Researchers: Undervaluing platform workers tarnishes unicorn success story

Mari-Klara Stein and Artur Toikka.
Mari-Klara Stein and Artur Toikka. Source: Tallinn University of Technology

In society, it is generally frowned upon and considered bad manners to be rude to waiting staff, sales assistants, cleaners and others working in service roles. However, it seems that when it comes to Bolt couriers and delivery drivers, double standards are often applied, write Artur Toikka, PhD student and junior researcher at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), and Mari-Klara Stein, professor of management at TalTech's department of business administration.

As a society, we take pride in the global success story of our local unicorn and present it to foreigners as an example when showcasing Estonia's achievements in business and IT. We are happy to use the services provided, yet at the same time seem to despise the people who bring food to our doors or enable transport on-demand.

In one of our interviews, a Bolt driver mentioned an incident where a grandmother and her grandson were sitting in the back seat of his car. During the trip, the grandmother told her grandson: "Study hard, otherwise you will end up working as a taxi driver like him." In a recent media interview, Toomas Edur, former artistic director of the Estonian National Ballet, also remarked, as if by way of an anecdote, how he really didn't want to be a taxi driver when he was unemployed. Or, the collective surprise and laughter following the announcement of the news that Martin Repinski, a Riigikogu MP, was earning extra money by working as a Bolt driver.

Why don't we say nice things about couriers?

Our research shows that many Bolt couriers and drivers are proud to be part of an internationally renowned company. However, at the same time, they do not feel the slightest pride in being associated with this particular company. In the press, we can find both criticism and praise of Bolt and its owners, but positive coverage of Bolt couriers and drivers is almost non-existent.

Instead, they are referred to as low-paid, over-worked, monolingual traffic hooligans, illegals, criminals and who knows what else. Needless to say, it is thanks to the daily efforts of these people that the services we have taken for granted over the last decade continue functioning.

Around seven percent of Estonia's working age population, or around 56,000 people, are engaged in some type of platform work on a weekly basis. 100,000 people do platform work every month. 45.5 percent of all platform workers provide either ride-sharing or courier services. This type of work is done by real people - with dreams, goals and ambitions.

They may be students, academics, top athletes, builders, nail technicians, sailors, truck drivers, stockbrokers, programmers, who live in the neighborhood. Just like anyone else, they are looking for ways to improve their lives.

 The irony of the story about the grandmother and grandson above for instance, is that the driver of that car that happened to be a highly educated professional. He was simply working as a rideshare driver on the side of his day job as a computer programmer.

One of the aims of the International Labor Organization (ILO) is to ensure decent work is available for everyone. In a nutshell, this means every job has to provide a fair income, a certain level of autonomy, a sense of security, opportunities to contribute to society, empowerment and opportunities to develop. According to couriers and drivers themselves, the Bolt platform barely satisfies these needs, even though all the prerequisites for doing so appear to be in place. For example, the topic of contribution to society did not come up in any way in the interviews conducted with platform workers, when the whole point of their work is to provide a service to society.

Working out of necessity

This is an important point. In Estonia, taxi driver and courier jobs are considered to be among the least desirable. Consequently, the people who hold these jobs also tend to be thought of as socially inferior. Most of the drivers we interviewed stated that they do these jobs out of necessity. Only those who were doing them on the side of their main job or other main activities (such as studying) were more or less satisfied.

However, due to changes in tax as well as the balance between supply and demand on platforms,  this type of work is becoming an increasingly unpopular option among Estonians. The disproportionate ratio of providers to clients is also down to the large number of foreign workers, for whom these jobs have a low entry threshold.

At the same time, clients of rideshare companies are willing to pay more, i.e. to choose the premium category, as this means there is a higher chance that the driver will speak Estonian and have a good car. This option is often chosen when transporting their children. However, this is a paradoxical situation - there is an unmet demand for Estonian-language services in Estonia. But if the service provider is not valued, why should they provide [these services] at the expense of their own dignity?

All things considered, there is only good news here for [Estonian hip-hop star] Nublu - the chances of a taxi driver recognizing him are getting slimmer.

So what can be done?

As always, a good place to start is with yourself. They brought food to my door, I have a full stomach and so I'm grateful. Next time, I'll thank my taxi driver or courier, tip them and smile before they are all replaced by robots.


This opinion piece is based on the master's thesis "Worth of platform-based gig work from the point of view of employees and society" by Artur Toikka, which was defended at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech). The thesis was written as part of the Estonian Research Council-funded project "Work worth doing? Value of platform work in Estonia."


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Editor: Michael Cole

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