Food Delivery Co-op
photo by Adriá Costa
Born out of the workers struggle, Mensakas delivery service offers an alternative to the exploitation of freelance work in the gig economy. They provide social insurances, sustainable delivery options, and circulation of wealth in the local economy. Their core values are rooted in responsible and local consumption, cooperation, and community good.
June 5, 2020
Can you please explain the inspiration behind creating Mensakas?
Platform companies are misusing the status of the freelancer to avoid paying taxes for their workers. This was our main issue and is where Mensakas comes from, the workers struggle. We come from the gig economy, we were working for Deliveroo Global which is a Spanish startup similar to Uber Eats.
The founding members of Mensakas met during strikes for better conditions. After the strikes we were fired so we saw our chance to build this co-op as a tool to keep on building the struggle. The struggle in the workplace goes hand in hand with building the co-op as an alternative. Worker status is important.
There’s the worker status and freelance status. As a freelancer, you have an agreement with a company, they pay you for projects and when this is over the relation is over. The biggest relationship is the worker with their company. If the company has a normal daily business that needs work, they should hire people as workers not as freelancers because it is a regular need for the companies.
We were talking to restaurants, creating agreements, and scheduling shifts with them. In the beginning we didn’t know how we were going to start, we didn’t have any business training so we started by doing dedicated shifts. During these shifts the worker goes to one restaurant and works a three hour shift.
Another aspect that is very important are the eco deliveries that we do with cargo bikes which are long bikes that you can carry a load on. We started delivering an eco basket to homes that includes organic and sustainable produce that is grown around Barcelona. This would be considered ‘last mile line’ which is the last step before the customer receives what they ordered. Right now with COVID-19, the demand for last mile groceries has increased.
There’s a collective of producers and organic farmers that sell their products online and drop all of the items at our logistics center. We are trying to contact local producers to give them a solution to the last mile issue which will give them the ability to deliver to anyone in the city. It’s complicated for the farmers and the proximity producers to come to the city with their van to go from spot to spot, so we offer the solution of dropping everything at our hub and we deliver for them. We also work in district markets in Barcelona where there are local businesses and producers. The shops in the market are gathered around an association that takes food orders by telephone, collects all the products by order, and we deliver the orders every morning.
Once we have the online platform, customers can buy groceries from every producer, they receive orders through the platform, and everything will be scheduled for delivery, to make the business sustainable. ASAP delivery puts a lot of risk on the company because you need to have people waiting for orders. This can be problematic because there’s a risk that you won’t have enough orders for the workers you have waiting or you don’t have enough workers for the orders. I want to put a question mark on ASAP buying being a contradiction to worker rights. We are trying to build this discourse with the customers that to be socially responsible you need to be a responsible customer so when you need something delivered it’s better to be scheduled.
How does being a member of the CoopCycle federation benefit the cooperative?
Being a part of the network means we are in contact with people that already use CoopCyle, in places like Paris, Madrid, France, and Belgium. We know about CoopCycle through workmates from other countries in Europe because we were gathering as unions and struggling workers. We had meetings where we were discussing the experiences of struggle, how to build a strike, and how to build a union in the workplace. In these discussions the alternative of building the co-op and building Coopcycle kept popping up. It is a support network, building international solidarity, and building international bonds.
Please share the philosophy behind RidersxDerechos and the role it plays in the community.
Riders for rights (ridersxderechos) is the initial seed of this in Barcelona, we organized ourselves while working in platform food delivery. We found ourselves in this irregular situation, used by these companies so we started having talks as workmates, with Nuria and other companions. Our first idea was to ask the company for some demands and have as many workers as possible join the cause so we would have more strength to pressure the company to achieve these demands.
The demands were basic things like having a minimum work week because the hours were irregular and we were competing with each other for the shifts. Shifts were posted on Monday and at the very moment the shifts were posted people were clicking to get them. We also wanted insurance in case of accidents. There were verbal agreements that were not written, a very important one was that you were required to work on Friday and Saturday. If you didn’t apply for those shifts you wouldn’t get any shifts in the week because there is more demand. This unwritten rule showed that they were giving orders to us as workers and not like freelancers to choose when we wanted to take an order, we were not working whenever we wanted.
We started gathering and debating about these demands. One by one we went to our co-workers asking them to read the demands, asked their opinion, whether or not they agree with the demands, and if they wanted to sign. We talked with almost all the workers and we sent the demands to the company using the advice of a lawyer. The company didn’t give us a straight answer to start some dialogue, they started talking one by one to figure out who was behind this. Since we didn’t get a straight answer we realized we needed to better define our collectiveness, we were the workers, irregularly as freelancers.
We talked to unions, we found Intersindical Alternativa de Catalunya (IAC), a federation of unions. There was a union dedicated to precarious works and they said we are obviously workers and should be hired as workers with all that it implies but we have yet to be legally recognized as workers.
We formally and legally founded a branch of the union in Deliveroo. We called for assemblies and we made the decision in a worker assembly to establish this branch as a consequence to Deliveroo. We reported it to the labor authorities of Barcelona and we registered ourselves so the union would start representing us. The union has a legal form with attributions which is representing the workers and being able to negotiate with the company. They were always avoiding straight communication, all they said was they were not recognizing the foundation because we were not their workers, we were freelancers. That is obviously their strategy, our idea was to leave a track behind us of a workers method of dealing with conflicts to companies.
This happened in the Spring of 2018, during the summer there’s usually a moment of conflict because there are less orders, so these companies fire people but they call it ending the collaboration. They use this neo language, you are collaborating with us not working with us, you have a mission not a working shift, they play with all of these terms.
In the beginning of the summer we called for strike because they were changing the conditions and starting to fire people. We used the tool of the union to legally report a strike, it’s not required that you report it but it’s usually better when you are able to do it. We would have gone on strike but left no track, no proof. We talked to the authorities, reported the strike and it was accepted by them, we went to strike twice.
Nottingham, England Deliveroo strike
In the end we received communication from the company saying they were ending the collaboration with us, meaning we were fired. We sued the company for firing us as a repression act for our union activity and we won the trial. There are some trials yet to be celebrated but some already have been, I’m still waiting for my trial since 2018. The ruling says that the work is not freelance, we are workers, the ruling recognized that they fired us as an act of repression for our union activity. In Spain this means the firing is revoked and my friends have been hired back by Deliveroo, legally they are workers of Deliveroo but Deliveroo decided they will not give any tasks but they are getting paid. They don’t want the example of couriers working in worker conditions so they prefer to just pay them by order of the court, they get paid without having to work while building Mensakas.
This ruling is very important history in Spain, it recognizes union activity repression. The strikes have expanded from Barcelona to Madrid, we connected with a lot of experiences in the rest of the Spanish state and in Europe. We coordinated statewide and have been trying to help everyone that contacts ridersxderechos worker coordination platform to contact their local union to help them build a local branch of ridersxderchos. The workers can’t rely only on the courts, it has a very slow timing, the struggle needs to be fought on multiple fronts. Get it out to the media, the strikes we had brought awareness to this important issue.
If we allow this deregulation, it will go to another sector and another sector and when companies stop paying taxes, the public money will decrease. Social rights will decrease because they will make excuses saying there’s not enough money so we have to make cuts in education, cuts in public healthcare. It’s very connected to the public social rights, we tried to develop discourse with this and I think we succeeded. The companies use people that just arrived in Spain and need a job without having the right to work in the country. They are taking advantage of this situation, there are accounts that are sub-rented to people who don’t have work permission and this digital platform is allowing this.
We had a tragedy where a coworker died in a car accident while working this past summer. He was from Nepal and he didn’t have a work permit yet, he was sub-renting an account from another person. Through this system, the companies are avoiding taking care of prevention in the workplace in order to cut costs. Out of this situation Mensakas was born, having a decent job, with decent conditions, is a way of activitivism. We are still in the street, working, and showing that it is possible to work in this sector with better conditions. At the same time we are taking care of the community of riders that defend the struggle as a way of improving work conditions.
What does Mensakas offer its couriers that other gig economy delivery platforms lack?
The main goal was to work as workers, to avoid the irregular situation of a freelancer. Meaning that you have a working contract and you are hired as a worker in Mensakas. You have a salary at the end of the month, you and the co-op are paying taxes which ensures social care like healthcare support. In a freelance situation if you have an accident then it’s your problem, besides not being able to work you get no support. Also, paying taxes to contribute to public social care that doesn’t leave anyone behind. We are developing our work in an ecological way by minimizing the use of gas and petrol by riding bikes or using electric bikes. It invests in the ecological transition towards urban delivery and urban mobility that ensures we reduce emissions.
Connected to this we are working with local producers and the local shops to provide them with the logistics that they need to compete with the big monsters like Amazon and other platforms. Equally important we are aiming to use Mensakas as a tool for regularizing immigrants that are our neighbors in Barcelona and they haven't been given the right to work as a citizen. We will work on hiring people to make working contracts that make it easier to get citizenship or permission to stay here.
In Mensakas we made a decision that women get 5% higher salary to fight back the salary bridge between men and women which is 3% in Spain and to value all the tasks that women don’t get any recognition for. We are able to achieve some small concrete things that are giving us hope and energy to continue doing this. It is very necessary to change to a more fair system, building communities and collective projects. Mensakas and the struggle dimension of ridersxderechoes work together to build communities and movements that show possible changes.
One of Mensakas original members Nuria Soto
What are some ways that Mensakas collaborates with other cooperatives?
It happens to be that Barcelona and Catalonia have quite a big co-op environment, we are members of Ateneu Cooperatiu which is like a co-op house where a lot of co-ops in the district gather. We are collaborating with food co-ops, a law co-op that helped us deal with Deliveroo labor cases and the law dimension for the foundation of Mensakas. We also used media and a developer co-op for developing some functions on the platform.
We are moving into an old factory in the Sants district of Barcelona that has been managed by neighbors for many years and has a long history. Right now there is some space where the co-op house has been setting up offices for different co-op projects so we will be moving in there. There we will be able to build a lot more bonds and cooperate with all of these other projects.
What are your sources of funding for the cooperative?
We started applying for public funding precisely for the creation of new co-op projects and our project along with others received 60,000 euros. With that money we dedicated it to branding, design, bags, we hired communication experts, and all the expenses of the legal process of the foundation. We also received 30,000 euros from the Barcelona Major House for starting the co-op and from the union. Through a crowdfunding campaign, we raised 20,000 euros.
Mensakas is a non-profit work/labor co-op so profits need to be reinvested in the co-op or the social economy. This could mean paying better salaries to workers, buying a new bike, or helping with another project. Obviously profits come from work, without work there’s no profit so these profits belong to the workers. The members of Mensakas decide how we reinvest profits in the coop. The profits are not privatized, they are collectivized.
Also, there are social finance entities like Co-op 57 from Catalonia that come from a workers struggle. They were collecting and saving money for their struggle, went on strike, and in the end when they raised the money they decided to keep the money to help other strikes. When you’re on strike you don’t get paid by the company but you still need to eat and pay rent. It became a financial co-op that helps projects and struggles, we got a loan from them that we are paying back. Fira is an ethical bank we are getting a loan from. We received funding without central banks. Since we had workers struggle and backgrounds in social rights, it helped us to get support.
Who is a part of the decision making process and how is it facilitated?
In the structure of the co-op, the highest organ is the worker members assembly, this assembly is where big and more important decisions are taken. There’s a board that deals with daily decisions regarding the strategy and development of the business. During the daily work there are people in charge of departments, these people have been elected by the assembly. When there is a change or a critical decision the assembly has to have the last word where they debate, deliberate, and decide. This requires a balance of efficiency and democracy.
What is the greatest challenge in nurturing a courier cooperative?
The biggest challenge we faced in the beginning was creating an economic activity that didn’t exist before for us. Activating economical activity is complicated. The challenge has been finding how to achieve economic activity in this sector while following the goals of workers rights. We are competing in this sector with other companies that use workers with a falsely self-employed status. I don’t mean competing in terms of prices, but building viable activity that allows to fight or make possible the goals of workers rights, ecological sustainable activity, and so on. We are really experiencing an improvement of our working conditions, it means a lot of extra work like any business in the beginning but this is our activist work. Learning how to manage daily life, daily work, and find a way of internal governance structure where everyone feels at least semi-comfortable because there will always be differences.
Building all of this with democratic values, an internal culture that allows people to think differently but at the same time work together, finding common priorities to work together, and learning from the practice to keep discussing while doing. We hold dialogue with reality, discussion, perspective, and goals. We had internal conflicts, internal crises, some people from the start left the project in the beginning because of conflicts. It’s important that conflicts are handled in a way that differences are not a problem, the problem is how to find a common and concrete practice to find agreements that allow us to go on.
What is the greatest benefit in nurturing a courier cooperative?
Many but first is the working conditions. Right now of course there’s a lot of dedication and effort but it’s not worse than Deliveroo, we are getting paid a little bit better in global dedication and retribution. As well as the experience of handling business collectively, all we do is the product of collective decisions, all of these combinations really feel far better than working for a company where you get orders and are exploited. We are getting to learn the real economic issues, facing day by day challenges together, and networking.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when you first started the cooperative?
I would have started by buying cargo bikes quicker and focusing more on not as concrete activity. We were always developing the activity with bikes, we bought one but i think it took too long for us to buy more. Most importantly, I would've tried to settle a more defined culture to be able to cooperate with differences. Working on the human being's experience of building proper communication to avoid misunderstandings that lead to mistrust and conflict. This probably would’ve come with a more defined way of governance but the structure can only be defined by the community itself. Until the community is defined it is complicated to have a pre-concept of how the governance needs to be.
Our education in general, not only in school but in society we are educated from the examples and images that we get from society. In school you learn that there is one person over you that gives you tasks, lessons, orders, and evaluates you. You have to complete tasks and feed the pattern. If you don’t accomplish them and you don’t pass exams, you don’t get good grades. This leads to a culture and personality that doesn’t have examples of what we are building here, like the co-op dynamic of making decisions. The biggest challenge is this, it is complicated to build an environment where differences can live together and be seen as virtuous instead of a problem because it means there’s diversity.