Originally published on Futures of Work, a blog offering radical and critical thinking on ongoing and emerging issues associated with work and employment.
I am a Deliveroo worker and organiser of couriers in the gig economy. This blog outlines what work in the sector currently looks like and the possibilities of what it could look like.
My job is to deliver food. I usually wait until the evening when it is busiest, log on to the Deliveroo ‘Rider’ app and wait for orders to come in. I then accept one of these orders, go to the restaurant, pick up the order and finally go to the customer and hand them the food. Simple. Possible digressions might include: rejecting the order because the restaurant is taking too long; having to contact the customer; or my bike might break down along the way.
According to Deliveroo I am not a worker or an employee. I am a ‘sole trader’; in business on my own account. Deliveroo claims it does not employ riders. Instead, it is a ‘platform’ that facilitates a service between tens of thousands of couriers, restaurants and customers. It makes a profit, it dictates our wage, but according to Deliveroo, we do not work for them. We are simply ‘partners’ in the trade. This is the absurdity of the gig economy – behind the media hype of app-based technology, data mining, and new forms of work, what really makes these companies turn a profit is the denial of basic workers’ rights.
Deliveroo’s technology may be new, but its workers’ rights are a hundred years old. As a result of our miscategorisation as sole traders, and the lack of scrutiny companies like Deliveroo are under, many of the ailments and issues we see on the ground as riders arise from this miscategorisation and the lengths the company (and similar companies) go to exploit this. These issues include: varying pay (we are paid per delivery not per hour), over-hiring of riders (Deliveroo are not obliged to pay us a basic rate), unpaid time waiting for orders (despite being on call) and waiting for food to be prepared, the costs of bicycle maintenance and repair, a lack of transparency over our pay, unpaid time calling the customer, restaurant or rider support if a difficulty or new situation arises with regards to a delivery, insufficient or unpaid injury pay, no holiday pay, no pensions, and of course unfair dismissals (having your account ‘deactivated’). Deliveroo is an outsourcing company that has bewitched the media and the public because it operates via a ‘quirky’ app.
However, in similarity to Uber drivers, our categorisation as “sole traders” is being challenged in the courts, but unlike Uber drivers, we are yet to be successful in our campaign for recognition as ‘workers’, as evidenced by our most recent court case in November 2018. Winning these legal battles would mean that workers could still claim the flexibility they have now, but gain entitlement to basic workers’ rights such as a minimum wage, holiday pay, pensions, and trade union representation. This would be a major dent in the gig economy’s project of rolling back workers’ rights to the point where workers are competing against each other for jobs.
However, the legal battle is only one aspect of a much larger war. There is the potential to win so much more. The lack of workers’ rights is down to a lack of worker power. In other words, most workers are not well organised and able to take on these organisations. This is down to the weakening of trade unions and the unwillingness of larger trade unions (e.g. the GMB, Unite, and Unison) to take up the mantle. As a result, companies such as Deliveroo act with impunity. The job of tackling these working conditions has been left to smaller and more combative unions or collectives of workers operating outside of the traditional labour unions. In the UK it has been the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and the Industrial Workers of the World Union (IWW) that have taken on the fight against Deliveroo, both in the courts and on a grassroots level using strikes and direct action. In fact, the highest profile strikes of gig courier workers were not in any way coordinated by unions but instead coordinated by riders themselves via Whatsapp groups. These strikes were the London Deliveroo strikes in 2016 and the London UberEats strikes in 2018. Similar strikes have been seen across Europe and even as far away as Hong Kong. The demands of these strikes have included a rise in the minimum rate per drop, a choice over a free log-in contract or a shift-based contract, a hiring freeze, paid waiting times, fuel and maintenance costs being covered by the company, more transparency on the part of the company and no victimisation of workers campaigning for better conditions.
It is fantastic to see these fights happening, but they have so far lacked the cohesion and coordination needed to challenge the gig economy and bring it to its knees. Strikes like these, if they are sustained and grow outwards, have massive potential to stop gig companies in their tracks and for riders to win major demands.
When it comes to the possible futures of work, in the end it depends on the level of workers’ organising in these sectors and the strength of unions to leverage power over ‘gig’ companies. If nothing is done to tackle this setback in basic workers’ rights and the precarity that workers in these jobs face, the risk is that similar types of employment conditions may be rolled out into other parts of the economy and that conditions in the gig economy will continue to decline. The only ones who can really change Deliveroo and make it grind to a halt on a day-to-day level are the riders. Riders have proven they can do this time and again. If this type of disruption can be consistent and if it can be coordinated with cities across Europe and beyond, then no doubt Deliveroo would have to give in to the workers’ demands.
In fact, if workers and ordinary people were able to leverage enough power, and demand more control over their work, companies like Deliveroo could be used to benefit society. These apps and the data they are able to accrue have great potential. Currently, Deliveroo (as well as other fast food delivery apps) deliver to a clientele that has disposable income to order food and pay for the extra delivery fee. Nevertheless, these same apps could be democratised and repurposed as a ‘meals on wheels’ service to the disabled, elderly and those otherwise unable to access food from their home. It could still employ its existing riders and make use of its existing data and technology. It could do this and have riders on more secure pay with greater work-life flexibility. It means these types of services will not be about profit but about providing something socially useful for everyone.
Workers taking back control of their labour and using it for the social good is nothing new. In the 1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace (a factory for weapons companies) put forward blueprints to transition the plant and its workforce to produce renewable energy instead of weapons. Similarly workers in an Argentinian auto plant managed to occupy and claim control of their factory and put it under the management of the workers.
The future of work in this sector is more than up for grabs, but it depends on whether worker organising and unions can rise to the challenge. The cold anger and willingness to fight is there, but whether it can be harnessed and who will harness it remains unclear.
Tyrone Falls is a Deliveroo rider and organiser with the Bristol Couriers Network. He has also been active in renters’ and student activism for a number of years previously.
Image credit: Jack Saville