Over the last few days, Deliveroo's offices in Bloomsbury, London have been swamped by hundreds of its delivery riders. This isn't because a record-breaking order has been made to fuel another marathon round of late-night investment talks. Instead, the riders have been gathering to protest against what they see as a shitty new pay deal.
Currently, those peddlers and riders are paid £7 per hour, plus £1 for every Friday-night curry or hungover lunch they bestow. But in the thrusting new "sharing economy", the guarantee of earning any money whatsoever – let alone a living wage – is a fusty thing of a past, a less "flexible" time than we've become accustomed to. The company is now offering £3.75 per delivery, with no base wage. The riders have kicked off, and are now having a showdown with their app overlords.
And for good reason. First off, how do you even pay someone that little? The previous wage of £7 per hour is below the minimum wage – so what's going on? Turns out Deliveroo drivers aren't "workers" at all. Officially, and perfectly legally, they're part of Britain's growing army of "self-employed" – who tend to work longer and earn less, and have no access to workers' rights like the minimum wage, sick pay, pensions and so on.
"I've counted my pay slips, how they would look if the changes were implemented, and they are significantly lower," a rider called Jacob said when I asked him about the new deal at a protest on Friday evening. "On some days they would be bigger, but it's, like, say, one day out of ten."
Another was more forthright: "You wouldn't be able to pay your insurance, you wouldn't be able to pay your rent, you wouldn't be able to feed your family. It's not even guaranteed to get one job in an hour. It's nothing more than a joke."
"It's not been busy for how long? A fair few months. It's not happening right now," said his friend, both of whom wanted to remain anonymous.
The company points out that the move, affecting 280 out of 3,000 riders in the capital, could mean more money at times when loads of takeaways are being ordered. What did they make of that? "I'm gonna be crazy. I'm gonna be the fastest rider on the road. I'm gonna be like, 'Oh shit, if I do this job, there's more chance of getting another job.' I'm gonna be rushing everything – I might jump a traffic light, you never know. There's more chance of having an accident."
The protests have spread faster than a speeding moped. Deliveroo's riders are pretty well-connected, hanging out at local hubs while they wait for work. As soon as the company dropped the news, people started talking about resisting them on the WhatsApp groups that are set up for each designated zone, leaving me grasping for a more new age analogy than how smartphones are a "double-edged sword".
On Friday evening, meanwhile, the vibe was less 2.0 and more Bob Crow. People stood around in huddles, chatting, smoking and occasionally becoming more animated as some aspect of the strike was discussed. As well as the Deliveroo riders – many of them migrants from a range of places – there were supporters, including some guys working for the rival Uber Eats service. Every so often, a new wave of riders would arrive on their bikes, announcing themselves by beeping their horns, and the crowd would cheer.
After a while, they all gathered around in a circle to discuss what they were going to do more formally ("Who speaks Portuguese? Who can translate? How many languages do we need to translate?"). If you've seen the collectivisation scene in Land and Freedom , it was a bit like that but on a London street, not in a Spanish village full of anarchist peasants.
People queued to say their piece. "I recently had a crash," said one. "I've been in and out of hospital with injuries, I haven't received any sick pay, I haven't received any compensation. I'm a couple of grand in debt because I've had to take out loans to make rent and get myself something to eat. This isn't fair. We're slaves to them. They don't fucking care."
Before long, a delegation of riders was sent in to discuss what had been voted on – the rejection of a tweaked offer and a repeat of the demand for a London Living Wage, plus £1 per delivery. Cycle couriers who were part of the International Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) tried to go in as intermediaries, on the logic that they couldn't be fired, but were rejected at the door.
Still, it stood in contrast to the previous day, when a manager came out and managed to completely misjudge the mood:
Things that are often taken for granted, like a guaranteed wage, seem anathema to a new wave of companies that need an "on-tap workforce". Apps are supposed to be innovative, but the main innovation here seems to be an innovative new way to fuck people over. "They're referred to as the sharing economy or gig economy, disrupting the marketplace, but it should not be underestimated how they do that," said Mags Dewhurst, a cycle courier with the IWGB. "They've invested in an application that has an initial cost, but over time doesn't expect to have an hourly rate, doesn't expect to have a pay rise, doesn't need a pension. Eventually you have a cost-neutral way of managing people and controlling people. But they also like to have a cost neutral workforce by employing people as self-employed contractors."
Uber is currently facing an employment tribunal over this issue, brought by 19 of its drivers who claim that they are not technically "self-employed", but are in fact workers. The tribunal is being called the "case of the year" because it could have implications for companies that use similar practices.
Perhaps the striking Deliveroo workers will have a wider impact, too. Already they've caused their CEO to apologise and the government to intervene, saying that Deliveroo must pay its workers the minimum wage unless a court rules that they are self-employed. The company are also insisting that this is a trial, but riders are distrustful of being asked to sign a new contract. "It's a trick, not a trial," says Dewhurst. Deliveroo also says that riders can opt out of the trial, although to do so they have to change zones.
On Friday, the delegation marched out of the office after about an hour with their demands rejected. They promptly voted to continue striking, mobbing up on their bikes and heading to Deliveroo's customer restaurants around London. This week they started picketing recruitment offices while raising a strike fund that's climbed over £10,000.
Smart phones have allowed companies like Deliveroo to hand over the management of workers to a faceless app. This fight shows that now those whose lives are governed by it are having to fight for their identity as workers.
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