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Riding for Deliveroo Made Me Fight for the Future of Work

The food delivery app is a gig economy pioneer, but its workers can also help to shape the future of work.

by Callum Cant
04 November 2019, 9:15am

Deliveroo riders on strike in Bristol in January 2019 (Robert Timoney / Alamy Stock Photo)

Anyone who lives in, works in or visits a major UK city will be familiar with the blur of Deliveroo couriers rushing food through traffic or standing around on pavements.

The company was founded in London in February of 2013 by Will Shu and Greg Orlowski, and has gone on to expand globally. To hear Will Shu talk about Deliveroo, you would think it was a company defined by innovation, entrepreneurship and flexibility. From the point of workers, it’s more about low pay, precarious conditions and conflict. But this is not just a sob story about workers being exploited in bad conditions by bosses who get rich off their work – it’s also about how workers have squared up and fought back.

Despite only paying its couriers poverty wages, the platform's profit margins are generally still smaller than 1 percent, although Deliveroo claims that mature markets are significantly more profitable. The platform is a prime example of how the “gig economy” relies on huge bubbles of investment to create global start-ups with disruptive models, limited profitability and exploitative practices. Until Deliveroo starts bringing home big profits, it's a massive stretch to imagine that it or companies like it could lead a process of national or global economic growth.

There are around 15,000 couriers working for Deliveroo in the UK. That’s not an insignificant number, but it’s still nowhere near the big players in sectors like retail, logistics, healthcare, manufacturing or any other major part of the economy. Deliveroo has about as big a workforce as Stansted Airport. So why should anyone care about what it’s really like to work for Deliveroo? What matters is the way companies like Deliveroo are changing the future of work.

I worked part-time as a cyclist for the platform in Brighton until May of 2018. More recently, I’ve delivered for UberEats. Parts of the job were alright. I got to know the city like never before, from the seafront all the way up to the residential streets of the hills above. Sometimes you felt like you were in a bobsleigh, getting up to 30-odd miles an hour down a 15 percent slope and dodging parked cars with the lights of the city spread out below. Because Brighton is built on such steep hills, you would often turn around after completing a delivery to see a brilliant view behind you. There was no one breathing down my neck, telling me to go faster, do this, do that. When I’d worked in a kitchen I couldn’t lounge about. Even if there was nothing to do, I had to look busy by pretending to polish glasses. At Deliveroo, I felt free of that.

But after a month or so, I started to understand why Deliveroo workers in London had gone on strike. The process at Deliveroo was simple and repetitive. You opened the app, logged in and selected "available for orders". As soon as you did that, your location and availability was factored into the order allocation. Sometimes you’d be waiting for a few seconds, and other times hours.

The app barked instructions at us which we were powerless to contest, and we had no idea how or why it distributed orders in the way it did. Speculation about how the app worked was rife. One popular theory was that our location was scanned every five seconds, and the person closest to the restaurant during the five seconds when the restaurant called took the order. But these theories were a combination of guesswork and rumour.

Our total ignorance was combined with total reliance upon the app. Spending hours working for a system you didn’t understand and couldn’t control sucked. On top of that, kitchen managers could treat you like crap to let off steam because you’d be out their way in a minute, and some road users harassed you and cut you up like it was their god given right.

Only once you’d picked up the food would the customer’s location be revealed. That was really bad for cyclists. If the customer was nearby, great: a quick £4. If the customer was farther away but the route there was flat, I could live with it. But if the customer was up a big hill, that was a real kick in the teeth. Brighton is a very hilly city, and so most routes involved some kind of steep climb.

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A striking Deliveroo rider in London in 2016 (Photo by Simon Childs)

If I didn’t do any orders, I didn’t get any pay. That meant when I did get assigned an order, I went as fast as possible to try to maximise my earnings. When I commuted to my full-time job, there was no way I’d take the risks I took when I was working for Deliveroo. But when I had to make as many deliveries an hour as possible in order to make a decent wage, it was just part of the job. That pressure to deliver faster and faster led to riders taking risks – and if we ended up in an accident or getting mugged, or our bikes were damaged or stolen, we were on our own. There was no sick leave to protect us, or help to replace our bikes or phones, because we were "self-employed".

If working for Deliveroo is so stressful, dangerous and lowly-paid, why does anyone do it? It’s a fair question. In Brighton, with higher than average unemployment for the South East, lower wages and high rents, workers are often under financial pressure. Many part-time Deliveroo workers are fitting it in as a second job because the wages from one job prove inadequate, especially for those with caring responsibilities or debts. Many are students who need a part-time job to make ends meet. It’s also entirely possible to work for Deliveroo and speak no English whatsoever – the app works in whatever the phone’s operating language is set to – so the job is attractive to migrants with limited language skills who struggle to get other work. And let’s face it: given how grim other jobs can be, a lot of workers like Deliveroo by comparison.

But workers at Deliveroo haven’t given up on hopes of a better deal. The precarious nature of the work, the total lack of state protection, the poor wages, the fact that they are tyrannised by an app – all of this gives them little to lose, and much to gain, from militancy. What makes Deliveroo exciting is that it's an example of how a seemingly unorganised group made up largely of students and migrants, competing with each other for work and with no job security, can form a coalition and fight for better pay and conditions.

Ironically, the same technology that allows Deliveroo to exploit workers also allows the workers to resist. The way algorithms are used by Deliveroo breeds resistance and undermines the potential for workers to have much buy-in or pride in their work. There are no human managers to pick off trouble-makers or to keep workers sweet. What’s more, being casual workers without employment contracts is a double-edged sword – as Deliveroo workers aren’t technically employees, they aren’t covered by anti-union laws and can go on strike in wildcat fashion without consequences.

If workers can agree and co-ordinate, striking is as simple as logging out of the app. With no one to deliver orders, the app goes into meltdown and food stacks up in kitchens with no one to deliver it. Since the first ever UK gig economy strike in the summer of 2016, these strikes have become more and more common, and more and more powerful. In September of 2019 there have been strikes demanding changes to the platform in 16 zones across the UK.

Deliveroo and other food platforms like it are in a cutthroat battle for supremacy. Deliveroo, UberEats, Foodora, JustEat, Glovo, Wolt, Caviar – the list is endless. In Amsterdam alone there have been periods in the past two years when seven different food delivery services have been operating at once. Companies like Deliveroo are a laboratory for capitalists, where they can test out redesigned labour processes and new technology. But they’re also a laboratory for workers, where they can collaborate to define the future of work.

I might not ride for Deliveroo anymore, but I know which side I’m on.

Callum Cant is a former Deliveroo rider and author of Riding for Deliveroo, published by Polity.

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Tagged:
Food
Work
gig economy
strikes