Food Delivery Drivers Walk Off in Pay Protest

The mass walkout revived concerns about labor conditions in the country.

A delivery driver for the app Deliveroo prepares to make a delivery, in Dubai, Sept. 9, 2021.
A delivery driver for the app Deliveroo prepares to make a delivery, in Dubai, Sept. 9, 2021.
AP Photo/Jon Gambrell, File

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Food-delivery drivers protesting wage cuts and grueling working conditions went on an extremely rare strike in Dubai over the weekend — a mass walkout that paralyzed one of the country’s main delivery apps and revived concerns about labor conditions in the emirate.

The strike started late Saturday and ended early Monday, when London-based Deliveroo agreed in a letter to riders to restore workers’ pay to $2.79 per delivery instead of the proposed rate of $2.38 that had ignited the work stoppage as the company tried to cut costs amid surging fuel prices.

The Amazon-backed firm also backtracked on its plan to extend working shifts to 14 hours a day.

“It is clear that some of our original intentions have not been clear and we are listening to riders,” Deliveroo said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We have therefore currently paused all changes and will be working with our agency riders to ensure we have a structure that works for everyone and has our agency riders’ best interest at heart.”

Strikes remain illegal in the United Arab Emirates, an autocratic federation of seven sheikhdoms that bans unions and criminalizes dissent. The Dubai government did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the strike.

Delivery workers in Dubai, who became a mainstay in the financial hub as demand boomed during the pandemic, have few protections.

To reduce cost, companies like Deliveroo outsource bikes, logistics and responsibility to contracting agencies — a labor pipeline that prevails across Gulf Arab states and can lead to mistreatment. Many impoverished migrants are plunged into debt paying their contractors exorbitant visa fees to secure their jobs.

The British food delivery service is valued at over $8 billion.

News of the pay cut at Deliveroo — announced internally last week as the cost of fuel soars amid fallout from the war in Ukraine and continuing supply chain chokeholds — was devastating for 30-year-old driver Mohammadou Labarang.

Already, he was paying for the UAE's record fuel prices out of his own pocket and barely scraping by, he said, with a wife and 7-month-old son back in Cameroon to support.

When Labarang logged onto social media, he found he was far from alone. Soon, he said, hundreds of Deliveroo drivers were organizing on Telegram and WhatsApp.

Dozens of drivers parked their bikes by various Deliveroo warehouses in protest, according to footage widely shared on social media. Some shut down their apps. Others rested at their accommodations and refused to work. Others went to restaurants and urged fellow couriers to stop mid-shift.

“All around Dubai we saw food getting cold on restaurant counters,” Labarang said. “It grew far beyond what anybody thought possible."

As a result, the Deliveroo app — one of the most popular delivery apps in the country, particularly during the final days of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan — was largely down over the weekend.

Some drivers shared WhatsApp voice messages with the AP from their managers at contracting agencies demanding that they return to work immediately and “don't involve yourself in any illegal activity.”

Aware they risk detention and expulsion for striking, drivers were quick to stress their protest was in no way political.

“We know the rules, we know it's sensitive, this is not against the UAE,” said a 30-year-old Pakistani driver named Mohammed, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

But he said he also risks his life each day, zipping around Dubai's dangerous roads without accident insurance.

“We are human,” he said as he mounted his motorbike, returning to the grind in downtown Dubai after the strike. “We are not robots.”

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