Azerbaijan: Gig companies provide jobs but little security

Journalist: Sakinakhanim Mammadova, , Photographer: Emin Mathers
Edition: Labor
Topic: Employment

When Samir Mustafayev, 24, signed up as a bike courier with Wolt, it seemed like a good deal: flexible hours and a competitive wage.

It was December 2021, and while Azerbaijan was emerging from the pandemic, good jobs were scarce so he decided to take a chance on the growing gig economy in the country’s capital, Baku.

Just a few months into the job, however, he found he was working more hours for less money—and frequently risking his safety to make deliveries on time. 

“There is a big difference between the salary I earned two months ago and now,” he says. “Currently, the minimum wage in Azerbaijan is 1.87-1.90 [manat] (roughly $1.10) per hour, but the Wolt minimum payment is 1.60. This is specifically exploiting labor.”

22-year-old Aykhan Isgandarov agrees, noting he is earning less than he was when he started at Wolt in May 2021.

“The minimum delivery fee for the order fell from 1.90 to 1.60. The maximum delivery fee also fell from 2.70 to 2.40. We already lose 10-15 manat per day,” he says. “Currently, I am not satisfied with my salary… I have to work 13-14 hours a day to earn normal money. Before I worked 9-10 hours. In the current situation, we work 30 days a month without taking a day off.”

The pressure to deliver faster to earn more can have fatal results.

A courier was killed in 2020 when he lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a wall in Baku. The driver, Ulvi Mammadov, worked for Domino Azerbaijan and was supposed to deliver pizza within 30 minutes. His death led to social media protests but the pressure to deliver more orders faster remains widespread in the business, according to other food couriers Chai Khana interviewed. The couriers reported payment is low across the handful of other food delivery services, including Bolt Food, the other international platform in the market. 

Samir, the cyclist delivering food via Wolt, notes he was hit by a car while rushing to make an order. 

“Luckily the accident wasn't too serious. Sometimes we have to deliver the order in less than 10-15 minutes. In rainy weather, I often fell off my bicycle because the ground is very slippery,” he says, noting the money they earn from each order does not compensate for the danger.

The combination of falling paychecks and poor work conditions pushed an estimated 100 couriers to protest in April, a combined effort by Wolt and Bolt Food workers in Baku. 

“You are psychologically broken and convinced that you do not matter, you are just a statistic, you are one of the hundreds of couriers. There are hundreds of you in line,” the organizers wrote in a Facebook post about the strike. 

The couriers are viewed as independent contractors, not staff, according to Wolt Azerbaijan. 

“It is important to note that the thousands of couriers who do deliveries through Wolt in Azerbaijan, are our partners and not employees. They are independent contractors, and the overwhelming majority of our courier partners prefer it this way. As independent contractors, they enjoy a great deal of flexibility and independence, and the reason the majority prefer this setup is because they are free to log-on and off the platform as they please,” the company told Chai Khana in a written statement.

Under Azerbaijani law, an independent contractor does not qualify for many of the protections included in the country’s labor laws and are not part of a labor union. Lawyer Inara Jamal questions the legality of the couriers’ status as independent contractors, noting that under the labor law they should be able to force Wolt and the other delivery platforms to hire them as employees. 

Regardless of their employment status, she says the court system could provide a way out if the couriers work together on a collective case. 

Instead, courier Samir says the strike broke up after the protestors were told to send a list of their demands to Wolt’s head office in Estonia. They feared it was a stall tactic but didn’t have anywhere else to go. Youth unemployment is 36 percent in the country, according to a 2019 report

Wolt Azerbaijan countered that it met with the protestors and listened to their concerns, the company told Chai Khana in a written response. 

“Following the protest, our Wolt team met with the protesting couriers to listen to their frustrations. The couriers made it clear that their biggest concern was the number of orders and we have already taken actions to help increase demand. Both our Azerbaijani team and our Finnish headquarters take any input we get from our partners very seriously,” the statement reads.

Little changed for the couriers as a result of the strike, however. The rates remain the same and there is little indication that the couriers’ other concerns, including road safety and delivery times, are being heard.

Aykhan, a courier with Wolt, says the lack of bicycle lanes means they are forced to use the street, putting bikes and motorcycles in direct contact with cars and buses. Accidents are frequent, he notes, and couriers risk their lives to make deliveries. 

“There was a time when cars were lined up and I was driving on the right side of the cars. A taxi driver decided to drop off his customer and when the customer opened the door, I couldn't hit the brakes right away. I slammed into the door and fell to the ground. This was the taxi driver’s mistake but he drove away quickly,” Aykhan recalls.

"Such accidents are more common on motorcycles than on bicycles. While my friend was delivering the order on a motorcycle, a car suddenly appeared in front of him. He threw himself on the ground to avoid hitting the car and got hurt.”

This article was produced in the framework of the Chai Khana Fellowship program - Spring 2022

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