The Wolt Experiment Modern Slavery in the Gig Economy, Or: My Week as a Wolt Delivery Guy

Wolt's algorithm makes you feel like you’re in a computer game, and winning means running red lights with one hand on the wheel and against traffic. Why? Because the clock shows less than three minutes left for the delivery, and for some reason, that begins to matter to you

“Just as long as no one I know sees me” was the first thought that came to mind when I was given the assignment of spending a week as a Wolt courier, delivering food “to go” from Tel Aviv restaurants. I’m not sure why I felt embarrassed, since there’s is no shame in any honest work – and all the more so if the job pays a lot – as quickly became clear. But the second feeling I had – of existential angst – made perfect sense given that I was about to spend a week on a bicycle in Israel in the August heat.

Wolt, the Finnish food delivery app founded in 2014 by 29-year-old Miki Kuusi, is everything that food lovers around the world had been dreaming of: the chance in the here and now to obtain everything that’s served there later. Acclaimed restaurants that hadn’t had their own delivery service have now become accessible in Tel Aviv for just 10 shekels ($2.80).

Wolt’s power lies in the company’s couriers who fill the city streets like sand at the beach. Their large numbers, mobility and wide distribution around the city enable the company to maintain very quick delivery times, which is what satisfies customers.

Those applying to be couriers receive a brief questionnaire, which I surprisingly passed with flying colors. (Sample question: “Customer doesn’t give you a tip. What do you do? – Curse them out; break into a wild ritual dance to bring curses on their heads; or smile politely.”) I was invited to a training session attended by fifty men, two women and one very enthusiastic female instructor who was determined to market Wolt as the world’s greatest gift to humanity.

Wolt’s blue courier bag is “a bag we developed ourselves, with unique technology,” we were told. The couriers are “the face of the Wolt family, who can make 20,000 shekels a month” and the app is supported by an algorithm that will take care of all your needs. This algorithm and I were destined to meet, and it would vanquish me, big-time.

When the introductory session was over, I was invited to another one, this time for “equipment pickup training.” What was there to talk about there? I wasn’t sure. What did occur at this session (aside from picking up our gear) was making it clear to us that the couriers are actually freelancers.

Wait a minute, isn’t “our face” supposed to be part of our Wolt family? Not quite. The couriers are not company employees. They are deemed service providers. They issue receipts for each payment from Wolt, rather than it being considered a salary, and the company is spared from dealing with trifling matters such as employee pension payments and sick pay or vacation days.

Such dystopian job conditions notwithstanding, the company has created a new employment horizon. Anyone can be a courier, as long as they have two wheels. And they don’t have to commit to any specific hours, apart from promising to work two weekly shifts.

Tomer Appelbaum

On my very first shift, I discovered that while I didn’t have a boss, I most definitely had a stand-in for a boss. The algorithm decides everything – where you go and what you pick up and when the next delivery order comes. There is no option to say no.

All you can do is press the “I’m on it” button on the app. Couriers don’t even know their delivery destination until the moment they receive the order. There’s no way to plan ahead, or even to have a conversation with anyone that doesn’t include the words “This is the Wolt courier. I’m here.”

Five minutes into my first delivery, I went to the wrong building. It was a quick jog between buildings to find the right one, hoisting my bike on my shoulder. Then I climbed four flights of stairs, knocked on the door – and then, a 10-shekel tip in my pocket: Thirty shekels for 10 minutes’ work. Not bad at all.

Wolt pays 20 shekels for each delivery, plus a bonus when the distance exceeds two kilometers (a mile and a quarter). One could easily earn 80 shekels an hour this way, not including tips. In the course of shifts ranging from one to four hours, I never made less than 75 shekels an hour. There aren’t many odd jobs that pay that well.

Ofer Vaknin

After some missteps navigating and one serious traffic violation, I began to ask myself: “Why am I rushing?” Something about the immediacy of the app, which tosses you from one assignment to the next, is addictive. You feel like you’re inside a computer game in which winning means running red lights with one hand on the wheel and against traffic. Why? Because the clock shows less than three minutes left to make the delivery and for some reason, that begins to matter to you.

With eyes nearly blinded by sweat that keeps dripping into them, a back drenched and stuck to the Wolt backpack, a sense of responsibility sneaks into your mindset. Somebody is waiting for their food right now, and it all depends upon you. Your success is their success, your failure means their hunger. The job is transformed into a real mission.

Judging by the unrepresentative sample of the hours that I worked, I have concluded that Israelis basically fancy themselves Italians. Everyone orders pasta. Pasta salad for office workers for lunch, simple spaghetti (with tomato sauce or mushrooms or Bolognese sauce) for dinner with the kids, and creamier and more elaborate pasta for parents and lazy types at night. Why do people order pasta? It’s not quite clear – given that it’s pretty much the easiest food to make.

In second place after pasta comes pizza, followed by just about anything you can think of – hummus, jahnoun (traditional Yemenite Jewish rolled pastry), burgers, ice cream, almond juice – the possibilities are almost endless.

Tel Aviv is being transformed. Such profound insight occurred to me when I was dispatched to the mighty high-rises that have sprung up on Begin Boulevard. There is now a real disparity between those who dine on high, overlooking the most beautiful city in the world,and those who consume their fare far down below, gazing up like a cockroach at the ugliest city in the universe. And there’s another way in which residents of heavenly Tel Aviv differ from earthly Tel Aviv, in the heart of the city, and that’s tipping.

One can argue over whether couriers deserve a tip, but it turns out that it was actually the faster deliveries in the city center that generally produced the nice 10-shekel tips. Residents of the high-rises – where getting to them involved a longer trip on hazardous streets, locking up the bike, a trickier time figuring out just where to go and a long ride up a fancy elevator – didn’t feel the need to tip.

ערן לאור

Muscle cramps

After the fun of the first two shifts, augmented by some nice tips, the physical difficulty of the job started to take its toll – cramped leg muscles, an aching back, a behind that was being molded into the shape of a bicycle seat and demoralizing emotional fatigue brought on by the Sisyphean aspect of the job. Being a bike courier is a job that’s not easy to do for long. By the end of my final shift, I felt a powerful desire to just leave the customer without his order, and to hell with the algorithm. That didn’t happen, of course.

Before my time with Wolt, I had viewed couriers for Israeli competitor Ten Bis with disdain. Their branding is orange, which is an ugly color. Their logo is in Hebrew and the bag they carry is not nearly as cool as the Wolt bag. But within hours of my new job, I was jealous of them.

The Ten Bis couriers are salaried, they don’t chase after deliveries, they don’t put their lives at risk, and they get to sit around and joke with their colleagues. They are workers, not slaves.

And that’s biggest problem with Wolt, the hint of the terrible future that is just waiting to happen under the auspices of technology, convenience and those evil algorithms. Such algorithms already control more and more aspects of our lives, from managing traffic to the news that we are exposed to – but now with the help of Wolt, they can manage our work day too. You just supply your body. King Algorithm looks after everything else.

Why should that bother a hungry customer? Why should it interest a diner that a brainless computer mouse and a body that is nothing but muscles, like a hamster running on a wheel in its cage, is bringing dinner? The customer can sit at home and enjoy tech globalization in all its glory.

But this technology will not stop with delivery people working for Wolt – which has already been experimenting with robots to replace us. It will lead to additional victims run over by that sacred algorithm.

Tomer Appelbaum

Wolt may be a good thing for the food industry, and certainly for foodies, but along the way, it is doing what Uber did to taxi drivers, what Facebook has done to newspapers and what Apple is doing to Chinese workers.

Technological capitalism destroys the weak and enslaves the strong. The inconceivable fact that in advanced Western countries, members of the middle class need a second job to survive financially is cause for despair. This despair is not made any easier by the realization that these companies are pushing out local competitors and concentrating market control, as they shift profits to distant corporate headquarters.

Even if none of this causes you concern, soon Amazon will be making its appearance in Israel. At its warehouses in Britain, some people reportedly have had to urinate in bottles and skip bathroom breaks so they can deliver packages to you within 24 hours. There too, the algorithm takes care of everything.

Suddenly working with a human boss doesn’t seem so bad to me.

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