Wolt set for legal fight over couriers' employment status

The food delivery company considers couriers to be entrepreneurs, and not employees.

File photo of Wolt couriers on Aleksanterinkatu in Helsinki. Image: Matti Myller / Yle

Finland-based food delivery service Wolt intends to continue treating couriers as entrepreneurs and not employees, despite objections from the Regional State Administrative Agency (Avi) of Southern Finland.

Avi has instructed Wolt to keep a record of couriers' working hours, in accordance with Finland's Working Time Act, after an Avi inspector investigated the company's operations.

Wolt however said it would not comply with Avi's instruction as couriers are not employees.

"It would be important to listen to what the couriers themselves say," Wolt's co-founder Juhani Mykkänen said. "It is not fair to say to all the couriers that we are now forcing them into an employment relationship because one body has thought so, even though the majority of the couriers want to continue as entrepreneurs."

Mykkänen referred to a survey published by the company on Wednesday, according to which slightly more than half of the couriers said they would like to continue as entrepreneurs.

In a survey conducted by the market research company Taloustutkimus, 56 percent of Wolt couriers said they would like to continue with the current system while 25 percent said they would choose an employment relationship.

The survey was answered by 42 percent of the couriers contracted with Wolt, or a total of 1,539 people.

Dispute over courier status set to continue

Avi's inspection report into Wolt completed next week with reasons, and it is expected to detail the work process, working hours and the views of all parties.

For Inspector Juho Loukiala, Wolt's stance comes as no surprise as the company had already sent an explanation as to why working hours records were not kept.

"Of course, the matter is very broad and complex, and this is their view on the matter. The matter will go through further processing here inside the house [Avi], which means that I will refer it to the occupational health and safety authority," Loukiala said.

The controversy over the employment status of couriers is therefore far from over.

The occupational health and safety authority can make a binding decision on the status of the couriers, but will likely hear the company's point of view first. Any decision by the authority can also be challenged by Wolt in the Administrative Court, a legal process which could potentially take a long time.

Wolt ready for legal battle

Mykkänen said that Wolt is prepared to take the case all the way to the Administrative Court if needed. According to the company's own reports, other authorities have interpreted the work carried out by the couriers as being entrepreneurial - in contrast to the Avi inspector's view.

For example, Wolt asked the Tax Administration for an opinion on whether the compensation paid to couriers should be considered a salary or a business renumeration.

Story continues after the photo.

The employment status of food couriers has been the subject of much debate. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

The tax authority's view was that the agreement between Wolt and the courier partners is an 'assignment relationship', not an employment relationship, and they are thus comparable to entrepreneurs. In its assessment, the tax administration considered if the characteristics of an assignment relationship were met in the case of Wolt couriers.

"In the opinion of the Tax Administration, this is entrepreneurial work and the Employment Accidents Compensation Board took the same position in its decision in June, as did the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the National Enforcement Authority, previously," Mykkänen stated.

Mykkänen added that the position of couriers would be improved by amending labour legislation or improving social security for the self-employed.

"Labour law should be amended to allow freedom of choice on when, how and to what extent to work. Alternatively, the safety nets of self-employed people could be improved, for example by enabling YEL [self-employed person's pension insurance] payments to be settled directly in connection with the payment of benefits, which would guarantee good retirement and sickness security," Mykkänen said.

Importance of recording working hours

The roots of this long process go back to August 2019, when the Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland carried out inspections of food delivery companies and found that they did not keep records of couriers' working hours.

Avi subsequently sought an opinion on the matter from the Labour Council, an independent authority under the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, which stated that the work of food couriers meets the characteristics of an employment relationship and they should be employees. The council further stated that the courier's working hours should be recorded.

After receiving the Labour Council's statement, Avi contacted Wolt and Foodora and urged the companies to put their working time records in order by mid-May, but Wolt has refused to do so.

"Working time records are one of the main obligations of the employer. If they are employees, then Wolt must keep these timesheets. If they themselves consider that they are not in an employer relationship with the couriers, then their view may be that there is no need to keep time and attendance records," Loukiala explained.

Avi is currently carrying out a similar inspection with regard to Foodora, but the outcome of that probe is still pending.