Sunday 25 September 2022

Fancy a takeaway …from someone earning slave wages?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It was impressive to learn that, despite not being unionised, 300 Bolt drivers managed to organise themselves enough to stage a one day strike to demand better salaries and working conditions.

It is even more impressive to learn that there are over 300 couriers dashing around the island, delivering food. So perhaps the first question we should be asking is, when did we become a nation which is so desperate to have food delivered to the doorstep of our home or office that this kind of employment is necessary? The answer is simple: when a semi-lockdown forced restaurants to close, they reworked their business model to offer takeaways in order not to lose their clientele and end up bankrupt. After everything opened again, not only did this business model continue, but has flourished immeasurably.

Bolt (and later Wolt) immediately zeroed in on this niche market and has not looked back since. Likewise, customers have also become used to the convenience of tapping their phones to order what they want and have it come to them. I am the first to agree that having anything delivered is a welcome relief, but when it comes to takeaways, there is a hidden cost which is what eventually led to the strike. Behind the ease and convenience of having food at our fingertips, there are the human faces of those riding their bikes with the familiar green backpacks strapped to their backs. The public has long been complaining about the risky, haphazard driving of these couriers as they zig zag their way around traffic while covering the entire island at breakneck speed. Yet the huge demand for takeaways has not waned – so do we have a situation where people are complaining on the one hand about the (admittedly) dangerous driving in all weather conditions, but then are not averse to ordering food via the app and throwing a hissy fit if it’s late?

As you sit there impatiently waiting for your food, perhaps it is also time to spare a few minutes and consider the background of the employees, many of whom have come to a foreign country on the promise of a good livelihood, but end up being paid slave wages instead.

An investigation into the food delivery business by DIER (Department for Industrial and Employment Relations) found that most third country nationals are employed by an agency which is sub-contracted, which means the driver is paid by his agency, which is then paid by Bolt and Wolt.

According to a news report about the investigation, which was published in April:

“statutory bonuses and COLA are not always paid, overtime, sick leave and vacation leave are not covered, work carried out on public holidays is compensated at a flat rate and the proof of payment does not correspond to the payslips.”

Please note, however that this investigation was carried out last year – but nothing much happened to improve their situation, hence the strike.

What we are saying is that the Government entity which is there to ensure that employment law is adhered to, is fully aware that the law is being flouted right under its nose (those green jackets zooming around are pretty hard to miss) and yet…what? Is it admitting that it is powerless to do anything about it?

Further reports have confirmed that some of these drivers make between €2.66 and €3 an hour when the minimum wage is €4.57. Others make as little as €2.10 per delivery and only manage to make around 10 deliveries per day, working 11-hour long days. “For every delivery I made, Bolt paid €5.50 to the agency that employed us,” said one food courier. The reason we are seeing so many couriers hanging around outside restaurants is that they are all waiting for their phones to ping so as to make the fastest delivery possible…the competition has increased and they are not paid for that ‘idle’ time. 

Most of the drivers come from Nepal and India (where they also drive on the left) and are used to riding scooters. According to the replies given to the press by one recruitment agency, it costs around a €1,000 for each driver to get a work permit while the visa process with the embassy takes from four to six months. While this particular agency said that it pays for the drivers’ attire, fuel and mobile phone, others deduct all these expenses from the drivers’ salary. Sick leave and vacation leave? Forget it. Again, all this is being done in full view, the authorities know about it, and yet the exploitation blatantly continues.

This lack of action by a so-called Labour Government to protect vulnerable workers is bad enough, but what really disgusted me was the reaction from some quarters about the strike. Instead of showing solidarity with these employees when they went out on strike, many chose to be flippant; one website even wrote the caption, “you better start thinking ahead about what you are going to order for Friday night”. Wow. How nice to know that that was their biggest concern.

The string of comments underneath the story showed a similar lack of empathy, missing the point completely and choosing instead to moan about the dangerous driving and saying “good, we will get them off our roads”. A few went further and complained about the “dirty” drivers and filthy backpacks. The callousness of such remarks is just nauseating because it demonstrates that too many simply do not really consider Third Country Nationals as people, but simply as slaves who are doing jobs under working conditions which no Maltese would ever accept. What Bolt clients should have done is to support the drivers by complaining to the company about their appalling conditions instead.

As someone rightly pointed out, the proliferation of the food couriers means many people are using them, and the fact that they are speeding and being reckless is because customers demand instant delivery. As long as they remain underpaid, every time you use that food app, you are part of the problem.

Think about that next time you “fancy a takeaway”.

“I am happy because I choose to be happy…”

It’s not easy finding positive things to write about because, inevitably, bad news makes the headlines more quickly. A man was the victim of a hit and run this week and yet rather than driving more carefully and using our cars less, no one is doing anything about the unsustainable number of cars and road safety. When you have one hopeless Transport Minister being replaced by one who is equally clueless, it is easy to turn to despair. Minister Aaron Farrugia this week actually blamed the horrendous traffic on the village feasts. His next pearl of wisdom was that roads are being built to make car travel easier, so cyclists should not expect to be given priority. Not that he needed to spell this out, because the design of some of the new roads makes it amply clear – but for him to come right out and say it, well, there are not enough face palms in the world.

It was therefore a relief to read the uplifting story of a young man, Vincenzo Garofalo, who despite losing his leg in a horrific motorcycle accident in Malta, says that he has made the deliberate choice to be happy.

“Two years ago, when I travelled in Europe, I met some people who were Shamans [a religious practice in which people have access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits] and they told me happiness is a choice. For two years I tried to understand what these words mean. Why a choice? But, after the accident and the coma, I understand. Now I chose.”

Once he gets a suitable prosthetic leg, the former football referee says he plans to take up a sport as a Paralympian and continue his passion for travel.

This story stumped me in so many ways. How can someone who woke up from a coma to find his leg was gone still remain so positive? The rest of us, myself included, sometimes wallow in our (perceived) misery over setbacks which are very minor in comparison. And yet, at 28, this man has already discovered and appreciated one of life’s important lessons…to count our blessings and focus on what we are able to do, rather than what is holding us back.

Because, in reality, what often holds us back, is simply ourselves.

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