By a Deliveroo “Knight” Rider
Photo: Deliveroo “Knight” Rider.
WORKERS STRUGGLE IN LIVERPOOL
On Sunday, October 6, 2019 there was a strike of Deliveroo riders during their ‘Super Peak Hours’. Many riders turned up on the steps of the Bombed Out Church to join in with Solidarity action. This peaceful protest showed the discontent of couriers, and signaled the awakening of a collective labour struggle. Most of the couriers who attended are not yet affiliated to any union, with some being members of the IWGB (Independent Worker´s Union of Great Britain). Alongside, and in solidarity with the riders, we had a solid support from members of the union Solidarity Federation of Liverpool, without whom the organisation of this event would have been very complicated.
In September 2019, Liverpool (along with many other major cities in the UK) became a free-login zone until December 2019. In these zones a courier can turn on their app and work at any time with no need to book the hours previously. We are the guinea pigs of an experiment. The free-login zone came hand in hand with a recruitment of many new (largely casual) riders, just in time for the en masse arrival of students, which only serves the interests of Deliveroo, as it is a precautionary measure guaranteeing that no orders are left undelivered and hence profits are maximised. Riders from Liverpool saw, and complained about, a sharp drop in the number of orders, along with a marked reduction in delivery-fee rates. As a result of this new change the majority of couriers have been made to feel completely expendable, and their dedicated services (for some over the past three years) completely unappreciated. Profit over people anyday for Deliveroo.
WHY ARE THE COURIERS DEMANDING BETTER CONDITIONS FROM DELIVEROO?
On November 14 of 2017, Deliveroo won a legal battle started by the IWGB. The union demanded a change of status of the food courier workforce from self-employed to that of hired-workers, along with the right to decent hourly wages for cyclists and motorcyclists of Deliveroo. The court ruled against the union denying the status of hired-workers to couriers, based on the nuance that the company allows the workers to use a friend as a substitute if they wish to.
Do the judges have any idea the conditions that Deliveroo courier’s have to endure? Do they know how easy it is to get a throat infection working during the long, cold and wet British winters? Do they know about muscular contracture from pedalling several hours a day, sometimes without rest, with a large backpack on one’s back? Does the fact that couriers can choose their work-hours weekly in a totally conditioned, yet legal way, mean that they are happy, simply because it’s done without any apparent coercion?
Perhaps a judge can, based on legal concepts, objectively rule against the couriers, but it is clear and can easily be assumed that he/she would not have the slightest idea of what it is like to pedal during a 7-12 hour shift under the rain, the imposed working conditions, and the treatment that on a day-to-day basis riders receive from the company.
It is true that there is an option for any Deliveroo courier to use another courier (called a substitute) to replace them in their work on a day whenever cover may be needed. But the point is that this very measure was developed by the company on the spur of the moment, just as the company was facing the judiciary. It is not a measure required by the couriers (at least for all the riders who have expressed an opinion), and furthermore, this particular measure was not decided via a consultation with the couriers.
As a courier of Deliveroo I want to show how the relationship with the company is much more like that of a hired worker than one who has a self-employed status.There are many other details that would define self-employment. Below I explore this complicated definition. [click here to skip this section]
ARE DELIVEROO WORKERS SELF EMPLOYED?
If a worker is legally defined as self-employed performs all his work activity with only one company and this relationship can be terminated whenever the company chooses, without the worker being able to have any say or choice in the matter, that worker is then clearly not self-employed: Deliveroo can terminate the employment relationship with the rider immediately, they can, for instance, tell the courier that he/she has not completed an order or that a customer has written a complaint about their service. The courier has no chance to defend their position with any representative of Deliveroo face to face. The courier will simply receive an email communication that says the business relationship is over. Many former riders and bikers from all over the UK complain about being expelled for trivial matters. The company has all the information of each rider, such as: punctuality at the beginning of the shifts, speed at which they make their deliveries, number of hours worked, hours worked on the weekend … so it is not hard to think that some of them are more expendable than others.
Dan Warne, the managing director for Deliveroo in the UK and Ireland, said: “As we have consistently argued, our riders value the flexibility that self-employment provides. Riders enjoy being their own boss – having the freedom to choose when and where they work, and riding with other delivery companies at the same time”. In this sentence the only thing which is factually true (reflects real working experience) is that Deliveroo couriers can collaborate with other companies at the same time (though in reality many of them work in small towns or cities where only Deliveroo operates). For example, a hotel receptionist can also work as a chauffeur for another company and that does not make them a self-employed worker.
THE COMPANY CONTROLS THE COURIERS’ CHOICE OF WORKING HOURS
Every Monday at either 11:00, 15:00 or 17:00, depending on one’s statistics, Deliveroo releases slot-hours for riders to choose the hours they want to work the following week, riders can get to work up to 52 hours per week.
Each courier’s activity is observed during the week by the Deliveroo App, it notes in the “My Statistics” section the following criteria:
- “Attendance”: The percentage of booked sessions (slot-hours) that the courier has attended. (100% being flawless attendance of every booked slot-hour)
- “Late cancellation”: Percentage of booked sessions that the courier has cancelled with a notice of less than 24 hours. (0% standing for 0 sessions cancelled with less than 24 hours notice)
- “Super-peak participation”: Number of sessions reserved / worked in times of high demand (19:00 – 21:00 Friday, Saturday, Sunday)
(12/12 is full Super-peak participation, meaning that the rider has worked during these hours over the past two weeks) Times, in fact, which each courier really has no choice but to work, in order to keep this statistic high
- “Priority vehicle”: Workers who use a motorcycle or car have this section activated so they have priority when choosing slot-hours.
If these four statistic criteria are not perfect, that is 100%, 0, and 12/12, respectively, the rider may be relegated to a later booking-priority time, and as a result forced to have to choose their weekly work hours on the same Monday but at either 15:00, or even at 17:00, as decided by the application (which in turn is based on the overall performance of all the couriers in a particular city). A courier who finds themselves in either of the two latter categories risks not having any slot-hours available from which to actually book working hours. This, more often than not, results in either not having access to enough work hours a week (typically, even at the 15:00 booking time, there are hardly any slot-hours available), or having to work hours that are really not suitable to one’s lifestyle. Therefore, in reality, the couriers have their choice of working hours totally conditioned.
If a courier who works on a salary per hour (most riders work on pay-per-drop) turns off their application during their shift because they, for instance, have an accident, have to repair their bicycle or need to go to the bathroom, their attendance percentage will decrease. All couriers (applies to both types of work arrangements) have to notify the cancellation of a booked slot-hour 24 hours in advance, if they do not do so because they suddenly get sick, have an injury or, as self-employed workers, simply decide not to work, their late cancellation percentage will increase (thus negatively impacting their overall statistics). Furthermore, to elaborate on the above, couriers have to work a percentage of Super-peak hours (between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.) on the weekend to keep their stats up, thus in effect, they are obliged to work in the evening hours on weekends, but the company still pays the same rate whether one is working at night, during daytime or on a weekend.
THE RIDERS DO NOT HAVE THE POWER TO SOLVE THEIR OWN PROBLEMS
If a courier has any problems they have the option to contact the Deliveroo office called “Rider Support”, they do so by email if it is a non-urgent problem (about their employment relationship with the company or problems they may have had with a customer or restaurant). Or alternatively, when out working/ delivering on a booked slot-hour (online and available to receive orders) and a problem with an order arises there is an option within the app to call “Rider Support”. When a courier calls by phone regarding an order the Rider Support team is quick to respond and efficient to resolve the issue so as to ensure the customers receive their order. Whereas, on the other hand, when a courier writes an email to communicate and solve any personal problems, or management issues, the response from the Deliveroo Rider Support team is slow, totally impersonal (usually in the form of a generic answer reminding one to ensure and check that all the rules are being followed in their proper order) and, in most cases, completely ineffective. As so called self-employed workers, we really do not have all the tools to solve our problems, and are in reality completely dependent on the company.
THE COMPANY HAS TECHNOLOGICAL POWER
Numerous courier experiences show that the statistics of some riders have been modified at some point by the company. There have been cases when people though having worked during the “Super-peak hours” have not seen that statistic criteria increase its count. Other couriers who have not missed any of their booked slot-hours have watched their “Attendance” percentage miraculously reduce. When these and similar statistic malfunctions are followed up via an email communication the response almost never entails a solution to the problem, and is typically limited to a generic delineating of the rules of operation of the “statistics”, without actually ever precisely clarifying to the rider why this decline has happened in their “statistics” when the rider has done everything correctly. Obviously it is impossible to prove this statement about the manipulation of statistics by the company. Technically it is not legal to say in this text to the public that Deliveroo plays dirty, but I say it openly because I know that it is true. Morally I am obliged, although legally I am coerced.
WORKERS CANNOT & DO NOT ALWAYS CHOOSE WHERE TO WORK (IF YOU WANT TO KEEP YOUR WORK)
At some times of the year, many couriers for whom this is a full-time job and who depend on it for their livelihood, despite having perfect “statistics” do not have the possibility of booking enough weekly hours. This is especially so from May to September, when is not a period of time part of the academic year and there is a lack of students in the city. This in turn forces them to go to other towns where it is easier to book hours (Southport, Birkenhead, Chester, St Helens), but where the supply of deliveries is very low, hence the ready slot-hour availability. Some even resort to going to distant places where they need to stay in a hostel, like in Leicester, or London, all because these places have “free login zones”.
Currently, as a result of the “vehicle priority” addition to the statistics, Deliveroo gives preference and priority of having access to booking hours to motorcyclists and drivers, leaving cyclists in the last place. It is these cyclists who in fact make up the vast majority of the workforce and are the very symbols of environmentalism that the company used so much to advertise itself in its early years.
Some cyclists get more than 40 hours a week in the middle of summer when other cyclists get 0 hours. The inequality of treatment of riders by the company is evident. If the company is asked about this, it responds with an email that ignores such a situation and goes on to explain yet again (in the usual impersonal and generic way) how the statistics work… This is also an affirmation that legally commits both who writes the text and those who publish it.
Some couriers who do not get enough hours often use the application of their courier friends, who do get enough hours, while the account owners are on vacation.
On June 26, 2018, a former Deliveroo courier, a motorcyclist (not from Liverpool) published on the “Deliveroo Riders UK (unofficial)” Facebook group the following message:
“Now that I don´t work for Deliveroo I can come clean, during the Deliveroo demos and strikes Deliveroo ask me as the longest serving roo at time to spy on strike meetings and join any Deliveroo Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups and report th them, they offered me lots more money added to my wage as a reward or there may be no shift available for me on Staffomatic at the time if I don´t play ball. One manager made me spy on people not using thermal bags, etc. or uniform and yep when I didn´t play ball my Staffomatic oddly had errors. I am so glad I don´t work for Deliveroo now after they used me”.
(The word “Staffomatic” is related to the work-hour booking platform which Deliveroo no longer use. When the company started operating riders were required to wear jackets and backpacks with the company’s brand).
This ex-worker supports his publication with screenshots of his phone that show conversations with a Deliveroo manager:
THE WORKER NEVER CHOOSES THE FARES FOR THEIR SERVICES
Any self-employed of any profession decides the value of their services and can choose which days they want to work (without fear of any reprisals by anyone). Deliveroo couriers can´t decide any of that. For instance, the delivery of an order in which the cyclist has to pedal three miles will have the same price whether they have to pedal uphill or go on a flat, under heavy rain or pleasant weather, on a road with heavy traffic or on quiet streets, during weekends or during the week, at night or during the day, during bank holidays or working days. As if that were not enough, Deliveroo changes the price of fares very often unilaterally without taking into account the riders at all.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR DELIVEROO COURIERS?
It has become evident that fear, up until now has been very much present, is beginning to slowly loosen its paralysing grip. We are witnessing the first steps towards the recovery of that very spirit of the labour struggles of the past, which almost all Liverpudlians speak so proudly of.
Even though a large number of couriers disapprove of the rules that Deliveroo imposes upon them, and are aware of being an exploited workforce, the habitual apathy and individualism has conditioned them to lead a life similar to that of a hamster, who, being caged, is happy running round and round its wheel, with the illusion of moving forward, yet in fact not getting anywhere.
Still, in a way, I must admit that a significant part of the workers are not aware of the full extent of their vulnerability and labour disadvantage, these are mostly the younger couriers, without much work or life experience. They see their situation as a unique opportunity to earn money by simply riding a bicycle. These riders swallow the propaganda that Deliveroo sends us by email (cloaked in high sounding words of “Independence”, “Freedom”, “Flexibility” to work whenever one chooses, so on and so forth) as pills for happiness. In the facebook group: “Deliveroo Riders UK (unofficial)” you can read the comments of couriers from all over the UK defending the company with the same hypercapitalist propaganda that the company uses with all of us; in its words one clearly sees the clear lack of vocabulary and ideas of some individuals. People are totally vulnerable due to lack of experience, excess of conformity and fear.
Despite the precarious working condition of the couriers, very similar if it is not equal to that of the dockers of a few decades ago, we are beginning to organise to draw up a long-term plan that protects us and improves our working conditions.
So, up until the promptings of the present situation there has been no organisation, whether of an independent workers union or as a community, amongst Liverpool Deliveroo couriers. Almost three years ago the Solidarity Federation union tried over a period of six months to approach the couriers to offer their support but none showed the slightest interest. At that time, a member of the IWW (International Workers of the World) union also approached some of them for the same purpose, receiving total indifference in return. Today the IWGB, which has no official representation in Liverpool, is organising strikes and helping with campaigns in a number of cities all over the country, while raising awareness work among riders. Thus far, only a few of Liverpool’s couriers have sought the support of IWGB. In this city, up until the most recent developments, pure individualism reigned: most riders did not say hello when they started a conversation with you, they just enquired: “Is it busy today?”, in effect, only wanting to know if you are receiving more orders than they are. The total lack of working-class awareness and belonging to a working group was almost total. But something is surely changing in the air around us.
This text is based on conversations with riders from both Liverpool and Manchester.
For more on Solidarity Federation go to: http://liverpoolsf.org/