Joao insists that he’s lucky. Having lost his job as a restaurant chef because of the coronavirus lockdown, the 23-year-old Brazillian has been working for Deliveroo in Dublin, Ireland for the last three months. He’d heard the rumblings of discontent and precautionary tales from his community of migrant gig-economy workers, but during his time working for the company he had been spared from trouble, barring a few incidents.
“I was cycling along one day when three guys just stepped in front of my bike, grabbed it and said, ‘You’re not going anywhere’,” he says, speaking to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity as his work is not allowed under visa restrictions.
Another time, Joao was cycling down Dorset Street, which runs diagonally through Dublin’s northside, when “a group of young lads started shouting and screaming at me – things like ‘you fucking bastard’ and other names I couldn’t understand. They also threw things at me. But there are riders that much worse things have happened to them.” More recently, his friend’s bike was stolen, costing him €1,500 (about £1,300) and his job.
The experiences faced by Joao are a common occurrence for Deliveroo riders in Dublin. Often vulnerable targets, they have been subjected to physical harassment and robberies at knifepoint, with one rider killed while out on a delivery. These acts of violence follow similar incidents across Europe, the US and Australia.
Couriers in Dublin now use messenger apps and social media groups to share information on attacks, and a custom Google Maps shows colour-coded areas of risk for riders to avoid, as previously reported by Wired. This includes large parts of the north inner city, including neighbourhoods like East Wall, Summerhill and Talbot Street, where harassment of riders is endemic. Couriers have also taken to painting their distinctive turquoise carrier bags to disguise their employment and ward off potential attackers. Joao himself avoids the East Wall after a spate of deadly incidents.
A number of high-profile events have brought increased media attention to the matter. A violent attack on a Deliveroo courier named Francisco Teruliano de Oliviera Neto – known as Neto – made headlines in February of 2019 when he was beaten with a baseball bat and robbed by up to 11 men in Finglas, northwest Dublin. His injuries were so severe that he had to move back to Brazil after the attack.
In August of 2020, 28-year-old Thiago Cortes was killed in a hit-and-run in Dublin’s East Wall area while working for Deliveroo. He had only been working for the company for ten days, to earn money for his wedding, when he was struck down by a group of youths out joyriding. Hundreds of Deliveroo couriers joined a mass vigil for Cortes in Dublin’s city centre.
In January of this year, 16-year-old Josh Dunne, an aspiring footballer, was fatally stabbed during an altercation between food couriers and a bike thief, also in East Wall. It is believed that the youngster was attempting to intervene in the dispute, which involved up to 15 people. A 35-year-old food courier was charged with his murder.
The killing brought increased fears of retaliatory attacks against the riders. One Deliveroo rider posted on Reddit, “There is a literal fucking kill squad of teenagers out right now,” claiming that only their Irish nationality saved them when they were confronted by a group of people. “I was in Drumcondra and about 40 of them pull up and kick my bike around saying ‘you killed one of us so we’re gonna kill one if you now’,” they wrote. “I managed to get my mask off and they realised I was Irish (they literally announced ‘he’s Irish, leave him’) and said ‘lucky’ and went off.”
In the wake of the killing, both Deliveroo and the Gardaí (Irish Police Force) sought to smooth tensions in the area. Deliveroo promised to better protect their riders, with the company stating on the 22nd of January that they would be providing personal safety alarms – but only a few have been distributed, according to couriers. The Gardaí have increased foot patrols in the area and maintained a more visible presence.
The attacks come in the wake of criticism against the Gardai for its handling of its Youth Diversion Programme, which attempts to divert children away from criminal courts.
An internal review in 2019 found that thousands of cases that were deemed unsuitable for the programme were not followed up, with no evidence of a charge or summons found.
Following rising reports of xenophobic crime, a study by lawyers Ursula Perugini, Laiz Peixoto and Ana Paula Goncalves sought to quantify the level of violence against immigrants in Ireland. The trio worked pro-bono and provided police and media with definitive figures to help bring light to the situation.
Testimonies from over 1,500 migrants, taken in a Google survey, showed that 90.8 percent of respondents had faced some sort of violence during their time in Ireland, 69.2 percent of which was from under 18-year-olds. The testimonies detail bottle attacks, eggings and bike thefts as common occurrences, as well as xenophobic abuse. “Attacks on the streets, bike thrown in front of my bike while I was riding,” says one. “A group of 15 or more teenagers... started the aggression, punches, kicks, shoves,” says another.
Of the 143 people who provided examples of violence, 119 were Brazilian, 34 of whom worked for Deliveroo. Sixty-four percent of respondents did not report their attacks to police, which doesn’t surprise Joao.
“A lot of the South American riders, not just Brazilians, often don’t have the legal rights to work and don’t speak very good English. So most times they don’t even bother reporting it.” he says. “Also, when something happens to me, because I can speak English, I can say to the people, ‘What the fuck are you doing? Can’t you see I’m just trying to work?’ and people kind of respect you more, but a lot of other riders can’t speak back and don’t really know what’s going on.”
Ireland has spent the majority of the past year under level 5 COVID restrictions, with all businesses but essential services temporarily shuttered. This has prompted a surge in online deliveries, increasing the number of couriers out and about, but also making them more vulnerable. Riding on sparsely populated streets with expensive bikes and cargo, they have become routine targets.
Deliveroo is one of three main delivery apps operating in Dublin, alongside Just Eat and Uber Eats, but is an increasingly popular employment choice for students who have come to Ireland from countries such as Brazil and Venezuela to learn the English language. The service launched in Ireland six years ago and employs more than 1,000 riders, increasing its profits by 40 percent in 2019. Its flexibility in setting working hours and accepting deliveries means that it’s easier for students to work around their studies than more traditional shift work.
However, its pliability comes at a cost: Deliveroo riders are technically self-employed contractors – although unions are challenging this definition – meaning they have no traditional workplace benefits, such as sick-pay, hours accrued or job security. Thousands are on zero-hour contracts.
Many English language students are also hamstrung by prohibitive visa restrictions. Students from outside the EU are typically on Stamp 2, which allows them to come to the country to study English, or a Stamp 1G, which allows them to stay after the conclusion of their course – meaning that they are permitted to work, but not as a freelancer or as self-employed, and only for 20 hours a week. Many have to rent Deliveroo accounts from those legally allowed to work, especially as traditional service industry jobs have dried up in the wake of lockdown. Those who rent accounts are effectively invisible in the eyes of the company and the authorities.
Fiachra Ó Luain, Labour Rights Officer for the English Language Students' Union (ELSU), has detailed positive talks with government officials, including Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar. In tandem with trade union SIPTU, they have presented a list of suggestions that would improve the situation for workers, including a minimum of €13 per hour or €5 per order, medical assistance in the wake of an accident and, in the longer term, a reform of the prohibitive working hours restrictions currently placed on non-EU workers.
“People were told to stay at home and stay off the streets – these were the people who made it possible. Every worker should have the same rights, regardless of where you are born. We cannot have two different sets of rules for two different sets of workers,” says Ó Luain. “Frontline workers should be making a living wage. There should be a guarantee that pay will go up and not down over time.”
Regarding violence against riders, Ó Luain says, “They have been especially visible to those who want to attack them. Anyone who chooses to jump on a bike and deliver food shouldn’t be risking life and limb to do so.”
Someone with an intimate knowledge of the situation is Tiago Albuquerque, a Brazilian national who has lived in Ireland for the past 11 years and was a catering manager before lockdown left him housebound. Joining Deliveroo in July of 2020 – primarily to get out of the house – he started to see firsthand the level of violence against the riders.
“I could see the precarious situation we were having – no support from the company, not a lot of security in how much you earn. But then I started to see all the violence; bikes being stolen – not only when they weren’t looking, but starting to attack the riders,” he says.
“Because of the way the Gardaí work in the city, they act after the crime happens, they don’t try to prevent it from happening. After Josh’s death, we started to get together in big messaging groups – warnings like ‘there’s 10-15 guys on this street, don’t go close by’. The company was always saying they were concerned about our safety, but they never did anything.”
A spokesperson for Deliveroo said: “Riders are at the heart of Deliveroo and we prioritise rider safety. We have a dedicated rider team in place to assist our riders and we regularly engage with riders to ensure they understand how to stay safe while working and to assist them in any way we can. To further improve the protection we offer riders, we are giving hundreds of safety alarms away for free. Deliveroo has also introduced a mobile security app which is available to all riders in Dublin and will be accessible to all Deliveroo riders in Ireland within the next month. This app monitors riders responses through a sensor and makes immediate and urgent contact on behalf of a rider in the case of an emergency. This will help alert Deliveroo to accidents and other dangers on the road.”
Tiago believes the lockdown created a paradigm shift between riders and Dublin’s teenagers. “These attacks and thefts always happened, but they happened in Penneys [a fast fashion retailer] or big mall shops,” he says. “Everything was locked down and they didn’t have any other target, just guys with expensive bikes in the street with no protection, with little English, without a clue sometimes of what street they were on. You have a lot of riders who arrived in the middle of the pandemic to learn English – they didn’t have any other option.”
Jonathan Dowling is a local community representative who has worked with Belvedere Youth Club in the heart of the north inner city, but speaks to VICE World News in a personal capacity. He says the lockdown has been especially rough on the young people in the area.
“Young people get themselves into a routine, get organised, and they have support from their football club, schools, youth clubs, etc,” he says. “Youth services offer them support where they can engage and get involved with positive activities… Due to the lockdown, many of these young people have fallen through the cracks. There has been peer pressure instigated by people in the community who wouldn’t be a positive influence.”
After Thiago Cortes’ death, the riders tended to stick together and were more wary. “It set off a series of events where the Deliveroo riders were looking to keep themselves safe, mobilise and work together. Unfortunately it became ‘us vs. them’,” says Dowling. “A lot of young people resented being tarred with one brush. We're talking about a lot of young people who have a negative image of [the couriers]. It’s not ideal, and there may be a racial undertone there. I think it’s one or two young people who are creating a terrible reputation for the community.”