Turkey’s flagship online food ordering company fails to respect workers’ rights
In April 2021, while delivering groceries in a dense Istanbul suburb, Ahmet ran through a small puddle while making a turn. He slipped and fell off his motorcycle, sustaining hand injuries that still bother him today. Ahmet, 30, who drives for Banabi, the grocery branch of Turkey’s flagship delivery company Yemeksepeti (Turkish for “Food Cart”), blamed the accident on the cheap tires his employers ask their couriers to use. It was not his first accident.
“I’ve been riding motorcycles for almost ten years, but the bikes the company offers us to use have tires that will make you slip and fall, even in the summer when making a small turn on a straight road that doesn’t ain’t t wet,” said Ahmet Equal times in December, preferring not to use his real name for fear of reprisals. “On the one hand they want us to be very fast, on the other the equipment below you is not good.”
Founded in 2001 as Turkey’s first online restaurant delivery service, Yemeksepeti has grown rapidly, especially since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the company added more than five million users, according to its own figures, bringing 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 significantly, even expanding overseas in Europe and the United States. International competitors such as Uber Eats, Glovo and Deliveroo do not currently operate in the Turkish market. In 2015, Yemeksepeti was acquired by German giant Delivery Hero for over $500 million. In 2019, she launched Banabi, a grocery delivery service,
With a double-digit unemployment rate in Turkey, the company was able to tap into a pool of riders willing to get on their bikes to deliver. But alongside the increase in demand and the number of couriers on the road, there has been a growing number of deaths.
According to a national federation of motorcycle couriers, at least 203 couriers died in traffic accidents in Turkey between the start of the pandemic and April 2021, a tenfold increase from pre-pandemic years.
Motorcycle groups blame poor equipment and insufficient training, as well as the grueling pace of delivery that applications demand of drivers, causing them to take risks on the road. Istanbul, with its population of 15.6 million, sweltering traffic, steep hills and massive crowds is a dangerous place to be a motorcycle delivery driver. Drivers take risks such as running red lights, driving down sidewalks and going the wrong way on one-way streets in order to make quick deliveries.
The riders of most delivery app companies are independent contractors, who pay their own taxes and insurance, and bill the company for their services. But even runners who have a work contract, like most Yemeksepati workers, are not guaranteed their full labor rights: “Neither the government nor the parliament take any measures to protect those who work in that sector. The workers are employed without a union and therefore without security. Many workers appeal to the courts to access their trade union rights. However, due to the long duration of the trials, it is not possible to access this right. Late court rulings lead to delays in justice,” says Erkan Kıdak, a researcher at the Department of Labor Economics and Industrial Relations at Turkey’s Pamukkale University.
“As a result, unions are powerless against employers. State institutions and government in general pave the way for the weakening of trade unions. This situation increases the vulnerability and insecurity of workers,” he adds.
Although Yemeksepeti directly employs most of its workforce (expected to grow to 12,000 by the end of 2021 from just 3,000 before the pandemic), working conditions are difficult. For example, Banabi grocery drivers must make four deliveries per hour, and they are penalized if they take more than 15 minutes for a single order. Ahmet works eight hours a day, six days a week with half an hour break each day, earning Turkey’s net minimum wage of 4253 Turkish liras (310 USD) per month plus 500-600 TL (36-43 USD) from the small fee of 1-1.5 TL he receives for each delivery, in addition to occasional cash tips from customers.
In a good month, Ahmet might walk away with 5,000 TL (364 USD). But that’s not enough to get by.
Figures from a union determined in December that the minimum living expenses for a single person are 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 value of the pound fell and inflation reached alarming levels. Delivery drivers must also perform cleaning duties in their warehouses, and they must pay their own transportation costs to get to their homes and to work, a significant expense given the rising prices of gasoline and public transport in the light of tax increases and inflation.
“The couriers employed by companies like Yemeksepeti have started joining unions in recent years,” says Kıdak. But tech companies have pushed back strongly, working to smash organizing efforts and block riders from being able to demand workplace protections.
Banabi workers started organizing in early 2020 according to Yemeksepeti Workers’ Committee spokesman and labor activist Kaan Gündeş. Within months, the company decided to block them.
In Turkey, workers in certain sectors have the right to access a state-run online system where they can choose to join a union. Couriers would generally fall under the transportation and shipping industry, but Yemeksepeti officials have changed the definition of drivers in the system, labeling them office workers. This meant that they were effectively deprived of their right to join a union. It also prevented them from having early access to vaccines, because while transport workers were considered a priority for vaccines, along with teachers, healthcare workers and journalists, office workers were not. not.
“This is a tactic frequently used by employers in Turkey,” says Gündeş. The country was ranked among the ten worst in the world in terms of workers’ rights in the 2021 Global Rights Index of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). When the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in Turkey a year later and Banabi workers realized they couldn’t get the priority access they deserved, Banabi drivers launched a campaign to demand their rights.
However, the company forgot to change the professional status of Banabi drivers in three provinces, Yalova, Düzce and Manisa. Workers in these provinces realized that they could register for vaccination appointments, while their colleagues in the rest of the country could not. It made national news in June 2021, raising the profile of the drivers’ struggle to unionize.
In July, Yemeksepeti founder and CEO Nevzat Aydın filed objections in court to block efforts to organize Banabi workers, another tactic used by employers that often results in a lengthy and demoralizing legal process. .
“Despite all the pressure, the workers of Yemeksepeti continued to organize. Eventually, the majority of Yemeksepeti workers became members of the All Transport Workers’ Union (TÜMTİS). The Ministry of Labor and Social Security issued TÜMTİS with a certificate of permission to enter into a collective agreement. This time, the company filed a lawsuit challenging the union’s clearance certificate. The legal process is ongoing,” says Kıdak.
In September, a number of the country’s largest and most important trade unions, trade associations and consumer unions declared a boycott of the company.
Amid mounting pressure, Aydın resigned from his post in early November. But Gündeş claims that the company continued its policy of destabilizing the unions. He also accuses the company of exerting enormous pressure on salaried drivers until they quit and then replacing them with independent drivers. Kıvak also says the company is trying to convince employees to switch to the independent contractor model.
Delivery Hero and Yemeksepeti did not respond to requests for comment.
Gündeş says the ultimate responsibility for the drivers’ struggles lies with Delivery Hero. As they expand globally, Delivery Hero companies have lost high-profile workers’ rights lawsuits 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 about the change that is taking place. “We will continue to struggle until Yemeksepeti joins a union,” he said. “We will continue to develop and organize ourselves.”