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What future for Q-Commerce, and its workers?

App-based grocery delivery, or 'Q-Commerce' as it is sometimes known, has been a brash intruder into Europe's economy over recent years. Q-Commerce went up like a rocket during the peak of the pandemic, fuelled by a massive $4.5 billion in venture capital investment in Europe in 2021 alone. One of the many q-commerce start-up's was even called 'Rocket'.

However, Rocket quickly fell back to earth like a stick, becoming one of many to either close its doors or get eaten up by a larger competitor. The heady days of lavish spending in 2021 rapidly transitioned into the downturn of mid-2022 and 2023, as investors pulled back and demand stopped growing. Q-commerce came back to a reality with a bump, the most notable case being that of Gorillas, which was Europe's fastest ever 'Unicorn' in 2021, but by the end of 2022 the Berlin-founded firm was on the verge of running out of cash before it was sold to Turkish rival Gorillas in a cut-price deal.

What to make of this chaotic new sector? A new report by Rachel Verdin, Steve Rolf, Wil Hunt and Sacha Garben, 'Back to the dark ages? Q-Commerce, rapid retail and the changing landscape of retail work', published by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and UNI Global Union, provides an in-depth analysis of both the business model and the labour conditions of app-based grocery delivery in Europe, making a number of proposals for how to improve conditions of work in the sector. The Gig Economy Project spoke at the launch of the report on Tuesday [28 March] - which you can re-watch here.

On the business model, the authors convincingly argue that while the q-commerce sector is struggling for breath in present economic conditions and has very low margins, it probably will survive over the medium-to-long term. Why? Because the 'dark stores' (mini-warehouses) that have been established in urban neighbourhoods all over Europe is real grocery delivery infrastructure, which will survive the disappearance of particular firms by being eaten up by q-commerce rivals or by supermarkets looking to expand their delivery options. Also, q-commerce has one significant advantage over supermarket delivery, which is that the lack of customers in dark stores reduces labour costs and allows warehousing space to be optimised to maximise efficiency. Finally, in major urban centres consumer demand does seem to be enduring despite the easing of the pandemic: in London, a huge 26% of inhabitants say they've used a q-commerce app in the past 18 months, while KPMG expects the market to triple in size from 2022 to 2030.

On labour conditions, the same profile of workers enter this sector as in restaurant food delivery: young, migrant workers. While workers are generally employed in app-based grocery delivery, that does not mean that their working conditions are not precarious: in-depth interviews with grocery delivery 'pickers' and 'riders' in the UK, Germany and Spain reveal the full range of bad management practices, which have been getting worse as the q-commerce firms have sought to cut costs over the past year. In the UK, Getir has begun franchising its operations, which has coincided with attacks on terms and conditions, with many workers now on zero-hour contracts.

The authors find that the problems “are not dissimilar to those seen across the broader platform and gig economies: a low level of health and safety, consisting notably in an elevated risk of occupational accidents and physical injury (linked to, among other things, a lack of training; the vulnerable profile of many of the workers, in terms of age and language; and the high-pace nature of the work); elevated levels of stress (linked to, among other things, the intense and constantly monitored way of working); and uncertainty among workers with regards to their precise legal entitlements.”

This reality should be a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that employment is a silver-bullet to addressing bad working conditions in the platform economy. Just like in supermarkets, call centres, retail and many more sectors, workers can be and are both formally employed and very precarious. What employment contracts provide is a legal framework from which decent work can be pursued, but for that to be realised on-the-ground will require a concerted growth in union power and regulatory enforcement. That is why the authors argue that the key policy response to q-commerce is to ensure "the enforcement of existing regulation”.

Certainly, the enforcement of contractual obligations has been a key demand in Berlin, which has been one of the hot-beds of grassroots union action in app-based grocery delivery, most famously through the Gorillas wild-cat strikes, which later transitioned into a dynamic Works' Council. Workers have fought for an end to "wage theft" - wages being unpaid, not paid in full or paid late.

The struggle of Gorillas' workers in Berlin is evidence that there is potential to organise in q-commerce, where workers do have a natural meeting point at the dark stores, unlike in restaurant food delivery. Strong union organisation is most definitely needed to provide some stability for the pickers and riders operating in a new sector that has so far been marked by constant turbulence.

Ben Wray, Gig Economy Project co-ordinator

Gig Economy news round-up

  • STATES REMAIN DEADLOCKED OVER EU PLATFORM WORK DIRECTIVE: Discussions between member-states over the latest Council of the EU draft of the Platform Work Directive have failed to find a resolution. The Swedish Presidency circulated a new draft last week which was broadly along the lines of the Czech Presidency's proposal in December, and it was discussed at a technical meeting on Monday [27 March]. However, there was little movement among states, with the 'blocking minority' which opposed the Czech proposal - including Spain, Belgium and Portugal - still intact. Those blocking states presented a joint proposal for a more ambitious Directive, but it was opposed by France, which is one of the states most vociferously opposed to a presumption of employment in the platform economy. Germany continues to abstain. The Swedish Presidency is now not expected to return to the topic of the Platform Work Directive until the end of April. Read more here.
  • WOLT COURIERS IN GEORGIA RECEIVE LIFE-TIME BANS FOR STRIKING: The Georgian Fair Labour Platform has said it is "alarmed" by the news that Wolt couriers in the country have been banned for life for taking strike action. Protests and strikes have taken place for two months after the introduction of a new payment system in the Eastern European country, the latest strike being on Wednesday [29 March], which appears to have triggered the company's lifetime bans for several couriers. The Fair Labour Platform said that similar actions by another food delivery platform in 2021 had led to an investigation by the Public Defender in 2021 which found that the bans constituted unlawful discrimination. Wolt is owned by US food delivery firm DoorDash and has been rolling out its new payment system, which de-links pay from distance travelled, across Europe, with protests and strikes taking place in several countries. Read more here.
  • IWGB CALL FOR "URGENT MEETING" WITH JUST EAT UK OVER FIRING PLAN: The IWGB union in the UK has requested an "urgent meeting" with Just Eat over the food delivery platform's plan to axe over 1,700 riders, who are employees under its 'Scoober' service. The announcement last week caused anger amongst riders, who met in an online meeting on Monday [27 March] to discuss how to respond. In the letter, the union highlights previous comments from the company claiming the Scoober model to be "greener, fairer, safer" and that the company "firmly believe that providing more couriers with employment contracts, hourly wages and social security is the right thing to do". In response to the letter, Collette Bird, Just Eat's head of UK External Relations, does not commit to a meeting, and says that "it's always difficult to make a decision like this" and "our partner agencies are in continuous direct communication with these couriers". The riders have been given six weeks notice. Read more here.
  • BERLIN LIEFERANDO WORKS COUNCIL ANGER OVER MEETING ROOM NON-PAYMENT: Plans for the first mass meeting of Berlin's Lieferando Works Council have been thrown into chaos after the company did not pay for the room, as agreed. Under German industrial relations law, company's have to pay for the costs of Works' Councils, including meetings. The Works' Council was due to meet on Saturday 1 April and according to the contract the room was to be paid for in advance to the host organisation, but two deadlines have passed without Lieferando (Just Eat's German brand) paying, despite the assumption of costs and rental agreement having been signed, putting the meeting into doubt. A Works Council member said: "This is one of the constant problems with Lieferando...For me, this is union busting and Works Council obstruction." Another courier said: "The first Works Council meeting of the Lieferando workers is a milestone in our organising. Maybe the management is afraid of us exchanging ideas. In any case, it shows the low esteem us couriers are held in."
  • AMAZON FAILS IN BID TO THROW OUT UK EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS TRIAL: Amazon, one of the world's largest companies, has failed in an attempt to throw out lawsuits brought by UK delivery drivers for employment rights. More than 1,400 Amazon Flex delivery drivers are suing in a London Employment Tribunal, claiming they should be employees not independent contractors. Amazon claimed it had no contractual relationship with the drivers, but in a ruling on Monday [27 March], the judge found that the lawsuits should go ahead as he could not be "virtually certain" that there was not a "working relationship" with Amazon. Kate Robinson, the lawyer for the drivers, said the ruling was a "huge success", adding: "Amazon needs to recognise the value of the drivers delivering on their behalf and give them the rights we believe they are entitled to". Amazon said they were "hugely proud of the drivers who work with our partners across the country". Read more here.

On GEP this week


First-of-its-kind study also claims that private hire platforms in Spain indirectly price fix and break labour laws.
From around the web
Platform workers are more and more commonplace

Useful summary of data on platform work in in the European Union by Catherine Abou El Kair.
The platformisation of work

Empirical analysis of data from a new platform work survey in Spain and Germany, by Fernandez Macias, E., Urzi Brancati, M.C., Wright, S. and Pesole, A.
Platform work: New work, old rules

Report by Anna-Elisabeth Hampel and Eva Luise Krause analysing the regulatory challenges to ensure fair conditions of platform work, as part of the Equal Opportunity Platform Work project (in German).

Upcoming events

- Resolution Foundation and Fairwork are hosting a joint event on 'How to build a fair digital labour platform' on 20 April, 10-1pm BST in London. Click here to for more details and to register.

- The Platform Labor Project and the Global Digital Cultures Initiative are holding a hybrid international conference on 'Global Perspectives on platforms, labour and social re-production', at the University of Amsterdam, 27-28 June. Details here

Know of upcoming events we should be highlighting? Let us know at

Get Involved

The Gig Economy Project is a media network for gig workers and we welcome contributions from workers, writers, academics, activists - anyone who wants to stand up for workers' rights in the gig economy.

If you would like to write for the site, discuss arranging an interview with GEP, or simply have information about developments in the gig economy in Europe you think we should be aware of, get in touch. 

Contact project co-ordinator Ben Wray at or send a direct message to the Twitter: @project_gig.

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