New wave of labor protests hits Georgia
In separate protests, workers across various fields have demanded better pay amid rising prices.
Multiple labor protests in recent days have highlighted festering grievances over rising consumer prices and poor social protection for workers in key Georgian service sectors. Delivery couriers, taxi drivers, camera operators, and medical workers have all staged rallies or downed tools to demand better pay.
On February 5, deafening sounds of motorbike honks were heard in Tbilisi as scores of couriers working for Wolt, a leading international delivery service, drove through the streets to demand better compensation.
"Prices have doubled, tripled on everything, and our wages have stayed the same," one of the couriers told Mautskebeli, an online media outlet. "For the work we put in, we don't get the profit we deserve."
According to delivery workers, their work is falsely presented as an easy and comfortable way to earn money. Wolt has advertised flexible working hours with high pay, promising workers – whom the company calls "partners" – the opportunity to earn up to GEL 4,000 (about $1,500) per month.
The workers claim that in fact they are not paid enough given the risks they must take to reach their destinations: Tbilisi streets are notorious for unsafe traffic; this is compounded by adverse weather, particularly in winter. And further grievances arose from recent changes in the navigation app, which, couriers claim, under-calculates the distance they cover, resulting in significant income losses.
The protest leaders also cited similar problems faced by gig economy workers in other countries, calling for international solidarity in their struggle to achieve better conditions.
"The courier system faces many problems across the world, there have been Wolt strikes in four European countries," one of the speakers said during the rally. "Countless changes are ahead and we have to stay united."
Past years have seen similar collective efforts by delivery workers to improve their conditions, particularly as demand for their service grew amid the pandemic. This has echoed the struggles of other gig economy workers globally – including elsewhere in the region – to fight for their rights in largely uncertain employment settings.
Wolt responded on February 6 with a statement, claiming it had already announced a new pay calculation method to be introduced in mid-February that will offer fairer and more flexible payments. The company thus called the pay raise demands "irrelevant," and accused some of the workers of putting "physical and psychological pressure" on those not joining the protests. (Some of the couriers who did protest told Mautskebeli that the allegations were "disinformation" and that they were considering suing the company for defamation.)
Wolt did, however, assert it was working to correct navigation inaccuracies and improve workers' insurance packages.
After the demonstration, many of the protesters went to join a separate rally organized by another group of gig workers – drivers of Bolt, a leading international company offering taxi and delivery services in Georgia.
In Bolt's case, recently lowered trip fares are a key reason for protest. The change of price, drivers claim, is costing them money while the share that goes to the company has more than doubled, accounting for up to a quarter of what a customer pays. Another concern is what they have described as the dysfunctional communication with the company amid the absence of a call center to help them solve day-to-day problems.
"They treat us like slaves, ignore our problems and make things more and more complicated for us," one Bolt driver told Business Media Georgia.
Labor discontent has also spread into other fields. This month, dozens of camera operators at Formula, a pro-opposition TV channel, went on strike to demand a pay rise, leading to the dismissal of at least 20 people.
The TV channel claimed the strike did not follow the legally defined procedures. The workers said they only resorted to striking after managers gave an "insulting" response to their demands. Two journalists left the channel in solidarity with dismissed workers.
Pandemic-induced economic recession, inflation, and pervasive poor working conditions in Georgia have led to multiple waves of labor actions in recent years. Workers in both public agencies and private companies have secured victories in their quests for better working conditions and pay.
Their activities also came amid important labor reforms, including a labor code with stricter provisions on the 40-hour workweek and overtime pay, and a comeback of the labor inspectorate after 15 years of absence. More recent reforms include introducing minimum hourly wages for nurses and doctors this year. While the minimum wage had been absent from previous labor reforms, an exception was made for these healthcare workers, who are widely seen as one of the most underpaid and overworked labor groups.
But this recent reform also highlighted remaining challenges: The changes don't affect medical workers falling outside these two categories, and concerns have mounted that hospitals try to evade the new regulations by manipulating employment contracts.
And low pay continues to be the main problem for other employees in a country where annual inflation hit 12 percent in 2022, with prices of food, housing, and utilities particularly affected as the region reels from Ukraine war-related economic shocks. Last year, Georgia for the first time reported median wage statistics, showing that half of Georgian workers made less than GEL 900 ($320) per month in 2021.
The grim situation has led many to seek employment abroad. A recent study found that nearly a quarter of Georgian citizens lived abroad as of 2020, while a fresh poll from the National Democratic Institute found that one in five Georgians is considering emigrating in the next 12 months to seek work. This trend has led to a situation where companies complain about labor shortages while the unemployed struggle to find decently paid work.
Nini Gabritchidze is a Tbilisi-based journalist.
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