by Rebecca Prentice
May 1, 2017: On a rainy evening in Brighton, more than two hundred people took to the streets to protest economic precariousness. The ‘Precarious May Day’ march was led on bicycles by Deliveroo couriers, who deliver food to online takeaway customers. Accessing delivery jobs through an app on their phones, Deliveroo riders have been described as typical ‘precarious’ workers in today’s gig economy. Deliveroo riders are not permanent employees, and are considered by the company to be ‘independent contractors,’ who collect and deliver restaurant food orders on a £4-per-drop basis. Mobilising this kind of flexible labour across Europe, the London-based start-up has expanded to more than 84 cities, attracted more than $470 million of venture capital, and was recently valued at $1 billion globally. But Deliveroo riders in Brighton and throughout the UK are pushing back against what they see as a one-sided flexibility in which they, not the company, bear too many of the risks of market competition.
As a rider named Tim said to me at the march, ‘the [company] buzzword is flexibility.’ Customer demands rise and fall, with peaks at evenings, weekends, and in rainy weather. Deliveroo presents itself as making use of ‘self-employed cyclists’ who signal their availability by logging onto the smartphone app. For riders, this flexibility is certainly appealing: there are no fixed shifts, so work can accommodate other time commitments like study, childcare, or another job. Kevin, who has worked for Deliveroo for more than six months, remarked that being a courier ‘gives you the freedom to come in and out.’
But the downside of this flexibility is how fluctuations in the market are borne by workers themselves. Riders can sit around for hours waiting to be allocated an order. Not long ago, Kevin worked from 11am to 5pm and delivered only six orders, making his per-hour payment less than the minimum wage. Cyclists say that this situation has been made worse by lack of transparency in how orders are allocated to riders, with those on motorised scooters being allocated orders more frequently than the pedal cyclists. After months of protest, the cyclists say that the situation has improved, and in recent weeks riders see more fairness in order allocations.
During a slump in orders in February, and fed up with the company’s continuous hiring of new riders when there was little work to go around, Deliveroo riders in Brighton announced a strike that recalled last summer’s successful protests by Deliveroo riders in London’s Camden area over payment rates under a new contract. In both instances, the small and quickly-growing trade union, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), has been a driving force, after big successes organising University of London porters, CitySprint couriers, and others in the ‘gig’ economy.
One of the sticking points is that Deliveroo calls its couriers ‘independent contractors,’ which the company claims excludes them from many workers’ rights, including the minimum wage. But riders note that they are treated like employees when it suits the company, with uniforms and close monitoring via their smartphones. The Guardian has reported on the linguistic gymnastics that Deliveroo uses to avoid vocabulary that indicates employment: replacing the word ‘hiring’ with ‘onboarding,’ ‘employment contract’ with ‘supplier agreement,’ and ‘payslips’ with ‘invoices’ in communications with riders. Later this month, a case will go before the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), a tribunal that oversees parts of UK labour law, to rule on whether Deliveroo riders are workers or not. The London tribunal has in the past ruled that City Sprint couriers and Uber drivers are workers not contractors, and there is a strong expectation that the Deliveroo case will be decided the same way.
Deliveroo riders will continue, with IWGB, to push for stronger workers’ rights and better rates. As a rider called J. said at the march last Monday, ‘We’ve won a lot of things already,’ including a raise in per-drop rates, a temporary recruitment freeze, and more fairness in allocating orders. Most riders are keen to be recognised as workers, which brings with it rights to minimum wage, holiday pay, and the right not to be victimised for belonging to a trade union. They are pushing forward with demands for £5-per-drop.
Deliveroo riders want to keep what’s best about the job: its flexibility and the opportunity to make more than the minimum wage. They see these demands as eminently reasonable. As Tim put it, ‘I’m happy with fee-per-drop [rather than an hourly wage]. But it’s not so complicated that Deliveroo couldn’t cover a minimum wage guarantee also.’
Rebecca Prentice is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. She is co-editor of the forthcoming Unmaking the Global Sweatshop: Health and Safety of the World’s Garment Workers (University of Pennsylvania Press) with Geert De Neve.