BERLIN (AP) — Dozens of workers gathered outside of one of Berlin's most-celebrated startups, the grocery delivery company Gorillas, to protest the firing hours earlier of a colleague.
“We want Santiago back!” the young riders chanted last week, threatening to blockade one of the company's inner-city warehouses with their bikes unless he was reinstated.
The wildcat strike on a balmy June evening was unusual even by Germany's strong tradition of labor rights, highlighting growing tensions in the capital's freewheeling startup scene.
“We came here to show our solidarity, to support our friend,” said Zeynep, a Gorillas rider who declined to give her last name for fear of facing repercussions from the company. "We want this decision to be reversed as soon as possible.”
The riders said their colleague had been fired without warning after turning up late for his shift. In a statement, the company said he his contract was terminated for “serious misconduct” but declined to provide details, citing confidentiality.
Founded just last year, Gorillas has benefited from surging demand for quick grocery deliveries during the pandemic. In March, the company raised about $290 million from investors, becoming Germany’s fastest 'unicorn’ — a startup with a total valuation of $1 billion or more.
Gorillas now operates in dozens of cities across Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain, and has already set its sights on New York, where it faces U.S. incumbents such as Gopuff.
But strikes like those in Berlin show trouble is brewing in its home market.
The rowdy but peaceful protest late Wednesday drew support from employees of rival delivery services, some of whom downed their colorful courier bags to join the picket. Eventually Gorillas agreed to close the depot for the night, drawing cheers from the protesters.
The next day, riders blockaded another warehouse, making clear their gripes go beyond the firing of a single colleague.
“In the last six months, that I’ve been here I’ve noticed so many ways that the company is doing things in an unjustified way,” said rider Huseyin Camalan. “We’re here to stand against that. It’s part of a larger thing.”
Camalan said many riders suffer from back pain and other health problems due to the heavy bags they have to carry. Faulty bikes, a limited say in their shifts and lack of administrative support are also a problem, he said.
When riders send emails asking for help, they rarely get a reply, Camalan said, adding "They ignore us.”
Last week four rivals — Delivery Hero, Bolt, Glovo and Wolt — announced a joint effort to develop a code of conduct in what appeared to be an effort to head off a regulatory crackdown by the European Union.
“We want to establish better governance of working conditions, labor practices and social rights for all workers, regardless of their employment status,” Sacha Michaud, co-founder of Spain-based delivery company Glovo said.
According to experts, many delivery firms in Germany operate on the edge of legality in their rush to expand before they run out of cash.
Gorillas says it doesn't consider itself part of the ‘gig economy,’ having chosen to employ its riders and warehouse staff. But hourly wages are low at 11.50 euros (less than $14) after tips and the probationary period is six months — the longest allowed by law.
Riders at the protest complained that the company doesn't issue them with phones they need for work, that salaries are often short an