The Czech Rohlík company, which specializes in the delivery of fresh baked goods, is expanding to Austria and Germany, where it is making massive investments. Nevertheless, they are tough on workers at home. [This piece was originally published by A2larm.cz and was translated by Ian Mikyska. The article is part of the regional collaborative publishing platform ELMO – Eastern European Left Media Outlet]
“Make sure you say that for every complaint a customer makes about an order, the courier gets the blame, even when it’s not their fault,” says Jarda, one of the couriers at Rohlík that agreed to speak with me (after I promised to alter their names). Customer ratings, however, are only one of the tools Rohlík uses to supervise their couriers – or, in the language of the company’s PR, “partners”. In fact, customer complaints often have to do with inoperative payment terminals or an error in the order made at the storeroom – neither of which the courier can influence. But, as Jarda says, it is always the couriers who take the rap. The threat of being find at almost any moment, however, is only one of the characteristic features of the partnership between Rohlík and the couriers.
In the case of Rohlík, the use of the word “partner” to describe the legal relationship between the company and its couriers can only really be understood to be sarcastic. Partnership creates expectations of a certain measure of free choice, and therefore at least a partial autonomy on the part of the couriers in choosing their working hours and distributing their rate of work, communicating with their partner, or the number of deliveries they choose to make. This could not be further from the truth. In this case, “partnership” is an excuse to treat couriers in a manner far beyond the possibilities of the employment status regulated by labour laws. “We use their equipment, their clothes, their car (which they trace), we deliver in the blocks that they define, they invoice all this according to their own price list – but we’re not employees,” says Petr, another courier that described the working conditions at Rohlík for us provided that we avoid using his real name.
The owner of Rohlik.cz, Tomáš Čupr, recently claimed that complaints about the new form of remuneration only concern a negligible fraction of the couriers, with ninety-nine point five percent of them being satisfied working for Rohlík and happy with the conditions of remuneration. The few couriers I spoke to, then, represent only an infinitesimal minority according to the management – half a percent. Interested parties can learn all about the majority of happy couriers in the company’s official presentation materials. The company was asked for comment, but their PR manager ultimately provided only a highly general statement that we have decided to quote in full: “The manner of cooperation with couriers is a common form of commercial collaboration that corresponds to the standard setup in other similar companies or delivery services. Couriers can decide when and how often they will deliver in cooperation with Rohlík. We have not arranged and do not apply contractual sanctions to the couriers for actualities they cannot influence. The oldest vehicle in our fleet is from 2018.” The answer, then, leaves out the mileage of the company’s cars, how the company ensures their couriers are well rested, or why they are offering German couriers a different contract with much higher wages.
Extremely Long Shifts and Average Wages
Events at Rohlík recently came to the attention of the Czech public due to a new system of rewards, discussed most prominently by the wives and partners of couriers on the company’s Facebook page. They attempted to draw attention not only to the deterioration of payments following the introduction of this new calculation method, as well as the fact that the couriers often work from early morning to late at night, meaning that the fall in wages was the last drop for some of them. According to Rohlík’s CEO Olin Novák, who released a video soon after the affair took off, the new system was mostly aimed to motivate the less capable couriers. In reality, however, it led to a factual decrease in wages for everyone – even the “more capable ones”, who would benefit from these new measures, as Novák explained in the video. In any case, the turbulent reaction brought attention to long-standing inadequate work conditions that the couriers – bound by non-disclosure agreements – often complain about in private, not able or willing to discuss them in public. The company ultimately made at least some concessions in their negotiations with the couriers, as they could not afford a “reputation problem”. However, they refused any further talks and put out a threat: in the case of any interruption of work (in the form of a strike, for instance), they would take legal action and demand compensation for loss of profit. Furthermore, according to Jarda, Rohlík is not a company in which the atmosphere is conducive to free thinking and having opinions. “Čupr talks a lot about Communists, but you can be dismissed from Rohlík for having a different opinion,” says Jarda.
In the video, CEO Olin Novák discusses couriers who make 50 to 70 thousand Czech crowns a month (two to three thousand euros). Tomáš Čupr – the group CEO – has also repeatedly spoken of the couriers’ above-average wages. How much do they really make, then? Petr gives the example of one of his more successful months. For the eighteen days spent working fifteen-hour shifts (on average), he made about 45 thousand crowns (some 1800 EUR), having paid about 5000 crowns (200 EUR) for renting the car he uses for deliveries (from the company itself). As the couriers are self-employed, another 6000 crowns must be subtracted for health and social insurance, leaving about 39 thousand crowns (1600 EUR) for 270 hours of work. That still sounds okay, but when we adjust to a standard working day of eight hours a day five times a week, i.e. 160 hours a month, the wages are much more modest – a little under 25 thousand crowns a month, netto (1000 EUR). The illusion of above-average wages is shattered, although it must be said that many people in the Czech Republic work for much, much less.
What’s more, couriers state that it is eminently common to work for fifteen or sixteen hours in a day. Sometimes more. Before Christmas, Jarda says that his storehouse was doing up to twenty hours a day, often for several days at a time. This might even prove a problem in the eyes of the law, which regulates drivers of vehicles of under three and a half tonnes, dictating that professional drivers must take a break of at least half an hour after four and a half hours of driving. This break must not include other work, although it can include their lunch break. But the couriers are not employees, so this doesn’t really make a difference anyway. Petr told us that the couriers have the opportunity of taking an hour-long break every day. However, this means letting others get in front of you in line, which most couriers simply cannot afford. The system within which couriers sign up for shifts and earn points is absolutely crucial to their job, as this is what they are judged on.
Work and Don’t Fall Asleep
So what is a courier’s day normally like? A workday is divided into “rounds”. Every day, there are four of these rounds. After every round, the courier returns to the storehouse for their next orders, with the pace slowing down a little in the afternoon – often, however, this leads to one resting involuntarily while waiting in line for one’s next order, and, as Petr put it, “staring at the wall for two hours”. The final, fourth round is in the evening. The courier reports for duty at eight p.m., then waits in line until about nine when they “get a gig”. They only set out to deliver around nine thirty, returning home just before midnight. “If you add dinner, hygiene, and having to wake up the next day (if it’s a working day), often at four or five in the morning, this means two to four hours of sleep a day,” Petr continues. Here, the system creates conditions that increase the risk of microsleep and road collisions. Furthermore, ending a shift early means a fine of a thousand crowns (40 EUR), even when the courier communicates to the dispatch that they wanted to go home for safety reasons.
It is not even really a victory when a courier receives an order from the regions – this does mean they will avoid the last, evening round (regional deliveries count for two rounds), but unlike Prague-based deliveries, they spend several hours on the highway, which is “such a lovely place to sleep,” as Petr put it – an enormous risk in the case of a fleet of chronically sleep-deprived drivers. Both the evening round and an afternoon regional delivery can, in theory, be declined for reasons of fatigue. The dispatch operator, however, can reply that there is no one else to deliver the order, which does mean a bonus of 250 crowns (10 EUR), but the risk remains the same. Unsatisfied couriers mention high levels of stress and accumulated exhaustion. They are forced into overwork by the dispatch centre, which often has no other option than to send them into traffic exhausted, as there are insufficient drivers on busy days. However, it is also true – from Rohlík’s perspective – that it was the courier who signed up for the four-round shift and could therefore have anticipated his fatigue.
The couriers have the option of choosing their own shifts and the number of rounds they do in a day. Some shifts consist of only one or two rounds, but most are four-round shifts. And choosing the shifts with less rounds is not economical for the couriers. Petr explains: “A one-round shift is simply not worth it. The way it’s set up is that it starts at five in the morning. This means you have to get up at half past three at the latest to be there at five (half an hour for hygiene, forty minutes to get to Počernice and park, twenty minute to borrow the car and photograph it), then you’re waiting in line until six. Loading up, delivering, and back to the storehouse by nine. Cleaning the car and filling it up is at least an hour – it’s now ten o’clock (and more often than not, it’s an hour and half). It takes you forty minutes to get home, so it’s twenty to eleven. You’ve basically sacrificed seven hours, and for what? For eleven customers. You’ve made eight hundred crowns – and now someone can question your clean-up, which means you get a thousand-crown fine. Seven hours of your life for eight hundred crowns minus social and health insurance and taxes,” concludes Petr.
There aren’t many one-round shifts, while the vast majority of shifts is four-round. In most cases, this means the fifteen-hour shift discussed above, even though Rohlík officially states that the blocks last twelve hours. Petr claims that only about five percent of four-round shifts actually last twelve hours. Three-round shifts usually last thirteen or fourteen hours, even though they are officially estimated to take nine. The dissatisfied couriers also describe the ruthless system of fines, rules, and the order on what’s known as their “score card”. This includes relative trifles, such as inspection of the interior of the vehicles, which can result in a fine of up to a thousand crowns (40 EUR) for any insufficiencies. The inspectors, says Petr, are motivated by a financial bonus for every fault they find.
Jarda also describes a colleague’s collision caused by microsleep at the wheel. Jarda claims the driver informed the dispatch centre he no longer wanted to drive, but even so, they sent him out on the highway. Jarda also describes another situation: a courier collided frontally with a car heading in the opposite direction and will now face charges. Petr also discusses collisions: during the recent snow days, a “comical situation took place – an accident involving two Rohlík cars”. And he shows me pictures of the accident. One of the questions we sent to Rohlík concerned fatigue and overwork, as well as any tools used to manage them. We also wanted to know how the company monitors their couriers’ accidents. Rohlík, unfortunately, responded only in general terms, avoiding answering any questions directly. Their perspective on this problem is conspicuously absent. Given that as (formal) sole traders, Rohlík couriers do not need to follow any of the legal requirements specifying resting times, it is a particular shame that the company said nothing about this.
Delivering for Rohlík does not simply entail the work itself – there is also the permanent surveillance and inspection. If there is any component of the Rohlík infrastructure that is truly sophisticated, it is the way in which they control their couriers in relation to their system of rewards and penalties. Their driving style is assessed based on data from the GPS navigations system, gyroscopes, and temperatures. Conversations between couriers and dispatch operators are recorded, customer satisfaction is monitored. “They only told us recently that our conversations with them were being recorded,” notes Petr. Rohlík has a strict system of fines and penalties with which it punishes offences including rejecting a delivery or driving above the speed limit. It is particularly striking that Rohlík creates its own rules even concerning speed limits on the highway: couriers are fined for going faster than 140 km/h, but the speed limit stipulated by the law is 130 km/h. The company thus assumes the role of an administrative organ that has the authority to set their own limits and distribute fines.
“When they need you, say before Christmas, you’re a darling. And they always tell you that your contract states that you can’t just leave, that you have to stay at least another month. But when they don’t need you, they’ll gladly let you go. They only use the contract when it’s good for them,” says Jarda. When a courier is a “darling” and when they are disgraced can be gleaned from how the system of penalties is used. When the company needs drivers, they are rarely fined – the fines start rolling in when there are plenty of couriers. This situation was also described by reporter Michaela Janečková in the Studio N podcast.
Rohlík’s “partners” are therefore powerfully motivated to work as much as possible, amassing positive points (referred to as “karma”) in a gamified system. The system uses points in the “score chart” to determine the order of the couriers, which determines what their position and conditions at work will be like. Based on these points, the couriers are divided into “waves” (first, second, third, etc.), based on which they have faster or slower access to deliveries, meaning they spend less or more time, respectively, queueing in the storehouse – additionally, if they are high on the score chart, they have the option to select their shifts.
The foundation for these rankings rests in permanently tallying up points on the courier’s “score card”. This is where various offences are recorded, including complaints about unpleasant behaviour towards the customer, as well as good deeds such as helping the company, being forced to wait for the customer, or unexpected changes to the route. What’s most important, however, is how many kilometres one covers in a month. This number serves as a foundation for the rankings. “The more deliveries you have; the more days you ride, the better. You have to rush to make sure you’ll have blocks (they don’t want us saying ‘shifts’). If you don’t try hard enough, you’re left with trash,” is how the motivational system was explained by Jarda, who is a Rohlík driver in Moravia. The system thus primarily motivates (or rather forces) couriers to work as many days in a month as possible and as many hours in a day as possible, accepting deliveries even when they are on the brink of exhaustion. In this extremely competitive system, the most active couriers, willing to deliver under any conditions, set the pace. Those incapable of working under this enormous strain are automatically relegated (by the algorithm) to the bottom of the chart – and their earnings suffer. And that brings us back to the invoked title of the super-couriers, those that can make the 50 to 70 thousand crowns a month that their bosses speak of so adamantly. For people in debt, it might, in fact, be favourable to work practically non-stop, thus increasing their score and setting the tempo for the others, who – if they fail to adjust – fall through the ranks along with their chances at making decent wages. The only thing that grows is the time they spend waiting in line. Outside this system are the “buddy couriers”, the shock-workers of platform capitalism, with whom the management consults new measures (like the recently introduced reward system), and who play the part of mediators between the management and the rest of the couriers, leading training courses and acting as mentors to newcomers. They are always in the first wave at the storehouse and they can choose their own shifts – they have the best possible conditions, but they also have greater responsibility. “It’s preferential treatment and it creates an unequal environment. If you’re free all month and you don’t have children, you can work all the time – your numbers are good and you can choose your shifts as you like. If you have a family, there’s not much chance you’ll be able to decide when you work,” says Petr of the motivation system.
Gig Workers in the Land of Cheap Labour
We in the Czech Republic know the classic form of false self-employment very well. Beginning in the 1990s, a detrimental trend of pseudo-employment known as the “švarcsystém” (“black system”; from the German “schwarz”; black) gained popularity, allowing entrepreneurs to hire people, act like they are their business partners, and avoid having to guarantee them anything. A new global trend in pseudo-employment is what’s known as the gig economy, also known as platform capitalism, with companies offering work via phone apps. Workers such as couriers or drivers in taxi services do not become employees of these platforms, only “partners”. In the Czech Republic, these platforms include Uber, Wolt, or Liftago. None of these companies employ workers in the standard manner, merely “mediating” work through their applications. Even though the couriers and drivers often spend entire days working for the platforms and this is their central means of employment; despite the fact that they have to follow company regulations including the dress code, they never become employees and will forever remain partners.
Recently, this situation has been changing around the world as a result of public pressure, legislative changes, and court decisions, leading to couriers and taxi drivers being recognised in some countries – partially at least – as employees, resulting in the establishment of the appropriate legal protection. In Czechia – which has a long-standing tradition of false self-employment – insufficient worker protection and pseudo-employment are nothing new. Working for the classic platforms such as Wolt at least still provides the option to “work as much as I like” and log out at any point, which – illusorily, at least – confirms the official rhetoric of partnership between the courier and the company. Rohlík does not even offer this illusion, creating a system of pseudo-employees working unbelievably long hours while subjected to a high degree of control, and even without the illusion that they, as partners, can log off at any point and go their own way. A marriage between platform capitalism and the “švarcsystém” tradition allowed for the creation of the environment that de facto forces couriers to work much more than the usual 160 hours a month without offering them any benefits, fines them failing to comply with company policy, and has at least as much control over them – if not more – as traditional employers have over their employees. In the case of Rohlík, it is not even true that you can choose your shifts. Petr, for instance, selected a time for his shift, which Rohlík changed to a different time. In this respect, then, it behaved just as an employer would towards an employee.
Čupr himself, in his letter, has no qualms about addressing the couriers as subordinates, i.e. essentially employees, whilst also denying them employee benefits, simply because this will allow him to make more money off of them. And he neglects to mention that in Austria and Germany, where Rohlík will soon be operating, they would never dare treat couriers in this manner – because it simply isn’t allowed. In Austria, they offer a wage of 2000 euros and full-time employment. The company’s communication is also a far cry from Tomáš Čupr’s threats about couriers being “free to go elsewhere if they don’t like it here”: “Our business model is based on sustainability. This means not only respect towards the environment, but also a responsible and fair approach to our employees” – this quote comes from the Austrian magazine Kurier. “Comparing how the company presents itself in different countries in terms of image-building and actual treatment of their couriers, it is clear that the line they are following is determined by what they can afford to do in each specific market. Couriers in Germany and Austria are fully fledged employees; in the latter, the company uses agency workers only during rush hour (and their position is still an order above that of freelancers). In both countries, wages are determined on the basis of collective contracts. In Austria, the company is purposefully creating the image of a responsible employer, enticing potential workers with contracts higher than the tariffs in the field. The contrast is enormous and Czech couriers are by far the worst off,” explains political scientist Kateřina Smejkalová, whose research focuses on platform capitalism and German-speaking countries.
It’s No Better Anywhere Else
Another Czech delivery company, Dáme jídlo (who name can be loosely translated as “Let’s Eat”), also founded by Tomáš Čupr, has a similar shift system to Rohlík. Unlike the Finnish Wolt, who also operates a food delivery service in the Czech Republic, one in which couriers can log in and out as they need, this Czech company created a system of shifts in which couriers have to sign up in advance, guaranteeing the amount of time and deliveries they can do in a day. It seems that the tradition of pseudo-employment in the Czech Republic mutated with the arrival of platform capitalism, creating a new system that gives workers neither the illusory freedom of an independent “partner” nor the security of the employee, with technological companies such as Rohlik.cz or Damejidlo.cz taking the worst of both worlds.
The poor negotiating position of the Rohlík couriers was uncovered during the dispute over the new rewards system. For the second round of talks between couriers and the company, Rohlík arrived accompanied by their lawyers and the negotiation process included threatening the couriers with a lawsuit if they were to continue with their protest or even, God forbid, go on strike. As the union lawyer Šárka Homfray mentioned in her article in Hospodářské noviny, “the strike is a privilege reserved for employees”, false self-employment and “partnership” does not provide workers with this legal advantage, meaning the strike could, in fact, and up in court on charges of loss of profit. “You chose the uncultured path and you expect that you will be treated in a cultured manner. There are calls spreading on social media now for people to report us to the authorities… That is a result of your communication strategy – it might cost us clients and you will earn less. It might cost us money and you will earn less. And if, for instance, the state orders us to change our model in relation to you, it will, again, only impact you,” wrote Tomáš Čupr in a letter to the Rohlík couriers, a letter that ended with the traditional “if you don’t like it, you can get out”. Of course, couriers can always “get out”. But, as Saša Uhlová explained in a recent commentary piece, it’s no better elsewhere. Poor labour conditions elsewhere, however, should not be an argument to make them even worse at Rohlík, particularly when its owner, Tomáš Čupr, has no qualms about investing billions of crowns in other countries, countries where he simply would not dare treat employees this way.
Pavel Šplichal is senior editorial board member of the A2larm.cz online portal, sociologist and journalist.