$900 fine for a delivery rider’s death: Do couriers have any rights?

The death of a Turkish delivery courier has brought into focus the conditions under which riders work — and how much the modern economy depends on them.

Yemek Sepeti Couriers
Yemek Sepeti couriers went on strike in Turkey in February 2022 over pay and conditions at the food delivery group [File: Serhat Cagdas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

The death of a motorcycle courier in an Istanbul road accident and the light sentencing of the man who allegedly killed him have sparked a debate about the conditions of gig workers at a time when they are an increasingly crucial engine of the global economy.

Mohammed Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, a son of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was initially handed a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for the death of the courier, Yunus Emre Gocer, in a traffic accident. The sentence was immediately commuted on Tuesday to a small fine, though, in light of Mohamud’s good “behaviour” and “remorse”, according to the court.

The order sparked outrage after videos of the incident were shared on social media, prompting calls for better protections for couriers. Since the pandemic, takeaway and delivery options have become integral to many economies, but thousands of delivery riders work with few or no physical or legal protections.

Here’s what we know about Gocer’s case, the conditions of delivery workers around the world — and just how much the modern economy relies on them.

What happened?

Gocer, 38, was riding his motorcycle on an Istanbul highway on November 30 when a car with diplomatic registration plates smashed into him from behind, severely injuring him. Gocer died of his injuries on December 5.

Mohamud, who was driving the car, left Turkey before an arrest warrant and travel ban could be issued. Officials said he returned to Turkey on January 12 to give a statement, at which point the arrest warrant and travel ban were revoked.

During the court proceedings on Tuesday, which Mohamud did not attend, Gocer’s lawyers argued that the accused was primarily at fault and that he failed to slow down and give space to the biker even though the victim had indicated he was braking.

The judge initially sentenced Mohamud to three years in prison, which was then reduced to two and a half years because of his “behaviour” and “remorse”, according to local reports, and then eventually commuted to a fine.

Prosecutors had charged Mohamud with causing death by negligence and asked for a six-year sentence. But on Tuesday, Istanbul’s 33rd Criminal Court of First Instance settled on a fine of 27,300 Turkish lira ($906). Mohamud also had his driver’s licence revoked for six months.

Videos of the accident have flooded social media as some people have called for a heavier sentence for Mohamud. In the clip, Gocer is seen on his motorcycle on the busy highway, which is the main road to Ataturk Airport. One video shows the rider slowing down for a few seconds before a car crashes into him from behind, pushing Gocer and the motorcycle off the road.

Mesut Ceki, head of Kurye Haklari, a courier rights group, told Al Jazeera that justice had not been served.

“Frankly, as motor couriers, we think this is not a punishment,” said Ceki, who was present at the sentencing. “What Turkey and the world witnessed through camera footage is a murder disguised as an accident. I am also a courier. If I die and if the person who is 75 percent responsible for my death will not spend even one day in prison, if he will walk around freely in exchange for money that will not even cost him a snack due to his position, it is not just me who dies, it is justice and humanity that die.”

How important are delivery riders?

Globally, delivery riders have become the heartbeat of a “quick commerce” market, which was crucial during the pandemic and is continuing to grow. About seven million people work as courier riders in China while about two million courier workers are employed in the United States and India combined.

In South Korea, one of the top five food delivery markets, courier riders working for food and grocery companies number nearly 800,000.

If these millions of delivery workers were to stop working, they would upset an online food delivery market that’s projected to hit $1 trillion in revenues this year and a grocery deliveries sector that is expected to grow to $80bn by 2028.

Customers in China would feel any upset the most. As of 2023, more than 500 million people used food delivery apps in China, the highest number worldwide. In the US, the second biggest market, a survey found that at least 60 per cent of the more than 2,000 people questioned had used one food app in three months.

In the United Kingdom, also one of the big five markets for the sector, 12.7 million people order food and groceries online, and the market is valued at 2.75 billion pounds ($3.4bn).

How risky is the job for couriers like Gocer?

There are an estimated 200,000 couriers using motorcycles or scooters in Turkey. They earn an average of $300 per month. Last year, at least 68 couriers were killed on the job, according to Kurye Haklari – well above one death a week. An estimated 58 riders died in 2022 and at least 30 in 2021. Some of them were teenagers.

Delivery workers’ deaths in Turkey are also often treated as accidents rather than “occupational homicides”, which could force vehicle drivers to be more careful, Ceki said.

If they were treated as occupational homicides, he added, “most importantly, employers could be held responsible as a party in courier accidents. They would see that it is their duty to take worker safety measures and develop policies in this regard.”

“Just as doctors work in hospitals, teachers work in schools and farmers work in the fields, we, as couriers, also work in traffic. Traffic is our workplace. Just as accidents at work are ‘work accidents’, deaths at our workplace should also be considered as such,” Ceki argued.

Gocer’s case has drawn widespread attention in Turkey and Somalia. Dozens of protesters gathered in front of the Somali embassy in Ankara after the rider’s death, asking for Mohamud – who had left Turkey at the time – to be transferred back to the country. There were also protests in Istanbul.

Turkish Justice Minister Yilmaz Tunc told reporters a few days after Gocer died that “if there is a fault, if there is a crime, it will be pursued. He could be the son of the president of Somalia, or he could be a citizen.”

While Gocer was reported to have been delivering a package, most of the delivery workers killed while doing their jobs were delivering food, Kurye Haklari found.

“Our greatest wish is that the laws be regulated in favour of courier workers and that they make decisions on the side of the right, not on the side of the powerful and rich,” Ceki said.

What are working conditions like in other countries?

Like Turkey, conditions are poor for courier riders in several countries. Popular courier platforms like the German company Gorillas, which operates in six countries and promises “groceries at your door in minutes”, have been called out by workers for failing to pay on time, refusing to provide good protective gear and firing those who dare protest or unionise.

India, home to some of the most congested cities in the world, has perhaps one of the worst records. Several delivery apps have flooded the market, competing intensely and promising 10-minute drop-offs as a selling point. But riders, earning about $47 weekly, bear the brunt. Bonus weekly fees see drivers rush to make dozens of orders during “peak” lunch hours, resulting in road accidents or, worse, deaths. It is unclear how many delivery riders have died in the country.

In 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded more than 1,000 deaths in its “driver/sales worker” category, which includes app-based delivery drivers. The deaths were mainly from road traffic accidents, but abuse from customers and assault were listed too – common problems for courier workers. In one case in April, a DoorDash worker making a delivery in Florida was forced back into her car, driven miles away and sexually assaulted.

Malaysia reported about 1,200 accidents involving delivery riders in 2023. In Australia, researchers found that one in three courier riders experience injury on the job but most continue working.

Better gear, better pay and health insurance would go a long way to protect delivery workers, experts said. But delivery companies are terrified of providing better equipment to riders because it could be classified as uniforms and would indicate that a worker is an employee rather than a contractor, says Mark Graham, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and director of the Fairwork Project, which rates companies in more than 30 countries on factors like pay and insurance management. An employee would have more rights and companies could be legally responsible if they get injured or die on the job.

“Most of the harm that workers experience can be traced back to the precarious position that they are put into by being classified as self-employed,” Graham said, emphasising the need for proper contracts. “If you take a relatively impoverished member of society and sign them up to work on your platform with no training, no safety equipment and no safety net, you are making an active choice to put a lot of risks solely on the shoulders of that worker.”

What happens next in Gocer’s case?

Metin Gocer, the late rider’s father, will appeal the sentence, a lawyer representing him told reporters at the court on Tuesday.

Turkey is one of Somalia’s strongest allies and aid donors. As officials investigate how Mohamud was able to leave the country after the accident, President Sheikh Mohamud told The Associated Press news agency in December that his son had not “fled” Turkey and that he had advised him to present himself to the court.

“Turkey is a brotherly country,” the president said. “We respect the laws and the justice and the judicial system. As president of Somalia, I will never allow anybody to violate this country’s judicial system.”

Source: Al Jazeera