This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Gathering in covens outside pubs they can't afford, darting past your bus window as you sit in a jam, or banging on the windows of drivers that nearly run them over, cycle couriers are one of the most distinctive and visible of London's work tribes. With their cans of Tyskie beer and their tipped up peaks, cut-off tights, and fixies, they're instantly recognizable. But cycle courier culture isn't so much rooted in its fashion as the way their unique job makes them relate to each other—they are a network of people who are essentially in competition, but also united by the precarious nature of their work.
In the past month, a group of riders working for the large delivery company CitySprint have unionized with the International Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union. As well as being poorly paid, the couriers say their work is physically and mentally hard, and they have no sick pay, holiday pay, or pension. They've had enough. Yesterday they held a day-long protest—a cycle tour with placards and flags around some of CitySprint's most prestigious clients.
The IWGB claims that CitySprint pays its couriers as little as £1.25 [$2] for some deliveries. The union believes that this means workers are earning around or sometimes below the minimum wage. CitySprint says that the IWGB's figures are "misleading," saying their couriers earn around £10.48 [$16.25] per hour on average and that earnings have increased over the last three years.
"Buffalo Bill" used to edit Moving Target, a zine about courier culture. He works as a controller now and is not involved in the current dispute, but sitting in a pub, he told me how he has seen the trade transform since he started out as a rider in the 1980s: the TV ad pilot tapes came and went with the dawn of the internet, the stacks of press releases from the stock exchange—100 deliveries from one dispatch—all disappeared with the dawn of the fax machine. Unlike the things they're delivering, couriers' pay has stayed pretty much the same since the 80s says Bill, with the best couriers taking home £200 [$300] a week. £200 used to be more like £600 [$900] in the 80s.
IWGB is a relatively small union with a reputation for fiercely representing its members' interests; the branch in the University of London is made up largely of the Latin American cleaners who ran the successful 3Cosas campaign last year, eventually winning their demands of holidays, sick pay and pensions, as well as the London Living Wage. But what is notable about the couriers' campaign is the sheer difficulty of unionizing, due to the zero-hour work culture of couriers, where essentially everyone is an individual responsible for their own wage.
The vast majority of couriers are not employed by the companies they work for, but are self-employed contractors. However, they are often expected to hire the uniform of the company they work for. "Tying up" couriers is also prevalent—riders can earn more when there is a single controller giving a combination of jobs that overlap and map an efficient course through the city, so they often have to stick with one company day in, day out, 9 AM to 6 PM. Couriers are essentially employees of their companies in all but name, but have none of the benefits of being on staff.
However well a rider does, all it takes is a broken leg or a bent frame, and their job vanishes. As little as one day out of the saddle might destroy the relationship that controllers demand. Some riders relish this—Bill told me about how some couriers he worked with delivered packages covered in blood, in a kind of Whiplash style show of tenacity. The flipside of this is couriers who can't even climb back on their bikes, who can get instantly substituted for another rider chasing a fee.
Rob, of Control Courier Collective—an agency owned by couriers themselves—knows this competition well. "What keeps the industry going is the dockets [delivery receipts] paying, the only motivation keeping you from sitting on the corner for the ten minutes before you deliver an urgent job."
But Rob has it better than most. Control operates differently from a normal courier business: instead of having couriers compete as individuals, Control's couriers work together, sometimes sharing jobs or swapping assignments mid-journey to get the job done quicker. They manage to pay 80 percent to the rider, not the industry standard 50:50 split between couriers and company.
Friday evening on Leather Lane and couriers gather to drink away another week and trade stories. Perhaps surprisingly, they told me how getting hit on the roads isn't their biggest worry. "The most famous statistic that goes around the courier community is that more couriers have died from mental health issues than have died on the road," a courier who works for CitySprint and is part of the IWGB, told me. "People end up in this job because they find it hard to fit into the rest of 'normal' society."
Bill says this is precisely what draws some people to the industry. "People who have depressive tendencies are attracted [to] and stay in the job, because it gives you instant release: riding feels good. The satisfaction is instant.
"There's quite a strong streak of nihilism amongst couriers. When I was a kid, I wanted to be different, and working as a courier appealed to me because there was something of the outsider to it. It appeals to loads of young men because someone is paying you to take risks."
It's the unique appeal of the job—the fact that riding a bike all day is more fun than sitting in an office—which is perhaps one of the factors making couriers easy to exploit, and creating an industry where even the fittest struggle to survive. The appeal can only last for so long. "Eventually you realize that you are just riding around in circles. And you start to ask yourself: 'What the fuck is this that I'm delivering?'" said Bill.
Follow Ed on Twitter.