Riders for Europe’s Delivery ‘Unicorn’ Report Grueling Delivery Times and Back Pain

The Berlin-based delivery startup promises to get groceries to customers’ front doors in just 10 minutes, but that promise comes at a price.
May 24, 2021, 1:00pm
gorillas
Image: Gorillas 

Kağan Sümer, co-founder and CEO of the just over a year-old on-demand grocery delivery company Gorillas, compares his company’s warehouses to a water polo locker room. 

“You walk in, there’s like loud techno music playing,” Sümer told OMR, one of Germany’s largest startup podcasts. “Everyone, you know, goes for the same goal, I love it.” 

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While Gorillas offers its workers “cool rider swag” and “a supportive team” on its website, eight riders Motherboard spoke to painted a different picture of what working for the company is actually like. The riders, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, described grueling delivery schedules, chaotic management, and inadequate regard for their safety. 

In a response to a set of questions from Motherboard, a Gorillas spokesperson acknowledged that “as a young and fast growing company, it is common to experience disruption and inconsistencies as new processes and structures are implemented,” but emphasized that “a sense of belonging and community is an essential part of Gorillas, and something that we pride ourselves on.”

The riders’ concerns come at a time when Gorillas is rapidly expanding across Europe. In March, Gorillas raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding in and reached a $1 billion valuation, making it the fastest growing ‘unicorn’ in Europe

Some experts are skeptical however, and it remains unclear whether Gorillas is running solely on hype or an actually tangible business model.

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That’s because unlike grocery delivery apps like Instacart, which tend to focus on larger deliveries, Gorillas looks to service both larger and smaller orders, such as a few forgotten ingredients, a six-pack of beer, etc. To do this, the company has set up a network of its own hyperlocal fulfillment centers, cutting supermarkets out of the picture entirely. 

Gorillas’ primary selling point is that it can deliver groceries—with no minimum order amount—to a customer’s front door in just 10 minutes with a delivery fee of €1.80 (~$2.15).

Unlike Instacart and Doordash riders in the United States, Gorillas riders are direct employees and can choose between a part-time and full-time contract. 

The experience of working for Gorillas can vary depending on the warehouse a rider is assigned. Some "rider ops"—managers responsible for day-to-day logistics in warehouses—are friendly, others frantically usher riders and fail to even designate proper break times, according to the workers Motherboard spoke to. 

This can get even worse during rush hour, which one rider described as “absolute hell.” Another said that just the thought of the loud and constant pinging notifying workers of a new order that echoes through the warehouse during busy times gives them “extreme anxiety.” 

“There’s so much pressure to scan and deliver orders,” one rider in Germany said. “Especially when they [orders] are all lined up or back-to-back. It comes from the rider ops but also from the warehouse managers.” 

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“There’s been a lot of times where I’ve had to skip going to the bathroom,” they continued. “I’ve seen a lot of warehouse managers yelling.” 

Once out of the warehouse, inadequate equipment becomes an issue. The e-bikes Gorillas delivery drivers use have no suspension and low-quality tires, riders said, making them unsuitable for cobblestone streets in cities like Berlin. The delivery backpacks are thinner than those used by UberEats, meaning that heavy items slide around while riding, making it both painful for riders’ backs and harder to balance. 

With some riders cycling for 50 miles in an eight-hour shift and grocery deliveries often weighing far more than the average takeout order—especially when delivering alcohol—many riders complain of back pain. In an informal survey of 156 Gorillas riders conducted in a Gorillas workers Telegram group seen by Motherboard, 50 percent responded that “long term back pain” was their primary concern. 

Back pain is also a common theme on the popular Instagram account gorillasriderlife, a meme account that jokes about the difficulties of being a Gorillas rider. One meme is an image of a funeral casket labelled “your back.” 

Riders also pointed out that Gorillas only offered safety training in April, nearly a year after the company was launched. 

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Gorillas said there is a maximum weight limit of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) per ride and that the company uses “the top e-bikes suitable for food delivery on the market.” 

Many feel an extreme pressure to deliver within the short time window set by the app. Gorillas keeps detailed rider statistics (although Gorillas claims these are currently only used for shift planning) and those working within the six-month probation period can be fired in Germany without reason. Some riders reported exactly that happening, although Gorillas claims this only happens in cases with “major grievances.” 

Safety and equipment issues came to a head on the weekend of February 7, when the Netherlands and Germany were hit with the largest snowstorm in a decade. Despite sub-zero temperatures and icy streets, riders in Berlin claimed that the company required them to report to work anyways. 

Four Berlin-based riders told Motherboard that riders from two city warehouses unanimously voted to go on strike on Monday, February 8, followed by a third warehouse on Tuesday. German weekly newspaper Der Spiegel and the Supermarkt blog also reported on the strike. 

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Gorillas told Supermarkt blog that there was no strike at all. In an email to Motherboard, Gorillas claimed that it became aware of “these objections” as they were beginning to close down operations and that “the timing of these objections coincided with our decision to close until the bad weather had passed.”

It’s important to note that most of the riders Motherboard spoke to said they felt working at Gorillas was a far better option than working for competitors like Deliveroo, but some thought the comparison sets a low bar. 

In Germany, apps like Gorillas are one of the few places where non-German speakers can find low-level work. The majority of riders, the sources Motherboard spoke to said, come from outside Germany and there is apparently a running joke that Gorillas’ national language should be Spanish. 

Given this, riders reported that many employees were not informed about local labor regulations. Six riders accused Gorillas of exploiting this lack of knowledge in some cases, and of doing little unless riders actively exercised their rights. 

“After one late-night shift I was absolutely exhausted but was scheduled for a shift early the next morning,” one rider whose first language was Spanish said. “Under German law, you have to have at least 11 hours between shifts, but I wasn’t aware of that. I was preparing to get up and work the next morning until a coworker of mine told me about this rule. If he hadn't told me I would’ve had no idea and gone to work.” 

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Riders report difficulties when reaching out to Gorillas for help. While the company has a dedicated email account for rider support, all the riders Motherboard spoke to said that the account is often unhelpful, slow to respond, or in some cases entirely unresponsive (this is also a running joke on the gorillasriderslife Instagram account). 

One area where this becomes problematic is payment. Hours can go missing or unpaid, three riders claimed. In one internal message sent to riders in May seen by Motherboard, Gorillas acknowledged that “some of you [riders] might have experienced payroll issues recently” and guaranteed that “any discrepancies in this month's payroll will be compensated in the next payroll.” 

In an email to Motherboard, Gorillas blamed the missing hours on riders not using their system properly, stating that “Gorillas’ time-tracking system is our source of truth” and that “If riders don’t punch-in and out, the hours may not be correct at the end of the month.” 

The atmosphere among coworkers is for the most part friendly, riders say, and has been a welcome relief in the social isolation that has come with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some accused Gorillas of cultivating a laid-back atmosphere only to exploit it later. 

Rather than hiring construction workers or moving companies, two riders said they and other riders had been asked to come in to help move between warehouses and build shelves for a new one. While both riders were offered their usual hourly rate, one of the two said that he has still yet to receive pay for overtime hours he worked setting up a new warehouse. Gorillas told Motherboard this only happens on “rare occasions.” 

In the wake of concerns over working conditions and chaotic management, some Gorillas riders have begun organizing, forming the Gorillas Workers Collective. On June 3, a general assembly for Gorillas employees in Berlin will be held to begin the process of potentially forming a works council. 

In Germany, works councils have co-determination rights when it comes to things like break times, camera surveillance, and safety arrangements. 

In forming a work council, riders hope to create a more equitable space for each other, and future riders as Gorillas expands. 

“I do actually care about the company,” one rider who was involved in the organization effort said. “I just want conditions improved. I don’t want to be exploited.” 

“I care about my coworkers deeply,” he continued. “We’re all in this together and we have to stick together. Otherwise nobody will listen to us.”