A new class of vulnerable

One cannot also miss the irony, that the army of delivery workers in Malta in 2020 were an essential part of the COVID-19 ‘frontline’, as it were: given that their status as mere intermediaries provided the ability to ‘match’ consumer demands for food delivery and restaurants, via a digital platform

MaltaToday’s exclusive story on Sunday gave the clearest-yet snapshot of how so-called ‘disruptors’ are skirting employment rules with workers without unionisation, mainly hailing from outside the EU, by turning them into robotic components of the function of delivery.

A senior government source spoke of well-founded suspicions of precarious employment, that has driven down food supply wages and delivery costs for platform companies such as Wolt and Bolt.

It transpires that the migrant workers we see zipping around the island on their scooters are over-worked, underpaid, lacking ordinary workers’ rights, denied overtime, and treated liked self-employed contractors in breach of Maltese laws.

Recruitment agencies enjoying partnerships with Bolt and Wolt are effectively benefiting from exactly 50% of the wages earned by food couriers: most of whom are third-country nationals hailing from South-East Asia, and are not paid vacation and sick leave, or government bonuses.

Almost all workers are working up to 80 hours, to earn just half of the expected monthly salary: €1,500 or even less.

Charging inflated recruitment fees is also a widespread practice. In the same way that food delivery companies pass on the costs of delivery services to employees, these agencies transferred the costs associated with recruitment to workers themselves.

One courier who spoke to MaltaToday claimed they had paid €5,000 to a Maltese recruitment company, over and above the expenses associated with obtaining a visa and work permit, just to secure a job with Bolt. The fee doesn’t cover equipment or visa application costs – it’s simply a mark-up charged to workers so that employment can be secured.

Such high recruitment fees are forcing workers into a state of vulnerability, leading many migrant workers to sell their assets or borrow from money-lenders or friends and family in order to finance an employment opportunity.

It is also plainly illegal. Malta’s Employment Relations Act stipulates that an employer cannot make any deductions through any contractual agreement from the wages that ought to be paid to the employee. And recruitment agencies are no exception. According to the Temporary Agency Workers Regulations, temporary agencies cannot demand payment or charges on any temporary agency worker, and no deductions shall be taken from the wages of such workers.

Even so, however, it was already clear that such platform work was not protected by employment regulation, and anecdotal evidence suggested that platform workers were disadvantaged in terms of employment conditions. But learning that these workers share half of their wages with recruitment firms outsourced to provide digital platforms with delivery-workers, represents a new low and one that merits the forceful action of government.

Additionally, while these ‘employees’ are expected to be self-employed in the nature of their service, they actually have limited autonomy because the extent of their earnings is entirely determined by the food providers they serve, and the conditions imposed upon them by their recruitment-middlemen.

What we are seeing, in simple terms, is a precariat class, mainly built by migrant labour, that is non-unionised due to the ad hoc contracts regulating their employment. But before anyone defends such practices as ‘allowing workers to be free to sell their labour at the price they agree,’ the question is that there is no such thing as real-life equality among various categories of workers. As is clear in the food delivery business, the advantages are squarely in favour of the profit-making businesses.

And through the power of deregulation (a similar situation exists in the taxi business), these workers are expected to bear all the risks of employment usually borne by employers.

The government and trade unions must respond to this challenge by instantly intervening with contracting companies and recruiters, investigating their employment practices, as well as carrying out an investigation into deregulation measures that have allowed digital platforms to push down prices by transferring all risk to the workers.

Apart from the social injustice this automatically creates – overseeing, as it does, the rise of a whole new class of underprivileged, vulnerable employee – there is also the question of competition: especially during a time of national crisis, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

One cannot also miss the irony, that the army of delivery workers in Malta in 2020 were an essential part of the COVID-19 ‘frontline’, as it were: given that their status as mere intermediaries provided the ability to ‘match’ consumer demands for food delivery and restaurants, via a digital platform.

It would be poor repayment of their service indeed, not to take immediate action to remedy their situation.

More in Editorial