of twelve to express their concerns. Jamie and Chris did not move, and neither did any of their colleagues. They stood together, saying that they would not go inside without the union to lead the negotiations. Jamie said, “they want to divide the people, to identify who we are and to block us on the platforms. We already told them everything in the previous days, they know what we want.”
Wolt responded by saying, “we totally respect couriers’ right to express their opinion. The reason why certain courier accounts were suspended is for accepting orders without delivery and therefore, it was necessary to ensure proper operation of the platform and customer service.”
Mihalis, the PEO official, came forward: “if they want to speak to anybody, we will be in front as a union. If they want to speak, they can call us, otherwise they will speak to the [government’s] labor office.”
Shortly after, a car filled with plastic bags containing sandwiches, water bottles, and juice cartons arrived. Mihalis, accompanied by other PEO members, unloaded the car, put the bags on the workers’ bikes, and reassured the drivers that the union would support them during the time they are left without pay. Outside the headquarters , riders sat in a shaded area and ate together. Chris and Jamie came forward to the trade-union officials and to us reporters, offering some food as thanks for showing up to the protest: “we share, we have enough for everyone.”
Aside from the PEO union, the rally outside Wolt HQ brought together migrant and refugee organizations, as well as riders from other firms who brought coffee and food for the strikers. Across the street, Wolt drivers hung a banner encouraging others to boycott the company. They also tried to march through the streets, but were stopped by police. Jamie told me that “we have the right to protest, but the police were very rude and racist towards us”.
Among the crowd, workers had different ideas of what the demands should be. Some wanted the middlemen to be gotten rid of entirely, while others called for a reduction in the commission middlemen take, from 41 to 30 percent. Jamie called for the fleet managers to have less power in decreasing the riders’ rates, and for help in getting the equipment required to do the job.
After nine days, the strike came to a halt on December 21 after the government’s labor department intervened to find a solution to the problem. The workers, however, refused to enter negotiations without legal protections — knowing that otherwise the “troublemakers” would surely be fired.
What happened in Cyprus is only one piece of the greater puzzle of gig work that has spurred dissent and strikes over recent years. Jamie said that the dispute has calmed down with the onset of negotiations, with talks planned for January 12. But delivery riders “are still ready to keep on fighting if needed — and won’t stop till they get what they deserve.”