Interview with S. Apostolakis: Stories from a delivery worker’s diary

Sunday June 11th saw the last performance of “Diary of a Delivery Worker”, a play by the Man at Sea theatre company at the Alte Fablon space in Thessaloniki. The play was based on texts written by Sakis Apostolakis, which vividly describe his experience as a delivery worker. After being fired from the newspaper Eleftherotypia, for which he worked for many years, S. Apostolakis was unemployed for a long period. During this time, he turned to the delivery sector to find work. On this occasion, comrade N. Anastasiadis spoke with S. Apostolakis about his experiences.

Q: Sakis good morning! You wrote a series of texts, which subsequently became a theatre play, from your experience as a delivery worker. Somewhere in these texts you say that working in this job is a “sociological study”. What are the results of this study?

SA: This “study” produced results similar to those of the recent Greek election. There is a small percentage of people who think about the worker as a person, and a large percentage of people who either don’t care or think of workers in “service” occupations (waiters, supermarket clerks, delivery workers etc.) as if they exist to serve them. Many behave either indifferently or rudely. In a way this is also a generalised phenomenon. We see the same thing in behaviour on the road, something that as delivery workers we face on a daily basis. There is a great deal of indifference and carelessness in driving. Recently a survey came out that more than 80% of drivers in Greece use their smartphones while driving. We see this kind of behaviour everywhere.

In my previous job as a journalist I didn’t have such experiences. Anyone who came into contact with a journalist from a well-known medium was cautious. But the same person, who wears a “good face” in public appearances, at home takes it off and treats the person who delivers food with rudeness; as if this person is there to serve him/her.

Q: What do you think causes this behaviour, what is the root of this phenomenon?

SA: We learned years ago to only look after ourselves. To be indifferent to the person next door. I appreciate that this social condition intensified in the 1980s and began to spread and consolidate – the logic that one has to step on corpses in order to rise. Of course, there were such phenomena before; just to cite the quislings (Nazi collaborators) during the occupation in the ‘40s. But from a certain point onwards, this logic became predominant. The business models and the logic of business executives of modern companies evolved rapidly, focusing on individual “career advancement” etc.

In a way, we were trained to look only at ourselves and not at those around us. To strive for our “advancement”, regardless of whether that advancement creates a problem for someone else.

Q: Not long ago we had the strike and the massive spontaneous boycott of E-food. A dynamic mood appeared from the workers and a climate of great solidarity was shown from the people. Do you think there is a change in perspective from some parts of society about the importance of your work?

SA: There is, but it is still a minority perspective. There have been shows of solidarity, but at the same time there are large parts of society who remain indifferent. There were a lot of people who uninstalled the app and posted negative public reviews and ratings, this played a role in the mobilisations.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency to replace street mobilisation with reactions via the internet. Social media is of course a tool, and it’s how you use it that matters. On many occasions, a law has been withdrawn because of online reactions. But in no way should this be a substitute for marches etc., which we have a tradition of, especially here in Greece.

Q: The working conditions in the delivery sector are very harsh, and the wages are far from adequate; and this is very evident in your writings. What do you think workers who are constantly growing in numbers in this sector can do?

SA: First of all, there is a blurry landscape in the delivery business right now. The big companies started with food delivery. Now we carry almost everything from animal feed to detergents. This normally would need a different approach, because you’re not  normally allowed to put bleach and pizza in the same box. However, there is some tolerance from the police, normally I would be fined for this. Supposedly the Ministry is looking to find a solution to this issue.

The other issue is that the couriers are not considered professionals. We are not able to register our motorbike as a commercial vehicle, and therefore have lower VAT and other costs, but also have checks on the condition of the vehicle. At the moment all these costs are borne by the delivery driver. This applies even to salaried employees in the industry, and it goes without saying that it also applies to freelancers.

There are of course some shops that have their own motorbikes, but they are few. Most shops have now been brought into the system of the two big delivery companies. At the company I work for, we get a compensation for damage equal to 15% of the minimum wage, which may be sufficient if you have a small bike. But some people use their own personal vehicle which could be a large capacity vehicle. This of course is a desperate move when you have no other option. In our line of work, at best you do 100km a day, how safe is a vehicle that does that many kilometres if it is not serviced and checked regularly? Legally it’s a very fluid situation and we must demand that this be changed. A small part of delivery workers do not want rules. They are usually the ones who do it as a second job and want everything to be “off the books” so that the tax service doesn’t eat it away. But that can’t be a solution.

Q: Lately the freelancing model is being promoted to distributors. What do you think about that?

SA: This scheme enables some people to increase their income, but by working long hours and accepting that they will pay for the motorbike, the social insurance and everything else. This is obviously bad, and promotes an employment model that is ultimately against the worker. The companies have given the worker both the carrot and the stick, and the worker, in order to get the carrot, is self-flagellating. There are some in our industry who think that’s a good thing. I don’t agree. I understand why for some, in today’s circumstances, it is convenient. Like when someone has kids and can’t commit to “firm” hours, or when someone has another job etc. Besides, the phenomenon is global – its essence is that it enables large companies to have no obligations and do whatever they want with the payroll. In the recent pay cuts at Wolt, there wasn’t even an update communicated to the workers. The delivery workers just saw that their payment was now lower in each route. When they called the company to ask what was going on the answer was yes, we reduced the payment, and anyone who wants to can continue, if not we can hire others for the job.

Q: In your writings one can detect a certain “class pride”. You seem to regret that the conditions no longer exist for you to work as a journalist, but on the other hand it seems that sometimes non-specialised work leaves the conscience freer. How do you deal with the prejudice that you’ve “become a delivery boy”?

SA: The thing is, I was looking for a job in my field and I couldn’t find one. I wasn’t taught to be obedient to political lines in journalism. So, owners of the media weren’t keen on hiring me. I was forced to turn to delivery work. There are pejoratives there too, but you can move on. You don’t have to deal with snitches, which is why people hate journalism. The pay and hours are specific, you have weekends. You don’t have the worries of the job. You’re not afraid of someone taking your job, what job could he take, since he’s a delivery driver too. My job starts when I turn the engine on, and stops when I turn it off.

There is, of course, the prejudice against people who do this kind of work. I didn’t face it personally, on the contrary. But because we grew up that way, and because journalism offered “recognition”, I was trying not to be seen. But from people close to me I had admiration. I began to respect the work that feeds me. And it’s a job that’s not easy.

You’re in danger every day; and we don’t get hazard pay. Why would we take it anyway? We ride a motorbike all day (laughs)… I would certainly like to do my job again but with the conditions I had – freedom, recognition, respect for ethics. But journalists today work 3-4 jobs to earn a decent salary. They work unbelievable hours and don’t even know if they will get the money they were promised.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the play, how it came about and what kind of response it got?

SA: The whole thing started from stories I was telling friends after work. They urged me to write them down. I told them ‘come on guys, these things have been happening for years, it’s nothing new’. But they insisted that people don’t know them, so I started posting them on Facebook. The director, Claire Christopoulou, saw them and suggested we do a show, and it was a big hit. Someone asked me to throw the garbage out on the way down, and another person opened the door for me in his underwear. There were a lot of people saying they couldn’t believe people like this existed… but that’s our everyday life. I’ve written 43 episodes, 20 were used in the show, and I have 32 more that I haven’t published yet.

There is a thought of publishing a book based on those as well.

I didn’t have a plan for all these. I started writing them for fun, then came the play, the very warm reception from the audience, and now maybe the book, and we’ll see further. The delivery work “delivered” nice things to me, it’s been a nice journey.

Originally, my thoughts were to turn the texts into a stand-up comedy style show, but the Man at Sea theatre company turned it into something more. They had very nice ideas stage-wise, the performances were very strong and the group really pulled it off overall. It was their idea for the show to be performed amongst the crowd, just like how delivery workers circulate throughout societies. Delivery workers have to wear warm clothes because we are outside, but we are also running up and down stairs etc., so we’re in a constant state of sweat. This was also reflected in the performance, with the actors earning the positive crowd response by the literal sweat of their brows. At the same time the show was also very funny because the situations it described were tragicomic. We hope for a sequel!

Saki, thank you very much for this interview!

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