Dubai Deliveroo drivers protest pay cut in rare strike
An Amazon-backed app has now reversed a pay decision in a Middle Eastern commercial region where labor strikes are prohibited.
Thousands of food-delivery drivers walked off the job in Dubai over the weekend to protest low pay and bad working conditions, a rare show of defiance in the Middle East economic hub where strikes are illegal.
The foreign workers hired by Deliveroo, a UK-based app that went public last year with funding from Amazon.com Inc., refused to make deliveries for more than 24 hours, disrupting the company's operation at the end of Ramadan.
Videos circulated via social media showed hundreds of delivery workers clad in the company's teal-green uniforms standing by their parked motorcycles outside one of Deliveroo's ghost kitchens, a center for picking up meal orders, on Sunday. Other drivers claimed they did not show up for work and refused to use the app to make deliveries.
A rare labor strike in Dubai over May Day among Deliveroo drivers protesting a planned pay cut. 24 hours of no deliveries led to the company suspending the cut.— Séamus Malekafzali (@Seamus_Malek) May 2, 2022
Strikes are illegal in the UAE.pic.twitter.com/RhYqMP2lxo
The drivers, who had organized using social media and internet messaging applications, called off their protest early Monday when the firm announced that it would reinstate the old pay rate and working hours.
The Dubai media office and the UAE Ministry of Human Resources did not immediately reply to calls for comment.
Work stoppages are exceedingly rare in the United Arab Emirates, an oil-rich collection of emirates that include Dubai, where foreign workers outnumber natives by a factor of ten. The autocratic government, which is run by a few strong families, prohibits trade unions, strikes, and public rallies.
Deliveroo strike in DUBAI pic.twitter.com/oiHYcffQjH— M. Imran (@MImran63066827) April 30, 2022
During the pandemic, the UAE tried to enhance its reputation as a safe and comfortable haven for white-collar employees, attracting thousands of millionaires and tech entrepreneurs.
However, it has received criticism for years, especially during the Expo 2020 world exposition in March, over the treatment of millions of low-wage employees, primarily from Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines, who have fewer protections. Construction workers have previously gone on strike to demand higher pay.
According to Mustafa Qadri, CEO of the human-rights organization Equidem, despite a recent revision of UAE labor rules, workers are more likely to be jailed for going on strike than to receive backing from the authorities.
“If this is how thousands of workers in one of the biggest global companies get treated in Dubai, it raises questions about the wider risks of forced labor in the UAE labor market,” Mr. Qadri said.
Deliveroo drivers claim that the costs of purchasing and repairing motorcycles, obtaining and renewing work licenses from local authorities, and paying rent and traffic fines are prohibitively expensive.
They also worry about substandard healthcare, despite the dangers of driving their small cars on Dubai's high-speed roadways. Several drivers were seriously hurt in traffic accidents in videos released online as part of the campaign.
The walkout comes as global oil and food costs are expected to climb dramatically this year as Russia's operation in Ukraine changes how commodities are traded, produced, and consumed around the world.
Deliveroo's decision last week to decrease the amount it pays Dubai drivers for each delivery to the equivalent of $2.38 from $2.79 and lengthen shift durations to up to 12 hours a day sparked the work stoppage.
This followed the UAE government's decision to boost petrol prices for the third consecutive month in April, further straining drivers who pay for their gas and sometimes drive up to 300 miles per day, according to drivers.
“When they dropped our fees, they said work 12 hours (and) you will earn the same,” said a striking Pakistani driver. “We said, ‘We are human, not machines, we can’t do work 12 hours on the road.’”
Drivers claimed they had received threats from the organizations who contract them to Deliveroo, urging them to cease the strike. A Deliveroo email obtained by The Wall Street Journal reminded riders that refusing to work for others is a serious infraction that might result in criminal prosecution, jail time, or deportation.
Drivers applauded online after the firm decided to restore their prior pay rate and working hours, where customers and restaurants had expressed support for their strike and displeasure at their treatment.
“These chaps should be treated well as should all employees,” tweeted Keren Bobker, a financial advisor in Dubai. “Many of us do care & want them to have a proper wage & legal hours.”