This article is arranged by a secret group inside Iran called the “Organizing Committee of Unstable Workers”. The main aim of this committee is to provide theoretical answers to the problem of instability in both the political and trade union spheres and take practical steps to organize unstable workers. Snappfood is the largest company in Iran which can be characterized as part of the gig economy, so is an easy choice for the work of the committee. The focus of this work is to document and analyze the nature of the company, the working and living conditions of their employees, and the background to the strikes which have taken place. The second part will focus on the strikes themselves and all the issues surrounding the workers’ struggle in Snappfood.
Before we fully turn our attention to Snappfood, let’s briefly explain what the organizing Committee of Unstable Workers is and why it was formed. Despite the expansion of workers’ organization – which can be seen in the increase in workers’ protests over the past years – the majority of workers in Iran are still unable to organize. One of the most important reasons for this is the structural destabilization of the workforce over the past three decades, which has become one of the most important characteristics of the working class in Iran. The rupture of workplace relations, the dispersion and downsizing of production units, the emergence of contractors, the abolition of permanent contracts and the prevalence of blank contracts and other arrangements deprive the labor force of even a minimal stability. Today, more than ever, there is a need to resist the onslaught of capital and all the seemingly conflicting political forces that represent it, and to organize the working class. The questions posed by the unstable workers and the actions required to organize in the situation of instability require different theoretical answers and practical measures to the situation in which the labor force experienced some form of stability. Therefore, the committee attempted to do the theoretical groundwork to explain the precarious working conditions and take practical steps to organize unstable workers.
As instability can drive committee members out of their existing union positions at any time, and wherever they sell their labor power today is temporary, the union between the members of the committee is almost meaningless. In this sense, this committee is not a trade union body. What unites the members is the common political beliefs among them. This is perhaps one of the new aspects of organising in the state of instability that the members of this committee themselves are experiencing. It is clear to us that this form of collective action is not dismissive of trade union activities, but rather the Committee believes that trade unions should be established in order to take practical action to organise unstable workers.
Snappfood as an e-commerce startup
Snappfood is a division of Snap Company, the largest startup company in Iran. In recent years, the number of e-commerce startups has increased. Due to this recent growth, we start by analysing the nature of this type of business.
The nature of startup companies
Free and flexible labor, transportation contracting, semi-voluntary or sub-employer labor, and the like, sound positive or neutral but are deceiving, are all used by capitalists and supporters of this sector of the economy. However, what is found after analyzing the working and living conditions of the workers in this sector is a new form of exploitation hidden under the innocent labels and the widespread propaganda around startups. For instance, the workers of this sector in Iran are not recognized in labor and social security laws which could provide minimum welfare conditions for workers.
At this point in time, on one hand, we face companies with an army of casualized workers who are in competition with others in taking advantage of almost free labor to maximize profit. On the other hand, the ruling class passes labor laws with a vague definition of employer/employee relation, so the employer can have their own exploitative interpretation of the law. All these laws follow the government’s agreement with world powers and obedience to the advice of international economic organizations (the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization) to ensure security and the possibility of foreign investment in the country. As a case in point, more than 80% of Snappfood’s shareholders are based outside of Iran.
Instability, lawlessness, and cheapening of domestic labor attract more and more of these kinds of investments. The situation altogether is a paradise for the defenders of the free market and market-based economy they promise will bring “prosperity”. Meanwhile, the structural corruption, embodied by the Revolutionary Guards, for example, and looting of powerful institutions under the leadership of the supreme leader should not be ignored.
Working and Living Conditions of Snappfood’s Workers
Wages: it seems that what matters most for Snappfood’s workers is the question of wages. Rises in rents and living costs, with increasing inflation in the country has rendered the wages insufficient since the wages are below the already paltry minimum wage. In addition, we have to subtract the daily costs of workers from the wage. These consist of the costs of caring for vehicles including fuel, oil changes, tire replacement, and vehicle insurance as well as those of a cell phone with an internet package, clothing, and food. Meanwhile, there are workers whose motorcycles are rented, so a large part of their daily income would be spent on the hire.
Precarization: The Precarization of Snappfood workers can be analyzed from different dimensions. Firstly, Snappfood have taken full advantage of the labor laws applying to ‘flexible’ employment, and not given any consideration to working conditions. This is clear in the labor contracts between the workers and the company. These contracts are not even in accordance with the conditions of temporary contracts asserted in the labor code. Regarding the features of these contracts, we can point to the “guarantee plan” (which imposed longer working hours), setting a cap for the amount a driver can refue an order (which forced the couriers to work more because in the case of increasing refusal the company would temporarily block the courier) and giving some deliveries to another type of Snapp couriers, Snapp Box, which effectively increased competition among the workers.
Hardship Allowance and Job Security: As well as the problems mentioned above, another hardship of Snappfood couriers is the lack of job security and occupational accidents. Driving in summer and winter, long-lasting rush hours, difficult road conditions, high rates of accidents, the company’s lack of support for the couriers when they have problems with the restaurants or customers, and more importantly lack of work insurance, covering sickness and accidents for the couriers have brought about varying physical and psychological damage to the workers. In a report by the International Labor Organization, anxiety was listed as one of the most serious problems of workers in the gig economy which is certainly related to the precarization of labor.
How is Snappfood managed?
The way Snappfood is run has a great impact on the outcome of workers’ struggles. Our analysis will focus on how the organization’s structure controls the drivers and exerts power over them. The analysis of the structure can not only help us to identify the reasons for failures in past strikes, but also reveals that how past strikes created the context for the subsequent ones. The important aspects of Snappfood structure are the division of regions and the management of each by a representative; identity-based connections; and the software application used by drivers. In the following, we will explain these aspects and their implications in workers’ lives.
Regional division: Given the size of the city of Tehran, it seems necessary to separate it according to municipal areas, but at the same time, this separation has imposed restrictions on the organization of Snappfood workers. Each district has a supervisor and a representative. Each driver works in one area, and moving to other areas is usually difficult. The average number of active drivers per day in each area is 250, and it is not easy to communicate with drivers in other neighbourhoods due to the lack of regular and daily work connections. In a Snapfood strike, apart from the total number of striking drivers, the number of areas involved in a strike is also significant. The more areas affected by a strike, the more disruption is inflicted on the company’s profit cycle, resulting in stronger pressure on the company. For instance, during the strike in December 2019, almost all areas were involved. However, not every strike reaches the same coverage as this one.
Warden: Each district has a warden employed by the company. A warden’s responsibility is to deal with the problems of delivery couriers and the relationship between them and the restaurants. But a warden’s main responsibility is to observe the activities of the delivery couriers. They are the immediate representative, in each district, of the company’s management
Representative: A delivery courier, selected by the couriers of each district. However, the mechanism for selecting a representative is in no way collective and democratic, and power relationships between couriers are the dominant factor. Some of this is based on how senior the courier is. So, usually more senior couriers get together and choose one representative to introduce him/her to the company. So, the result is that many of the delivery couriers do not know the representatives of the districts. There is no collective mechanism to observe the activities of the representative. The representatives of the districts have regular meetings with the company, but no report of the meetings is given to the couriers. The representatives are not selected periodically and there is no mechanism for their dismissal as the representative by the couriers. Only when the company decides not to work with the representatives, or when they get behind the protests or complaints of the drivers is when a representative is changed.
Identity-based Connections: Since the very beginning years of SnappFood, a significant number of the Turkmens – according to some accounts, more than a half of SnappFood’s workers- started to work as couriers in this company. Due to their significant numbers, in specific districts where the Turkmens work there are two representatives: one for the Turkmens and the other for the rest of the workers. Being a Turkmen as a collective identity has helped the couriers as a unifying factor. Many of these Turkmens live in expensive company dormitories. Though being migrant workers, they have more to lose from action and could be expected to take fewer risks, the Turkmens have had a significant presence in the previous strikes. However, whenever the collective interests are at stake, the relationship between the Turkmen couriers and others has had its ups and downs. In some cases, the Turkmen couriers have triggered the strikes and in other instances, the strikes have not been successful due to their lack of interest. We can analyze these two instances through the relationships of the company with some of the Turkmen couriers. In some cases where the Turkmens carried a collective consciousness of the oppression that they all were subjected to, they could use their collective identity to organize the strikes and pursue their interests in alignment with the interests of all couriers. However, a unity based on Turkmen’s identity was fragile and whenever some of the Turkmen leaders were tempted with offerings from the company, it fell apart. Today, in order to gain some privileges, such as being a representative, some of the Turkmen couriers act as the company’s lawyer and oppose the strikes.
App: The appearance of technology where there is inequality or monopoly in access to it has always been in favor of the workers’ subjugation. For instance, we can point to an app by which SnappFood’s couriers can work in the company. The app is accessible through a phone number already registered in the company as a user account. The company unilaterally sets some of its most important limitations through this app without considering the effects on the couriers’ income. For example, if the maximum limit for refusing orders exceeds 25 percent, the couriers’ user accounts will be blocked by the company. In addition, the app shares with the company the live location of the courier. This point may seem necessary according to the requirements of ordering food from the net, but we should pay attention to its surveillance characteristic. Just consider a situation in which a group of couriers gathers to protest in a specific place, so this app can easily show which couriers are there. On the other hand, if the couriers with the registered phone numbers in the company want to enter Telegram groups to protest and debate on their problems, they will be permanently blocked. These apps have facilitated dismissal since there is no need to have personal contact or to pursue the formal procedures. The company, simply speaking, can easily dismiss the workers. When the courier takes disciplinary action (being blocked for more than two days), he/she can call the company’s support service to know the reason. If getting blocked would be an excuse for dismissal, the company’s support service let the courier know that he/she has to come to the office to receive his/her documents. And it means that he/she is discharged. In this way, the app has a central role in the surveillance and imposing disciplinary mechanisms over the workers as well as their ultimate dismissal.
In the second part of this article, an overview of the Snapfood workers’ strike series will be provided.