Summer, 2018. The port city of Cochin, Kerala state, in south-west India. The 27-year-old Sanjay hurries to the bank, where he looks into customer complaints every morning. He has a master's degree in commerce and ambitions. His neighbour tells him about Poland and management studies at the Alcide De Gasperi University of the Euroregion Economy in Józefów near Warsaw. Sanjay is starting to plan an adventure in Europe, on the Vistula river.
Today - after three months and 460 deliveries at Uber Eats - he already knows that it was a mistake. The studies? They're a joke - he had to work harder for a diploma in India. Job? Not a bank, but delivering meals, after which he collapses onto a bunk bed, with back pain every evening. He cannot return because he has to pay back EUR 3,000 (PLN 12,800) borrowed from his family for school fees. He works without a contract. He lives in a hostel, in a four-bed room, for which he pays PLN 450 a month (EUR 105). His neighbour has already gone back to India, disappointed.
January 24, 2019. I meet Sanjay at Galeria Rondo Wiatraczna in Warsaw. The weather outside: minus 5 Celsius. Air quality: average. As we wait for our orders, we try to get warm on the benches next to a chain gym. I have been an Uber Eats courier for a few months now. Sanjay's mobile beeps as we speak. After a few minutes, he rushes with an order from McDonald's. The cold makes his eyes tear up.
I GO CYCLING
May 9, 2018. Temperature: 23 degrees. Air quality: good.
I download the Uber Driver app, upload my photo and the certificate of good conduct. I sign up for an "introductory meeting" in the Uber office in Warsaw. Several dozens of us are waiting outside the entrance to the office building - men of all ages, Ukrainians, Indians and Poles in little groups. Looking in through the glass pane, I can see people in front of computers, with pieces of paper stuck to the glass asking us not to bother the programmers.
An instructor wearing a T-shirt with the Uber logo, standing in front of a silver MacBook, runs the training session. Work at Uber Eats is supposed to be ideal primarily for students and "freelancers" who "can afford more flexibility". Earnings "vary depending on the number of suppliers currently available in the application and their experience with the platform." Later, the couriers tell me that they get PLN 5 (EUR 1.15) for picking up from restaurants, a little over PLN 1 (EUR 0.23) for each kilometre, and about PLN 1.50 (EUR 0.35) for delivery to the customer.
The instructor assures us that everything is "clear and transparent". I learn that to deliver meals by bicycle, I have to operate a business, pay income tax, VAT at 23 per-cent and social security premiums, with each trip representing a separate invoice. Don’t have a registered business? You can "hook up" (the technological equivalent for "get hired") to a so-called Fleet Partner. That means one of the "independent subcontractors" to which Uber transfers the responsibility for drivers and suppliers.
I can choose the partner myself – the entrance to Uber's office has a stand with their leaflets. I found Andrzej earlier, through an online advertisement. He hires me over the phone. After the training session, an Uber employee signs me up with him, without asking whether we signed a contract.
The first PLN 255 (EUR 60) of my earnings will be taken by Uber as a deposit for a thermal backpack. After the twentieth delivery, the zipper on it breaks.
I only have Andrzej's telephone number and email address : "hituber" on a popular mailbox. He writes to me: "OK, please start working, I'll call you, Andrzej." A week later I call and ask him about the contract. He tells me to work a bit more and that he will send it.
MR BOLLYWOOD, THIS IS FOR YOU
May 21. Temperature: 20 degrees. Air quality: good.
I cycle to Salad Story in Nowy Świat. Then take a salad to an apartment building for foreigners in Lower Mokotów. Then it’s back to Śródmieście for vegan ramen and then on to Upper Mokotów. The third order takes me to a burger bar in the city centre. An Uber Eats courier from India is waiting there. A tattooed chef in a sauce-splattered apron gives him the food and says: "Mr. Bollywood, this is for you". From there, I take a greasy burger and fries to Puławska. I'm hungry.
I make PLN 37.55 (EUR 8.72), minus taxes for the three trips.
CYCLISTS FROM GUJARAT
May 25. Temperature: 23 degrees. Air quality: good.
At the Central Railway Station, I meet Aakash with an Uber Eats backpack. Indian music blares out from a small loudspeaker on his handlebars. Like a substantial number of the Indians in Poland, Aakash came here from Gujarat, the north-western state bordering Pakistan. This is where Gandhi and the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi came from. There, during the Second World War, Jam Saheb Digvijay took in a thousand Polish refugee-orphans wandering through the Soviet republics.
Today, it is Poland that is taking in the countrymen of the Good Maharaja. The first wave came three years ago, and in February 2017 - when Uber Eats started in Warsaw - they put on winter jackets and got on their bikes. According to the data from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2,150 Indian citizens were given tourist visas in 2017, another 2,459 received student visas, and 1,406 - work visas. Living in Poland is cheaper than in the western countries of the European Union, and the work at Uber Eats does not require any knowledge of Polish.
The result: Uber Eats couriers in the capital are almost exclusively Indians.
Aakash rents a bike with an electric drive, a rarity among deliverymen. He says he earns PLN 2,000-3,000 a month (EUR 465-700), paid cash in hand. We go to the garages behind an office building on the border of Śródmieście and Ochota districts, where he swaps the battery. The owner of the rental rides up on a Harley-Davidson retro model. He is a broad-shouldered Uzbek, speaks Polish without an accent and has the calmness of a Thai boxing coach. He rents a dozen or so bikes - each worth about EUR 3,000.
In the evening I am off to Aakash's flat in Wola. He has three other compatriots living with him - two of them work with Uber Eats, and the third packs bread on a night shift. Each has his own room, with carpeting, wall units and wooden panelling. After work, they smoke, talk to their wives on WhatsApp and watch Indian shows on YouTube. Aakash and the other two dream about starting their own businesses in Poland. The third one, from the bakery, is studying architecture at the Warsaw University of Technology and wants to go after his undegraduate degree and stay with his family in Dubai where there is a large Indian diaspora. I ask about politics. To them, Gandhi was a traitor and an agent who, at the request of the British, divided India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, so that they would always be weak and at loggerheads with each other. On the other hand, Narendra Modi, an alchemist who fuses Hindu nationalism with neo-liberalism, is the best prime minister they have ever had.
On paper, they are all students. Aakash shows me an invitation from the Alcide De Gasperi University of the Euroregion Economy (WGSE) in Józefów near Warsaw. It was the basis for the Polish consulate granting him a visa.
"Please remit the tuition fee, in the amount of EUR 3570, to the bank account provided ..." - it reads. Without this letter, Aakash would not have obtained the student visa that allows him to work legally. He would work like some Indians on tourist visas - illegally and risking deportation. But Uber does not check if anyone is staying in Poland legally. The app only requires a scan of the first page of the passport and does not verify visas or residence cards.
Aakash does not attend classes, and treats the payment for his year of management studies as an "investment".
FACTORY OF STUDENT VISAS
January 14. Temperature: 2 degrees. Air quality: very good.
I come to Józefów by local railway. The interiors of the WSGE building are clean and shiny. The students are mostly Indians, with a handful of them coming from Tajikistan, Pakistan and other countries. The Pakistanis, or Muslims, say they are from India, though - they are afraid of discrimination. Recently, two Poles with baseball bats marched into the hostel where they live. I talk to a group of five at the drinks machine - everyone works at Uber Eats and studies management. Those who started their studies in 2016 pay EUR 2,800 per year as tuition. Later, the WSGE raised its fees: for students from outside the EU, tuition now costs EUR 3,000-3,500 per year.
My presence causes a stir among school employees. Some people ask who I am and what I am doing on the premises. They say that I need to get a permission from the university authorities to talk to students. The rector of the WSGE, Magdalena Sitek, appears. She asks me to leave the building, as it is private property. I should have made an appointment earlier.
I ask the rector how many Indian citizens are studying at the WSGE. I am told that she will probably not give me this information.
”Are there any people who simply get their letter and...”
“There are no such people!“ she interrupts me before I can finish the sentence.
I go outside. The rector asks if I will now "torment" students across the wire fence, and then hides inside. After a few minutes, a group of Indians leaves the school. I take the train to Warsaw with them.
Ashok calls the WSGE a "fraud" and a "student visa factory". I ask him about the quality of education.
“Very bad,” he responds and adds that at the beginning of the course some of the professors spoke poor English. He complains that they are learning the same things "every week, every month, every year, from different lecturers".
A large number of students, Ashok claims, only get a visa and do not appear at school (I hear exactly the same from Sanjay later). Attendance is not required by anyone here. Everyone is allowed to pass the exams, and students can cheat during tests using laptops, textbooks and mobile phones. Do Poles study at the university? Apparently, some do part-time studies at weekends, but he has never seen any. He also says that there is a broker in India who has to be paid if anyone wants to get into the WSGE - and he cannot be by-passed.
The university participates in the Erasmus programme. Among the "20 reasons to study at the WSGE", the last one says that the school helps in "obtaining a visa and is in cooperation with the embassy and border services". For every student recommended to the WSGE, there is a 10% reduction in tuition fees.
On the train, the Indians tell me about the King Mieszko I University of Pedagogy and Administration (WSPiA), which has a branch in Warsaw. If someone fails to obtain a visa, WSGE refunds the invitation fee but the WSPiA, they claim, does not. I ask the school if this is true. The dean of WSPiA, Andriy Malovychko replies: "The university considers it impossible to provide you with information that was requested in your letter." The WSPiA rents one room and a classroom in the building, which houses the Capitol Theatre on Marszałkowska Street in Warsaw.
There are 177 Indian men and women studying here. Each of them pays EUR 2,500 a year.
Polish universities aim at recruiting Indians from the middle class – Gujarat is one of the richest states in the country. Annual GDP per capita in Gujarat is USD 2,200, EUR 1,900 or PLN 8,500.
Two weeks after my visit to the school in Józefów, Marta Bojaruniec, director of the WSGE Office of Foreign Cooperation, agrees to meet. She admits that there are students who start their studies and then disappear. And the exams are not at all easy. “You would understand if you saw how many students have to retake them,” says Bojaruniec and adds that three attempts at the exam are free. She denies that the teachers speak English badly.
Bojaruniec does not disclose how many Indian citizens are studying at the university. She admits that WSGE cooperates with an agent in India, who charges a "small fee" from each applicant. She claims that candidates do not apply directly to the school because they cannot get a Polish visa by themselves. It is difficult and requires complicated documentation.
A former WSGE lecturer says that his superiors expected him to let everyone pass the exams. There were 90 students on the class lists but only 4-10 students would turn up. “The university accepts people who have major gaps at the level of primary school education, including illiteracy. There are students who appear at the exams, sit there but do not write, only smile,” says the former lecturer.
UBER EATS WRITES TO SAY SORRY
December 31. Temperature: 3 degrees. Air quality: "Has been known to be better ... This is not the best of days to be working outdoors."
The level of PM 2.5, the carcinogenic dust in the atmosphere, exceeds 129 per cent. When later I ask the City Roads Authority about the attitude of the city to bicycle couriers, the press spokesperson replies that each of us means "less smog and cleaner air".
I am a dot moving on the map. This time, I'm carrying Italian food destined for Gocław. It is already dark and the first fireworks are being let off. Christmas trees glitter in the windows of the blocks of flats, drunken youngsters throw firecrackers. I can earn more than usual - on the right bank of the Vistula the multiplier is x 1.3 today, that is, for every order paying PLN 10 (EUR 2.32) I will get PLN 13 (EUR 3.02).
I enter the pizzeria, seemingly invisible to the serving staff. Nobody greets me, or looks at me. The clients who come in after me get a warm "hello" and a smile.
At the address, a languid security guard in the gatehouse lifts the barrier and lets me into the gated housing estate. I hang around for a moment between parked cars, cursing and unable to find the right staircase. I don't secure my bike to not waste time. On the first floor, a woman opens the door and sticks her hand out for the food, as if afraid of me. I have my face covered and don't necessarily inspire trust. She closes the door and we do not exchange any greetings.
In May, my Fleet Partner, Andrzej, says that he will charge me PLN 50 (EUR 11.60) a week apart from taxes. In December 2018, after a few month break, I ask him for the contract again. He says yes, but the next day he calls to say that he can send me the contract but then, he will charge PLN 100 (EUR 23.25) a week, and he is not sure if I want this. In January, he still does not pay me and stops answering calls. I write to Uber support.
On January 22, after a few missed calls, Andrzej replies that I had PLN 270 in revenue from the app (although the application tells me that it was PLN 370). According to his calculations, he should get PLN 150, while my share is PLN 120.60. I am to return my backpack when I sign up with another partner. Another of my questions about the contract goes unanswered.
BICYCLE LEASE CONTRACT
December 17. Temperature: 0. Air quality: bad.
I am carrying sushi to Powiśle, and pizza and fast food to Praga. One of the deliverymen advises me to transport the drink from McDonald's "like some kind of a crystal vase" because it spills easily in the backpack. I carry Chinese food to boys with bloodshot eyes in Gocław. There is a sweet aroma of marijuana on their floor. I deliver two kebabs to a remote part of Targówek. A guy without trousers opens the door on a dark stairwell. Now it's falafel to Grochowska. At the entrance to the tenement, a kid bounces a ball off the wall, and someone has sprayed "fuck Islam and the Muslims" on the rubbish dumpster.
If I don't deliver orders for PLN 75 (EUR 17.40) within a given week, I won't get paid for that week.
I meet Krzysiek on Facebook. He delivers in Kraków and knows the city well. He has "fire" in his legs and a good bike. Krzysiek works three to four hours a day and can make as much as PLN 120-160 (EUR 27.85-37.15) in this time. He says that his partner settles with him based on the bicycle rental contract and pays in cash. Krzysiek is not a student and works illegally.
“I have no insurance and cannot get sick. It's a professional risk, but this setup suits me because I have debts. No other job gave me so much freedom because there is no boss or schedule here,” says Krzysiek.
I get three contracts by e-mail, including a vehicle rental agreement. I say that I have my own bike and do not need to rent from them. "We are the ones renting the bike from you," – is the answer I get in an SMS. According to the contract: "the renter [EATS sp. O.o.] hires the vehicle for use", and in return I am to get a salary "dependent on the actual use of the vehicle". Based on the contract, I can earn the amount of income in the app multiplied by 85 per cent. And minus PLN 60 (EUR 14). This means I will get PLN 790 (EUR 183.4) from every PLN 1,000 (EUR 232.15).
If I had a "regular" contract of mandate, income tax and VAT, i.e. 41 per-cent would be deducted from the PLN 1,000 (EUR 232.15). According to one of the partners, this would make working for Uber Eats "completely unprofitable".
According to the contract of mandate, I am to receive a staggering PLN 50 a week (EUR 11.60). If I do not deliver orders for PLN 75 (EUR 17.4) within any one week, I will receive no payment for the week in question. The company may terminate the contract at any time, but for me, there is a two-week notice period.
The third contract obliges me to pay PLN 20 (EUR 4.65) a week for access to the "billing system".
I keep looking. Marcin Gwizdek claims in an e-mail that he is "one of Uber Eats' major partners", and cooperation with him means safety and easy contact. Due to the fact that he does not charge VAT, he can pay me PLN 833 (EUR 194.00) cash from every PLN 1000 (EUR 232.15) in the app. He sends me a hire agreement for the bike and a contract of mandate which are almost identical to those of Udriver.
I consult the agreements with Dr. Liwiusz Laska from the law firm, LLMS Advocates. He is a member of the Labour Code codification committee. In his opinion, the partners' proposals are "legally dubious and may be aimed at circumventing the regulations".
“The vehicle rental agreement does not correspond to the actual content of the legal relationship that the parties want to have and tries to hide the issue of courier employment. This may be aimed at by-passing the obligation to pay social security contributions. The contract of mandate, which is actually a contract for the provision of services to which the contract-mandate provisions apply, contains extremely unfavourable provisions for the service provider. If you do not meet the PLN 75 (EUR 17.4) target set in it, you will not be paid,” says Dr Laska.
According to him, such construction could be of interest to the tax office. Dr Laska also explains that the payment of PLN 50 (EUR 11.60) per week might not be coincidental, because contracts up to PLN 200 (EUR 46.40) are taxed at a flat rate and do not need to provide PIT-11 information.
I also call Comfort Way. The male voice on the phone says that there are three additional costs associated with the work: a commission of PLN 20 (EUR 4.65) a week, taxes, including 23 per-cent VAT, and "employment costs" in the amount of PLN 100 (EUR 23.22) per week. I ask if a cheaper option is possible.
"We would have to do it without a contract ..." I'm told.
UBER EATS MAKES SENSE IN WINTER
December 26. Temperature: 4 degrees. Air quality: good.
I take a kebab to Praga, then a pizza to Saska Kępa, then go back to Praga with sushi. I have PLN 39.22 (EUR 9.11) of revenue in the application on Boxing Day, of which PLN 5 (1.15 EUR) is a tip from the first customer. This will also be taxed.
Mateusz has been a deliveryman in Kraków for 10 months, he works for an average of six hours a day, covering about 50-70 km. I meet him on Facebook. On bad days, he puts on an anti-smog mask. When he started, he weighed 72 kg at 180 cm tall. After 1200 journeys he weighs 65 kg. His fat tissue has dropped from 15 to 9 per-cent, so there is no need to go to the gym. But he still admires the Indians, who can pedal away for 12 hours a day.
Mateusz says that the app sometimes throws him around Kraków. He is the only courier I have met who has a registered business. He claims that Uber Eats gives him independence, but you need to be lucky too: sometimes there is only one delivery in an hour, but in the next one you can get four. There are those who earn PLN 6,000 cash and those with barely PLN 2,000 (EUR 464.30). He shows me the invoice from Uber for September: PLN 2,100 net (EUR 487.5).
Some couriers tried to use illegal software that changes the GPS location. Thanks to this, the system made them appear closer to the restaurant and they got more orders but Uber got wise to it and blocked their accounts.
Mateusz currently lives with his parents and does not have any costs. He wants to earn another PLN 14,000 (EUR 3,250.20) - that's how much he still needs to buy an apartment in Tarnów, where he wants to move with his fiancée. Sometimes in the evening, they deliver food together by car. He takes the food up while she stays in the car because you can't always find a parking spot in Kraków.
In Warsaw, just before 11 pm, I draw level with a 20-year-old Ukrainian on a bike path. Tired and barely able to keep his eyes open, he is carrying a kebab. For him, this is the twentieth run today. He works six days a week, a minimum of eight hours a day, and earns PLN 700-800 (EUR 162.5-185.7) a week. Without a contract.
Everyone agrees on one thing: working at Uber Eats only makes sense in winter, from September to March. In the spring, when it is easier to cycle, Uber floods the market with deliverymen and the work ceases to be profitable. Couriers say that you can sometimes hang around for hours without a delivery. The company stops promotions and bonuses because there is no shortage of those willing to work for the basic rate. Only the Indians do not complain: this is the only job that allows them to survive in Poland.
RISK OF PROMOTIONS
November 29. Temperature: minus 4 (wind chill factor: minus 13). Air quality: good. Wind speed: 28 kph.
I am riding over the Poniatowski bridge wearing several layers of clothing and I feel like the wind is about to blow me and my backpack off the bike. My face goes stiff with the cold, which also kills my iPhone's battery as I cycle to the restaurant. The deliverymen must be constantly connected to the network and wait for more orders - otherwise, they risk losing a promotion or - if the phone dies during the run - even having their account suspended. That is why they carry power banks with them.
THE INVISIBLE HAND OF THE MARKET
January 1. Temperature: 5 degrees and rain. Air quality: "Great! A perfect day for outdoor activities."
I am woken up by an SMS from Uber Eats. I can take part in a "special mission" today - like in an exciting game! - and earn an additional PLN 30 (EUR 6.95) for a minimum of five deliveries. I should expect more trips and higher earnings. I click the pulsing "Start" button and a moment later, I get the first order from an Italian chain restaurant in Saska Kępa.
I am a muddy bike courier with a thermal bag on my back. I enter the pizzeria and am invisible to the serving staff. Nobody greets me or looks at me. The clients who come in after for me get a warm "hello" and a smile. I get it. Uber Eats means a new job for the kitchen and no tips. I give the order code and am handed a bag of food. It's secured with a special label so I don't look inside. It gives the customer the peace of mind that their food traveled in hygienic conditions. I close my backpack and press "Received".
The app sends me a few blocks away, about 800 meters. I arrive at the place wet and stand outside a new apartment building adjacent to pre-war villas. In the lift, I gamble that apartment No. 10 is on the second or third floor of six. I press three, walk through the entire corridor and have to go down to the second floor. I find the right door. It is opened by a 20-year-old blonde in a warm white sweater, with her eyes bloodshot after New Year's Eve. I hand her the food and suggest giving the number of the floor in the order or through the intercom so that couriers don't have to run back and forth. She replies with a smile that "it is just a healthy jog". She wishes me a nice day and closes the door.
I'm beginning to understand that my real boss is the app. And I'm not a "partner" as far as it is concerned. When I see the delivery icon on the screen, I can only accept it or wait it out. There is no such thing as "no".
The application can punish. It knows the time, where I am, at what speed I'm going and what I am carrying, and I must accept future runs blindly. I earn nothing for getting to a restaurant (sometimes several kilometres). If I cancel the run before picking up the order, the application reminds me of the possibility of "suspending" the account. Sometimes when I am cycling I don't hear the phone and cannot keep up with accepting more runs. Then, I don't get another job for another fifteen minutes or so. Is this is because I did not react quickly enough or simply because there were no orders on the market? Another time, the app would send me new runs one after another.
The application tempts me with prizes - promotions, multipliers, "special missions" and "guaranteed hours". When the latter apply, I can earn, for instance, not less than PLN 25 a day, because normally Uber does not guarantee that I will earn anything. There is also a catch: I have to make at least 1.45 deliveries for a "guaranteed" hour (read: cycle faster) and accept all deliveries.
The app can be wrong. Sometimes it sends me to pick up a pizza, but in the restaurant, I discover that I am already the fourth courier asking about an order picked up by the first deliveryman. I complain to Uber by web chat.
Ten hours later I get a reply: "We are sorry to hear that the order was picked up by another deliveryman, and we understand that such circumstances can be frustrating. Unfortunately, we are unable to offer any form of compensation for turning up at the restaurant after the order has been picked up".
On cycle paths, I wonder why Uber is not my employer when I carry a big box with its logo on my back?
I advise a client who did not enter the staircase number, and they complain about me in the app I cannot access the content of this complaint in the application. It only reminds me to "remember about friendly and professional behaviour - the first step to success". Mateusz says couriers are afraid of bad reviews because less than 85 per-cent thumbs up risks a ban. After each run the client can evaluate me by selecting an icon: thumbs up or down - the invisible hand of the market, pictured by Adam Smith, appearing for a moment.
I RESPECT YOU AS A HUMAN BEING
February 1. Temperature: 2 degrees, air quality: bad.
Sanjay goes along the pavement, the bicycle path is snowed up and icy. He has to watch out for the police, who recently set up for business next to the Femina Cinema, where the couriers wait for orders and are raking in fines for "unjustified riding on the pavement".
After eight months, Aakash moved on to "big" Uber and drives a car, which he bought for PLN 14,000 (EUR 3,250). He now has a residence permit.
I have finished my career as a courier and now want to get my money. For 33 journeys, about 100 km (not counting the distance traveled to restaurants), I got PLN 395.69 (EUR 91.86) in revenue. I meet with Andrzej in a KFC. A middle-aged ordinary Joe. Eating a meal with his daughter. He promises to pay cash when we talk on the phone, but when I arrive, I ask about the contract.
“You know, I don't really deal with this anymore,” he says. “ I do not send anything out and it does not go anywhere. If bills come in, they're not for you, but for me" he adds and looks nervously at me.
I reply that I cannot take the money without a contract, and he begins looking anxious.
“I don't want to be keeping your money. That wouldn't be right.”
“I can send it to your account. This is your money” he repeats several times. When I disagree again, he says: " I respect you as a human being”.
There are tears in his eyes. I say I do not even know what his name is.
“Antoni Z ... “ he replies.
“Earlier you said that it was Andrzej.”
“Andrzej is my middle name.”
A few hours after the meeting, I get an SMS from Uber: "Antoni has removed you from his fleet"