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Employees say HelloFresh is union busting

Paul Krantz Berlin
August 27, 2022

In the latest workers' rights conflict in Berlin, HelloFresh employees will challenge the company in Berlin's labor courts where they hope to confirm their right to create a works council. Paul Krantz reports.

Man holding a HellowFresh box
HelloFresh is hoping to boost its meal-kit delivery service in GermanyImage: Ryan Dinham/HellofFresh SE/dpa/picture alliance

HelloFresh employees in favor of starting a works council will take their case to Berlin's labor court on November 15. Workers involved in the case say the meal-kit delivery service has spread misinformation and engaged in other union-busting tactics. The company has denied these claims in a statement provided to DW saying, "we greatly value participation and co-determination in our workplace."

Last year, HelloFresh workers in the US attempted to form workers' unions at two warehouse locations, in California and Colorado respectively. Union membership rates have been steadily declining across the US for the past 60 years. Workers in favor of unionizing complained about misinformation and retaliation coming from their managers. HelloFresh hired Kulture Consulting during this time, reportedly paying several consultants $3,500 (€3,495) per day. In both cases, workers ultimately voted against unionizing.

A Berlin-based meal-kit delivery giant

Founded in Berlin in 2011, HelloFresh sells meal-kit subscriptions to customers around the world and has become the largest meal-kit provider in the US. HelloFresh currently employs 21,000 workers worldwide, of which 1,300 work at the Berlin headquarters.

The company went public and joined the Frankfurt Stock Exchange (DAX) at the end of 2021. According to the firm's second-quarter report for 2022, it has reached an all-time quarterly high valuation of approximately €1.96 billion and has 8 million active customers.

How does a German company avoid codetermination?

In Germany, HelloFresh is the only DAX-listed company that doesn't have a works council. It's also one of only three firms that don't have workers' representatives on their supervisory boards.

According to a statement released by Cansel Kiziltepe, a lawmaker and head of the workers' wing of the center-left Social Democratic Party, "HelloFresh SE already prevented employees from being represented at the supervisory board level…by restructuring into a European stock corporation."

In 2016, HelloFresh changed its legal form from an AG (stock corporation) to an SE (European Company). According to a report published by the Hans Böckler Foundation, some German-based SEs may be taking advantage of their legal status to avoid codetermination protections. Standard AG or GmbH companies with more than 500 domestic employees are obliged to fill a number of positions on their supervisory boards with employee representatives, but SEs are not mandated to do so. The report found that less than a quarter of large SEs in Germany do so.

A representative speaking for HelloFresh said the company decided to restructure because "the legal form of an SE does more appropriately reflect the international orientation of HelloFresh and its subsidiaries."

HelloFresh meal kit
The sale of meal kits is on a tear in GermanyImage: Daniel Naupold/dpa/picture alliance

Resistance from HelloFresh 'baffling,' say employees

DW spoke with two HelloFresh employees in Berlin who were in favor of starting a works council. Both employees wanted to remain anonymous to avoid any potential retaliation from company management or their peers.

They cited a lack of transparency in the workplace, a lack of open communication channels between employees and management and pay gaps between genders and nationalities as their primary reasons for wanting to start a works council.

"For me it's kind of a given that any large company in Berlin would have a works council," said one employee. "To be honest, I didn't expect that this would create conflict."

Franziska Foullong, union secretary at Verdi, supports the workers' efforts to form a council. She told DW that HelloFresh was particularly good at union busting. "Not even Amazon is that bad," she added.

HelloFresh provided a statement saying, "We firmly believe in employee representation and our employees have always been, and always will be, free to establish a works council."

However, Foullong maintains that HelloFresh and a team of lawyers from multinational law firm Greenberg Traurig have spread misinformation about works councils, and advised employees to block the formation of an electoral board at an assembly held in June.

In the days before the assembly on June 10, the company held two informational meetings that employees were encouraged to attend. "They told people that a works council is not necessary," Foullong said. "They said things like we are a big family; we don't need this, we don't want this."

"Our CEO, Thomas Griesel, said 'we used to vote with our feet, if we didn't like it, we just left the company,'" a HelloFresh employee told DW. "I think that's really far from the reality of the company he built, because a lot of people cannot simply walk out."

The majority of HelloFresh workers in Berlin are immigrants in Germany, and many of them have work visas that depend on their job.

Ultimately, out of 525 employees who attended the assembly, 49.5% of attendees voted for electoral board members and 50.5% abstained or cast invalid votes. Based on these results, the electoral board could not be established.

But under German law, a minority of employees is still entitled to build up a works council. "It's not the question of if I want a works council or not," Foullong said. "In Germany, it's a minority right to have a works council."

Can a works council be formed amicably?

Employees in favor of starting a works council say they have the company's best interests in mind. "We all want what's best for the company," one employee told DW. "We want a works council that helps the company get better."

But they see the firm's engagement with the process so far as negative. "This is a process for employees by employees…we should be let alone to do it."

HelloFresh has said the company "respects each and every employee's right to be represented by a works council or not and will work together in good partnership with a works council if and when one is implemented."

The employees DW spoke with were skeptical of such claims. "Once this whole process started they have been really hostile," said one.

"The last thing that I would want is that we continue fighting in any way," said another employee, "which would discourage candidates that love the company and want to help, from running for a position in the works council."

The rise of new trade unions in the US

Edited by: Hardy Graupner

Correction, August 23, 2022: A previous version of this article misspelled the name Franziska Foullong. DW apologizes for the error.