Striking food delivery workers take on tech giant Yandex
January 16, 2023
  • Mack Tubridy
     Independent researcher
Mack Tubridy writes about the latest strike by Yandex gig workers, who demand better pay and improved working conditions. The leader of the organizing Courier trade union was arrested in April of last year for violating draconian protest laws.
Kirill Ukraintsev, the main organizer of the Courier Union, has been under arrest since April 2022. Source: VK
Food delivery workers across Russia staged a five-day strike on December 20-25, organized under the banner of the Courier trade union. According to organizers, around 3,800 delivery workers participated in the strike, which covered more than 15 cities.

Striking workers leveled their demands at Russia's tech giant Yandex, whose food delivery service, Yandex.Eats, secured a virtual monopoly over the country’s food delivery market after acquiring its main competitor, Delivery Club, in September 2022.

Among other things, deliverers, almost all of whom work on a self-employed basis, called for the introduction of labor contracts with Yandex, as well as improved wages and working conditions.

During the strike, thousands of delivery workers refused to take orders through the Yandex.Eats mobile app, leading to disruptions for the service in several cities. The Courier union also called on strikers to “sabotage the work” of restaurants that partner with Yandex by forming lines and blocking cash registers to customers.

The demand for food delivery services in Russia has increased massively in recent years, especially during the Covid pandemic as the country went into lockdown. Since Yandex’s acquisition of Delivery Club, workers have complained of wage decreases, from RUB 110 (USD 1.62) per order to around RUB 70 (USD 1.03).

Like other digital platforms in Russia, Yandex says that its food delivery workers are autonomous self-employed “partners” or individual entrepreneurs. This means workers are fully responsible for any risks and expenses that come with the job. Likewise, it means an absence of just-cause conditions for termination, and so Yandex can block deliverers from using its Eats app without providing prior warning or an explanation.

For this reason, the Courier union insists on the introduction of labor contracts between Yandex and the food delivery workers it depends on for generating profits. Union leaders argue that contracts can guarantee workers that they will not be fired without explanation, will be offered sick leave, and their wages will be indexed against inflation.

Meanwhile, as work conditions have worsened, revenues for the food-tech department of Yandex, which includes Yandex.Eats, as well as the online shopping service Yandex.Market, rose by 124% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2022, up to RUB 9.8 billion (USD 135 million). These rising revenues are notable given the fact that Russia is under heavy Western sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. Yandex itself was not directly sanctioned by the West, but some top managers were (see the Russia.Post article on Yandex by Nikolay Petrov).

In response to the strike action, Yandex launched a disinformation campaign against striking workers, in some cases claiming that they already enjoy high wages, while in other cases flat out denying the fact that a strike was under way. Despite the company’s anti-union tactics, the strike, which began with around 600 people in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, ballooned in size, spreading to other major cities across Russia and uniting more workers than Courier union organizers had expected.

As with most other forms of independent political activity in Russia, there has been a marked decline in large-scale labor organization over the past two decades. Part of the reason is that the state has co-opted official trade unions that inherited Soviet-era traditions. Today, these organizations serve largely to deliver favors and are frequently accused of siding with employers or the government in labor disputes.

Yet another reason, as the sociologist, Jeremy Morris, who does research on labor organization in Russia, told me in an interview is that draconian labor laws adopted in the early 2000s make it difficult to form unions and organize strikes legally. But even so, “just because you legislate against labor conflict doesn’t make it magically disappear,” he said.

Indeed, grassroots organizations have sometimes filled the space that official unions refuse to occupy. Many of these independent unions have been much smaller in membership numbers since they are usually formed on a professional basis, such as among autoworkers. They are also highly vulnerable to pressure and persecution from the state. In 2018, for example, authorities went after the Interregional Trade Union, known for its high-profile strikes at a Ford plant near Saint Petersburg, by dissolving the union under the country's “foreign agents” law, the first time the law was used against such an organization.
"In this context of limited capacity for labor organization from below, the Courier union stands out among the rest, both in terms of its aggressive approach to organizing and use of politicized language."
Courier got its start in June 2020 when food delivery workers from Delivery Club launched a strike over delays in payments for two months of work. Under pressure, the company capitulated and sent out the payments it owed workers. Since then, the union has organized numerous protests and strikes on issues ranging from wage decreases to financial penalties against workers for small infractions of rules.

Courier’s main organizer, Kirill Ukraintsev, who rose to fame as a leftist YouTuber before leading the union, was arrested in April of last year and charged for “violating the rules of assembly.” He remains in a holding prison to this day. Ukraintsev’s case serves as an important precedent as it effectively criminalizes labor protest and thus makes their prospects in the current political environment much more risky.

Despite the coalition of government and corporate forces acting against Courier and its members, the union has managed to put pressure on some of Russia’s largest tech firms and secure meaningful victories for workers. As Morris said, the tactics used by the union “demonstrate that no matter how authoritarian and repressive Russia’s political system becomes, socially-conscious activists can find new and creative ways to circumvent obstacles thrown at them by the authorities.”
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