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Dubai delivery drivers walk off job in rare protest over pay

Food-delivery drivers in Dubai (Isabel Debre/AP)
Food-delivery drivers in Dubai (Isabel Debre/AP)

Food-delivery drivers protesting against wage cuts and gruelling working conditions went on an extremely rare strike in Dubai over the weekend.

The mass walkout paralysed one of the country’s main delivery apps and revived concerns about working conditions in the emirate.

The strike started late on Saturday and ended early on Monday, when Deliveroo agreed in a letter to riders to restore workers’ pay to £2.22 per delivery instead of the proposed rate of £1.89 that had ignited the work stoppage, as the company tried to cut costs amid surging fuel prices.

The firm also backtracked on its plan to extend working shifts to 14 hours a day.

Strikes remain illegal in the United Arab Emirates, an autocratic federation of seven sheikhdoms that bans unions and criminalises dissent.

Dubai Delivery Strike
The strike started late on Saturday and ended early on Monday (Isabel Debre/AP)

Delivery workers in Dubai, who became a mainstay in the financial hub as demand boomed during the pandemic, have few protections.

To reduce costs, companies like Deliveroo outsource bikes, logistics and responsibility to contracting agencies – a labour pipeline that prevails across Gulf Arab states and can lead to mistreatment.

Many impoverished migrants are plunged into debt paying their contractors exorbitant visa fees to secure their jobs.

“It is clear that some of our original intentions have not been clear and we are listening to riders,” Deliveroo said in a statement to The Associated Press.

“We have therefore currently paused all changes and will be working with our agency riders to ensure we have a structure that works for everyone and has our agency riders’ best interest at heart.”

Dubai Delivery Strike
Many impoverished migrants are plunged into debt paying their contractors exorbitant visa fees to secure their jobs (Isabel Debre/AP)

The food delivery service is valued at more than £6.37 billion.News of the pay cut at Deliveroo, announced internally last week as the cost of fuel soars amid fallout from the war in Ukraine and continuing supply chain issues, was devastating for 30-year-old driver Mohammadou Labarang.

It was the last straw, he said. Already, he was paying for the UAE’s unprecedented fuel prices out of his own pocket and was barely scraping by, with a wife and seven-month-old son in Cameroon to support.

When Mr Labarang logged on to social media, he found he was far from alone. Soon, he said, hundreds of Deliveroo drivers were mobilising on Telegram and WhatsApp.

Dozens of drivers parked their bikes by various Deliveroo warehouses in protest, according to footage widely shared on social media.

Some shut down their apps. Others rested at their accommodation and refused to work. Others went to restaurants and urged fellow couriers to stop mid-shift.

“All around Dubai we saw food getting cold on restaurant counters,” Mr Labarang said. “It grew far beyond what anybody thought possible.”

As a result, the Deliveroo app, one of the most popular delivery apps in the country, particularly during the final days of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, was largely down over the weekend.

Some drivers shared WhatsApp voice messages with the AP from their managers at contracting agencies, demanding that they return to work immediately and “don’t involve yourself in any illegal activity”.

Keenly aware they risk detention and expulsion for striking, drivers were quick to stress their protest was in no way political.

“We know the rules, we know it’s sensitive, this is not against the UAE,” said a 30-year-old Pakistani driver named Mohammed, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

But he said he also risks his life each day, zipping around Dubai’s dangerous roads without accident insurance.

“We are human,” he said as he mounted his motorbike, returning to the grind in central Dubai after the strike. “We are not robots.”