Courier strikes spotlight lack of worker rights in Azerbaijan

During the pandemic, “violating workers' rights has become a social norm.”

Sabina Abubakirova

As it did in many parts of the world, the delivery business in Azerbaijan boomed during the Covid pandemic. 

About 65 percent of Bakuvians used online food delivery services in 2020. Wolt, the most popular delivery app in Baku, tripled its revenue worldwide in 2020, and in 2021 also tripled the number of drivers it had under contract. While there aren’t specific numbers for Azerbaijan, local analysts say it probably grew by comparable amounts there, as well.

For Aykhan, one driver who worked for both Wolt and a major competitor, Bolt, it was a good time. Despite the risk of infection from contact with so many customers, drivers could make up to 150 manats ($88) a day, and an additional 35 manat ($21) bonus for the 100th order in a day. Drivers didn’t even mind that the company eliminated a minimum hourly income that they would make during slow periods, because there weren’t any slow periods.

“No one in the country was making more than we were,” said Aykhan, who asked that his last name not be used to avoid reprisals from Wolt.

But things changed as Azerbaijan began softening its pandemic restrictions and people again began to go out to grocery stores and restaurants. Business for delivery companies dropped, and all of the drivers whom the firms brought on during the pandemic found themselves with less work. Wolt reduced its pay for drivers from 1.9 to 1.6 manats per kilometer, and didn’t restore the minimum payment during slow periods. And the company kept hiring drivers, spreading the available work even thinner.  

A group of Wolt drivers, including Aykhan, went on strike in April. The action was modest, only representing a fraction of drivers working for the company, and the organizers had to keep their identities secret to avoid reprisals from the company. Nevertheless, it was believed to be the first strike by gig workers in Azerbaijan.

Eventually Wolt agreed to increase the rates they paid drivers at peak times, but still less than it was paying before. Now, a driver might make 50 manats ($29) for a 10-hour shift working for two companies at the same time, Aykhan said. 

Several of the couriers reported, meanwhile, that they had been fired for going on strike. “The company just showed that they ignored us,” Aykhan said.

In a statement to local media, a local representative for Wolt denied it had fired any of the striking drivers, and said that the rates the company paid were “based on current demand” and “remain at market level.” Wolt’s office in Azerbaijan did not respond to Eurasianet's request for comment. 

Self-employment and the gig economy

Gig work like being a delivery driver can offer many benefits, like flexibility and the ability to earn decent incomes in good times. But it also leaves workers exposed to arbitrary dismissal and with no minimum wage, health care, holidays or other benefits.

Wolt drivers have to pay their own income tax, a social protection tax, and health insurance. Wolt has a contract with a company to provide health insurance, which drivers are obliged to buy, though Aykhan says drivers don’t trust the insurance to cover everything after hearing of some work injuries that weren’t covered. Workers also must buy all the equipment they need for the job, including their own scooter and fuel. Altogether, Aykhan said, a driver who earned 1,000 manats a month would run up expenses of about 260 manats ($153) – and that’s after buying the scooter.

The work can be dangerous, too: The country has recently seen a rise in road accidents involving delivery drivers. The government has responded by saying it will implement harsher penalties for violations by scooter drivers. 

Poor conditions are not unusual in Azerbaijan’s service sector, in which 49 percent of the country’s workers are employed. The International Labor Organization has reported that Azerbaijan has the world's highest rate of service-sector worker fatalities. 

And Azerbaijan’s labor regulations have yet to catch up with the rise of the gig economy, worker advocates say.

“With the standard service contract [that gig workers get], couriers have fewer rights than they should. They should have the same rights as an employee, or at least their rights should be significantly broadened,” said Farid Rustamzade, the founder of the Institute for Labor Rights Advocacy.

But the lack of rights is built into the gig economy model, critics say.

“The gig economy has one problem: Most of these companies do not make a profit,” said economist Toghrul Valiyev. “They first lure workers with high daily incomes, then in subsequent stages they start to reduce those incomes but because they don’t have work contracts, workers have two options: to stay or leave.” Because of high unemployment in Azerbaijan, the companies can relatively easily find replacements for people who leave, he said. 

“The gig economy is expanding and will gradually take over more and more sectors,” he said. “Workers need to understand that this will lead to more exploitation, because all the expenses and responsibilities will be on them. And that’s when these companies will start to turn a profit.”

Violating workers' rights “has become a social norm” 

Gig workers are far from the only unprotected workers in Azerbaijan, where employment without a contract, nonpayment of salaries, forced overtime and noncompliance with labor regulations are pervasive, Rustamzade said. 

“During the pandemic, these problems became even more pronounced. Violating workers' rights has become a social norm in society,” he said. 

It is also becoming a legal norm. In 2018, parliament was drafting a new labor code, and another labor rights NGO, the Oil Workers’ Rights Protection Organization, made several suggestions. “They added them to the draft but never allowed them to pass to discussion,” said Mirvari Gahramanli, the head of the organization. 

She attributed that to the fact that many members of parliament represent businesses. In addition, the Azerbaijan Trade Union Confederation, which represents most unions in the country and claims over 1.1 million members, is headed by a pro-government MP, Sattar Mohbaliyev.

In 2015, parliament passed a law by which the State Labor Inspection Service stopped investigating workplaces on its own and now only looks into reports based on official complaints from a worker. But “workers often turn a blind eye to exploitation because of fear of losing their jobs and do not complain to inspectors,” Rustamzade said. 

Workers can also, in theory, sue their employers for violations, but that rarely works, either, he said. 

“Workers often don’t go to court because they don’t believe their complaints will be investigated fairly, and they don’t have the financial resources to hire a lawyer. So most labor rights violations go unpunished, and employers continue to exploit them,” he said.

Still, there appears to be a modest increase in labor action following the end of the pandemic. This year so far has seen protests from workers at the state railroad company, a major oil refinery, and a state hospital, among others.  

Aykhan, meanwhile, is back to work driving for delivery companies, including Wolt. “Everyone is keeping their head down and working. They complain from time to time, but the situation isn’t changing,” he said.

The reason the strike failed, he said, was “the lack of self-confidence among the couriers.” Most drivers “refused to join because they were thinking, ‘if I strike, then others would go and work. They will earn the money I wouldn’t be earning.’”

Sabina Abubakirova is an Azerbaijani journalist.