“The stranger is even lighter than leaves, a poet once said in Pakistan. No one cares about the stranger, he has no one to turn to when he has a problem. When he asks for a job, he is made to feel like a beggar, like they’re doing him a favor, as if he has no rights,” says Mohammed K.S. His story resembles that of many immigrants – workers who fall victim to extreme exploitation by employers.
Unlike local workers, immigrants cannot easily report offences or stand up for themselves in such circumstances. However, Mohammed is determined to see his case through until the end.
The grill restaurant in Peristeri
Perhaps you caught a glimpse of his case on your timeline or maybe you happened across a photo of last January’s protests outside of a fast food grill restaurant in Peristeri.
Mohammed tells us that he worked as a delivery man at this establishment “for 375 days without a day off, seven hours a day, and twice a week I worked 12+ hour shifts. I had suspected that they were hiding something when one day, a while ago, they called me and the other guys, telling us not to come in that day, because they were expecting IKA [social security/labor authority] to show up for an inspection.”
Eventually, he discovered that his employer had only insured him for eight hours a week, “without the legal gifts, bonuses, overtime wages.” Mohammed protested. He needed the IKA stamps in order to renew his residence card. On September 29, 2018 his employer fired him, saying ironically “go find the employers who give their workers all the stamps.” Mohammed resorted to IKA and the Peristeri Labor Inspectorate. The owner of the restaurant, after denying that he employed Mohammed for more than double the hours declared in his work contract, was simply called to pay him the required bonuses and gifts based on the fake contract.
But that wasn’t enough for Mohammed and his employer realized this. Mohammed shows me the threatening message he received, telling him to sign and confirm receipt of the (fake and minimal) wages owed: Take care of it tomorrow, you have to sign the papers or I’ll come to your house.
After he got fired, Mohammed found work at another fast food restaurant in the same area. The new owner, a friend of the previous employer, threatened to dismiss him if he didn’t drop the charges against his previous employer. Mohammed refused, was consequently fired, and found himself working as a delivery man at a third restaurant in the same area.
On the morning of December 23, 2018, Mohammed was asked to deliver a food order to an address where they had requested that he “not ring the doorbell, but to blow the horn” of his motorbike. Mohammed shows me the order’s receipt: indeed, unlike all other receipts, the recipient’s name was missing from this one.
The recipient ended up being his first employer along with a muscle head who claimed to be a police officer who would deport him. After searching on social media, Mohammed found the second guy, who was photographed with the first employer and is a well-known figure in the “underworld” of Piraeus.
Mohammed has filed a lawsuit against both of them for the physical attack that, as he reports, followed on that day. “When I refused to sign again, they started hitting me in the head and back with all their might. They were also wearing brass knuckles. Fortunately, I had on a helmet. I ended up in the hospital. I was in pain for more than a week, and now one hand is not steady and I am unable to hold a pen and write like I used to before,” he says.
The lawsuit regarding Mohammed’s owed wages will soon be filed. The Committee for the Rights of Delivery Workers in solidarity with Mohammed, tells us that they continue to hold demonstrations on a weekly basis outside of the restaurant in Peristeri, while the owner rarely appears and seems to remain “in hiding” until the incident is forgotten.
Provisions/catering unionists note a common point regarding the occurrences of employer intimidation being on the rise in the food industry “because it is common for the mafia to launder money through the otherwise legitimate activities of the businesses in this industry – often with the tolerance and/or protection of the police’s ‘pockets’, which many times benefit from underworld activities.”
The painful experience described by Mohammed brings to light the working conditions of approximately 20,000 of the country’s delivery men (Greeks and immigrants, young and old alike), who due to the crisis use their motorbikes to supplement their income, the IKA stamps needed to retire, or to escape unemployment.
“What saddens me is that I see even 60-year-old men delivering 40 orders a day – in the cold, in the rain, at night,” Mohammed comments. “At the restaurant in Peristeri from 8pm to midnight, 15 delivery men are either working under the table or are under-insured,” he says.
The Committee for the Rights of Delivery Workers has taken on the legal support for Mohammed’s case. Vassilis Kefalas, a member of the Committee, notes: “In addition to Mohammed’s beating, we recently had three more similar incidents. Only one of the men attacked, Tasos Thepalidis, brought his case to court and was hospitalized last December. He reported that he was attacked by a former employer in Thessaloniki, who punched him several times using brass knuckles, causing facial fractures. His claim was accepted by the court which imposed a three-year prison sentence on the employer, plus three years΄ probation and a fine of €1,000. The employer’s lawyer has not disputed the attributed act, stating that his client has regretted his actions, however, an appeal has already been filed.
“Many employers consider their delivery guys to be their property, and when they think the orders aren’t being delivered quickly enough, they pile on more deliveries. At least in the big franchise chains, where they use a timing system for deliveries, they just… fire them when they can’t deliver in the expected time frame,” he says scornfully.
Stolen IKA stamps
All this rushing around, often in bad weather, is done for a few euro per hour, plus tips that have almost been eliminated in recent years. “On average,” Kefalas notes, “a delivery man works 50 hours a week and the net amount of the €3-4 that he earns from the employer comes to about €2.50, because he pays for gas/maintenance/helmet, raincoat etc from his own pocket. We even have examples of employers who, after the recent issue of the relevant notice by the Ministry of Labor, bought raincoats but they keep them stored away (in case there’s a labor inspection) and refuse to give them to workers.”
At the same time, the reason behind Mohammed’s reaction, the stolen IKA stamps, is not the exception, but the rule. “According to official figures, 75% of delivery men are under-insured”, Kefalas underlines, reiterating the union’s request to increase joint traffic police and IKA inspections and to make penalties more severe. “Checks are mainly made just for show, especially after accidents, etc. If no serious penalties are imposed, even closing an offending employer’s establishment, it will be difficult to change the situation. Most figure that they’re still in the black, even if they’re fined, because the money saved by an under-insured worker is about €5,000 a year,” he emphasizes.
Will you return from the jungle?
Included on the ‘menu of exploitation’ are incidents where delivery men don’t return home safe and sound.
“Almost all delivery men who have reported an unlawful act which has been made against them, also have a story about a traffic accident that, because of the employer’s refusal, was never declared as a work accident,” an inspector of the Labor Inspectorate with many years’ experience tells Solomon, confirming what each delivery man has relayed to us.
Many employers, the inspector notes, hurry to the scene of the accident to remove the restaurant’s logo or signs from the motorbike. In addition, in order to avoid inspections, employers prohibit delivery men from using the restaurant’s delivery boxes (with the store’s logo on them), and insist they put their own (unmarked) boxes on the back of their motorbikes, to avoid being spotted.
Many times, accidents were fatal. Over the past two years, 14 delivery men have lost their lives, 14 employees who did not return home from work due to jungle conditions: poorly maintained motorbikes, extreme stress and anxiety, many hours on the road, lack of proper safety measures. Add to this the driving behavior of the Greeks, and the poor condition of the country’s roads.
The most recent incident to come to light occurred in Volos on the afternoon of March 8, 2019, when the motorbike that 33-year-old Giorgos Vamvakos was driving collided with a small van. Vamvakos was immediately taken to the hospital via ambulance, where doctors performed surgery but were unable to save his life.
On the evening of February 13, 2019, in an Athens suburb, Dimitris Serevetas, age 24, lost his life while delivering the last order of his shift. He was driving under extreme weather conditions – winds of up to 9 Beaufort (75–88 km/h). A day earlier, in Thessaloniki, the motorbike that a 19-year-old delivery man was driving collided with a passing vehicle. The employee lost his life days later in the hospital.
“Even after the last fatal traffic accidents, delivery men in Chania, Crete reported that during the recent spell of severe weather in February 2019, they were forced by their employers to work in such conditions,” commented the chairman of the Panhellenic Federation of Food & Tourism, G. Hotzoglou.
Mobilizing against impunity
The only encouraging thing, Hotzoglou added, is that recently a union of delivery staff and couriers has been created in Chania, which has been named in honor of the 27-year-old delivery man Sifis Saridakis, a father of two who lost his life on New Year’s Eve 2019, working the night shift.
“The Collective Labor Agreement for the food industry has been delayed by the Organization of Mediation and Arbitration, caused by the employers, thus the only ‘security’ for the employees is to join their unions,” says Hotzoglou.
The example of Chania, as well as the effort to establish a union in Athens by the Committee for the Rights of Delivery Workers, are signs that trade unionism is moving in the right direction, despite the differences among the various unions.
One of the unions, the Assembly of Motorbike Drivers, has publicized Mohammed’s case from the very beginning and has held massive demonstrations outside the grill restaurant in Peristeri. They try to do the same thing wherever there are reports of similar complaints, bullying, vengeful dismissals, and abusive actions by employers.
The Assembly of Motorbike Drivers, aiming to represent not only delivery men but also employees in courier services (an industry in which other organizations, such as the Union of Courier Employees of Attica are active), are planning a strike on April 11, 2019, demanding to be provided with “company motorbikes, proper safety equipment, hazard IKA stamps and a single category for delivery and courier employees.”
It seems that there is still a lot of work to be done at an institutional level in Greece, to combat the unaccountability towards food delivery men. Mohammed’s story could act to restrict its spread, even on a small scale.
Food delivery in Greece is a common practice. Every day, tens of thousands of motorbikes, under strict time constraints, deliver the food orders of unsuspecting consumers who often grumble about delays without knowing or realizing what’s on the “daily menu” in the life of their delivery man.