Weaving through traffic. Battling pouring rain. Dodging drivers turning across you. It’s great to have a job carving through the streets with no manager, but it is a dangerous one. As a courier, you’re public enemy number one—hated by pedestrians, motorists and taxi drivers alike. Not that I don’t enjoy it—it’s great to sit back, coming down a hill with the lights of the city spread out in front of you, the roads quiet late at night. Most people would say that riding is their job satisfaction—people don’t just do it for the pay. It’s for the sense of freedom that you only get as a messenger; nobody knows the city quite like us. Roaming through the backstreets to kitchen doors, and crossing estates so quietly you surprise the foxes, you get to see a side of your city that nobody else does.
I started with Deliveroo back in October 2016—they were so desperate for riders there was little barrier to joining. Everyone I was with passed the initial assessment (some surprisingly so), and a week later, after handing over your £150 deposit, you had your box and jacket. The first couple of weeks were pretty tough, thrown in at the deep end in Brighton’s rush hour with Key Performance Indicators to meet and money to make. Initially, the money was great—the most money I’ve ever earned. With most young people bouncing around minimum wage jobs, I was doing four or five deliveries an hour, at £4 a pop. (My thighs suffered for this every Monday morning.) With a shortage of riders, there was as much work as you could do—but nobody particularly rushed. “If I can do four drops this hour, and keep up that pace, why tire myself out?”, people would say as they rested at the zone centre (where the app sends us to wait).
Over the next few months, as the amount of riders in Brighton reached saturation, things began to deteriorate. People realised that such a lucrative deal was never to continue—but when it starts to drop below a real living wage of £8.45, it begins to hurt. Riders saw that drops weren’t shared out fairly. Sometimes there would be 20 of us, sat in the cold on a bench, ready to leap into action at the company’s whim—but they’d call in someone from across town to pick up multiple orders at once from the very restaurant we were sat outside. Wages plunged and kept going—and there were nights when people would be out all evening, after Deliveroo emailing us to warn us of Extremely High Demand!, to only complete a couple of drops. £8 for a whole evening’s dangerous, hard work. It got to the point where, as a cyclist, you only had a couple of hours in which to make as much money as you can. On your marks at 7pm, and ride like a maniac for two hours until they take the work away again—it’s a dangerous game.
In February the riders voted to unionise with the Independent Workers Union. As we were planning the campaign, anger among riders boiled over and a wildcat strike was called on a Saturday evening, costing the company thousands of pounds. We had our momentum—but as their company lackey, sent down to shut us up, told us, we are “not entitled to union representation.” Well, Deliveroo, that’s a whole pile of shit. No worker should be denied the representation of a union—indeed, no worker’s contract should threaten them with termination if the worker takes the employer to a tribunal, as ours does. We held protests with air horns, smoke grenades, sound-systems and crowds of angry riders, furious at the exploitation that was occurring on the streets.
When you’re paid so little, your situation is so precarious that you are utterly dependent on your employer to give you the money you need to live month to month. This needs to change.
Many of the big-name restaurants in Brighton supported our campaign—Burger King, Bella Italia, YO! Sushi; not to mention our MP, Caroline Lucas, and the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. (Not much word from the Conservative party—but then again to be expected as we don’t fall into the top tax bracket.) So, it’s not surprising that in May 2017, we’re beginning to see change. Wages are on the up and jobs are being shared out more fairly. We still need a rise in the drop rate—only a £5 drop allows us to earn better than £8.45 an hour on two drops, once costs are factored in. And our contracts still claim we’re self-employed. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur but I never thought I’d be running Guy’s Food Delivery, Inc., even though anyone can see that we are clearly not contractors. The workers at the bottom of the tree shouldn’t be bearing all the business risk that Deliveroo takes; a quiet night for orders should mean Deliveroo take a hit, not the poorest in the chain.
We don’t hate Deliveroo—we may resent them for how they’ve treated us, but overall, we want them to succeed—it benefits us as much as it does them. We’d like to form a good relationship with our employer, to the benefit of wages and profits across the board. The practices of refusing to recognise our union and refusing to negotiate are vile and morally repugnant, and this needs to change before we can move forward. The writing is on the wall for Deliveroo; they may not care about us, but we can force them to listen.
This article is from a larger collection 'Towards a Fairer Gig Economy'
edited by Mark Graham and Joe Shaw. Available for free download as pdf
or e-book at meatspacepress.org