Ministry of Finance: No issues with Bolt's food courier activities

Ministry of Finance deputy secretary general Evelyn Liivamägi.
Ministry of Finance deputy secretary general Evelyn Liivamägi. Source: Ministry of Finance.

The Ministry of Finance has issued a robust defense of Estonian unicorn company Bolt, in response to a recent article in daily Postimees which claimed the firm had been using workarounds to avoid paying income tax in respect of its food couriers.

Evelyn Liivamägi, deputy secretary general at the ministry, said that the Estonian state has reacted to the emergence of novel platforms such as Bolt's food courier service by trying not to shoe-horn them into pre-existing frameworks and by allowing newer business models to develop.

When those who work for such services can now decide for themselves how many hours per week they wish to work, and when the provider of that work is an app platform servicing the public, viewing these types of jobs – such as a food courier in Bolt's case – as a type of business in itself is viable, meaning it can be treated differently for tax purposes, Liivamägi went on

One of the points presented in the Postimees article was that Bolt's main current competitor, the similarly-named Wolt, does not treat courier wages as "incentives" or "market fees" and the company as a "mediator", but rather pays income tax along more traditional lines.

Liivamägi said that in fact, Wolt, too, employs couriers who work as a registered company, an OÜ, or who use a business account. All of Wolt's couriers have been required to be employees, by the company's own rationale, Liivamägi added, while when the company entered the Estonian market (as a Finnish firm), it, too, started to utilize other business models, she said.

In short, Bolt's couriers are, one way or another, entrepreneurs and as such subject to different rules than regular employees, the finance ministry finds, meaning signed employment contracts or the withholding of payment (as income tax) from fees paid to couriers are not required in this case.

This puts the onus on the couriers, and for that matter other service providers working via Bolt platforms, such as taxi drivers, to declare and pay their own taxes.

At the same time, Liivamägi concede she was not fully familiar with all aspects of Bolt's operations, even as a customer.

She said: "I must confess, I have not ordered food via Bolt myself. I have no idea what sort of bill I would receive there or what the receipt for the food order is, that they use in the model.

"Sometimes it is the case that, for me as a customer, then yes of course, do not say that I want this or that Jüri or Mari to deliver the food to me," she went on.

"For me, this is down to the environment in which I am ordering. However, legally speaking, not everything may not be exactly as it seems to me as a customer. There are most likely some conditions written somewhere, stating what all the rules and regulations are," she went on.

"I don't know how these relationships work there. Who is in a contractual relationship with whom. For example, in the case of a driver, I get an invoice later, which states exactly who drove me around and who was thus the service provider," she continued.

That said, Liivamägi stated that couriers' roles are similar to those of taxi drivers – the service provider is linked up to the private customer via the platform, which simply mediates between the two and deals with billing.

Liivamägi also said that ultimately, matters of taxation are down to the Tax and Customs Board (MTA).

"The MTA office can contact Bolt to assess what these conditions look like and in so doing this form opinions on how taxation should fall. In the end, when it comes to arguing, a court will decide," she went on, noting that this eventualities might be on the horizon for Bolt. "It is very likely that Bolt will be contacted on this issue," said Liivamägi.

Bolt has in any case been in contact with the relevant state authorities, Liivamägi said, adding that their activities comply with the law as in force in Estonia. 

To reiterate, under Estonian law, couriers are not required to be employees of Bolt in order to work for the company; they can also use a business account, which deducts 20 percent of wages as taxation, she added, or the individual can work as a registered sole trader (FIE) or a limited liability partnership (OÜ) or as a private individual, filing a tax return annually and making the requisite payments.

Liivamägi also noted the importance of Bolt notifying its couriers of this situation and their own responsibility for their tax affairs.

One concern raised by the Postimees piece was that, notwithstanding Liivamägi's "Jüri" and "Mari" (Estonian names) analogy above, a large proportion of Bolt food couriers are from outside Estonia and outside the EU, and may not be familiar with the tax system in Estonia, the state language etc.

Couriers convey food from restaurant, cafe, grocery store etc., to customer, either via bicycle, e-scooter (a rental service which Bolt also provides via a separate app), car (ditto) or any other means of transport they see fit.

The user can track the progress of an order via the app and alter settings such as where the courier leaves the order etc.

Customers can also come and collect an order themselves.

The services provided by Bolt and Wolt saw heavy usage during the Covid pandemic.

One high-profile, some-time Bolt service provider – as a taxi driver rather than a food courier – is Martin Repinski, a Center Party MP.

The Postimees piece, which published on Wednesday, reported that Bolt has so far avoided paying income tax potentially totaling millions as a result of the business model outlined above.

Concerns have also been raised that Bolt, as one of Estonia's flagship, success story "unicorn" firms - which does not mean that it does not exist, but rather denotes a company worth a billion US dollars - is protected by the Estonian establishment and has different rules applied to it than other, less successful, less prominent or "less Estonian" companies might do.

Founded in 2013, as Taxify, by the Villig brothers, Bolt operates in dozens of other countries and employs around 3,000 people worldwide, it is reported.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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