The gig is up

Customers have grown to expect taxis and food deliveries at the drop of a hat, thanks to tech- based companies. But that means something much darker for the drivers and riders who work for them

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Keen cyclist Den* was attracted to becoming a Deliveroo worker by a recruitment spiel that promised earnings of up to £16 per hour in some places and, crucially, flexibility. But six months into his job as a push-bike food courier, the 21 year old wasn’t making the minimum wage and discovered “flexibility” was a byword for “insecurity”.

“It’s a lie,” he says. “Despite being cloaked in this idea of new technology, they’re reliant on the most regressive working practices.” Tellingly, he nicknames the start-up “Slaveroo”.

Protests against Deliveroo and recent landmark legal judgements involving taxi-hailing app Über and parcel delivery firm CitySprint have placed scrutiny on the exploitative nature of the “gig economy” (where workers get paid for the “gigs” they do). Big Issue North has discovered this includes legally “reprehensible” contracts, as well as anecdotal horror stories of desperate couriers trading cocaine for extra shifts and riders fearful of having to deliver to criminals who target them for theft.

“I was working seven days a week, but I was working two-hour shifts.”

Den isn’t classed as a worker at all. Deliveroo describes its riders as “independent suppliers”, meaning bosses do not have to pay the minimum wage, guarantee hours, nor provide sick and holiday pay.

“When it comes to pseudo self-employment, people are beginning to realise the absurdity of it,” says Jonathan Katona, vice-president of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). “How can a £144m courier company like CitySprint not employ a single courier?”

Rider James* meets me in Albert Square, a buzzing hive of restaurants at the centre of Deliveroo’s Manchester zone. He earns £6.50 an hour – less than the £7.10 minimum wage he would be entitled to as a 22-year-old employee – plus 50p per delivery, rising to £1 per drop at weekends. He denies being, in the words of Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green, an “everyday entrepreneur”.

“The idea they claim we’re self-employed is farcical,” he laughs dryly, gesturing to his kit. “Look, I cycle around with a box and wear a turquoise uniform that says ‘Deliveroo’. I’m paid per hour and start and finish when I’m told to. It’s obviously just a trick so they can pay the workers less. Morale is low and riders don’t last long in the job.” He joined in October – and wants out. “Everybody knows they’re getting shafted.”

Deliveroo exerts a substantial amount of control over Den and James’s lives – anathema to the freedom associated with self-employment. James opens his phone. His Deliveroo app expects him to respond to new orders within 30 seconds – he is not told the delivery address until he picks up the food. The only way to decline an order is to contact the driver support line, based in the Philippines – an action that will be held against his monthly ranking and affect the amount of future hours he receives. Drivers are GPS tracked. “If they see there’s 10 riders in the same place, we would receive a threatening text from the manager saying: ‘You shouldn’t be smoking in your Deliveroo uniform,’” says Den.

Critics suggest that Über and Deliveroo employ a high number of drivers and riders not only to ensure that customers’ expectations of rapid service can be met but also to encourage the belief that gig economy workers are in competition.

Den was only working 15 hours a week at one stage, earning less than the minimum wage. “I was working seven days a week. However, I was working two-hour shifts. The longest shift was four hours. My train into town cost £5 – I’m only earning £12 from a shift.”

He emailed Deliveroo. The response read: “All of our other riders, other than a select few, work three or four hour sessions. We cannot give full day sessions to cyclists as we do not have the demand for customers outside of the lunchtime peaks.” It adds: “Until your delivery standards are good, you will not be able to extend your sessions.”

The need to improve “delivery standards” is used to cajole riders into taking on work they might otherwise refuse. Deliveroo staff are sent monthly “service level assessments” on their average time to accept orders, travel time to restaurant and travel time to customer. The company compares each rider’s performance to its own estimate of how fast they should have been.

But communication is not a two-way street. James works 40 hours a week, with an inconsistent income that is insufficient to cover rent – so he lives with his parents. When he was accidentally sacked owning to a technical mix-up, he phoned the driver support line, which told him he needed to email the Manchester office. It took 10 days to get back to him – during which time he wasn’t earning any money. Ironically, he also had to take time off because the clasp on his Deliveroo bag broke. “The equipment is really cheaply made – despite charging you a £150 deposit,” he says, adding: “The system is so muddled that people are losing out on work.”

Some argue this system isn’t just frustrating – it could be placing riders in danger. Den recalls how an order came through at 8.45pm – on a night his shift finished at 9pm – yet the customer had provided the wrong address. He was told to wait at the address for half an hour – Deliveroo’s policy if a customer can’t be contacted. He replied: “I’m in an estate in Moss Side with an expensive bike. It’s pitch dark and I’m in a bright green uniform. I’ll happily return the food to the restaurant – I’m not trying to steal.”

He was told failure to comply would be held against his driver record. “Not only should I have finished work at nine, I was a sitting duck. It’s that constant bullying. If you don’t do something, even if it’s putting you in a lot of danger, it’s going to affect how many hours you get.”

That threat in Manchester intensified over the summer. Drivers noticed an increase in fraudulent orders, whereby criminals use log-in details typically bought over the dark web to order food. “They were ordering food to somewhere like Moss Side, then robbing the driver because they know they’ll have an expensive moped or bike and high-end smartphone [you need a minimum of an iPhone 4 to work for Deliveroo]. One lad was pushed into a canal – they ordered food to the car park next to it. Plenty of people have had their mopeds stolen. Whilst wearing his helmet, one lad got his head smashed in with a hammer.”

Internal emails show Deliveroo were aware of a spate of “crimes being committed against our drivers” in the Moss Side and Hulme areas. Events reached a surreal head when a child-sized carton of orange juice was ordered, Den alleges. The minimum order is £15 – otherwise you pay a £5 fee. “So this person is paying £7 for an item you can buy for 50p in a shop. It’s being delivered to an estate in Ardwick which didn’t have a house number and the postcode was wrong. I knew I was being lured there to be robbed.”

Despite objecting, the driver support line told him he must carry out the order – or he would not be receiving as many shifts in the future. But if a cyclist has his bike stolen, he cannot work. In a high-risk job with a time performance-managed system that some say incentivises reckless behaviour on the road there is no sick pay. Injuries are common and there’s a pressure to return to work when not fully recovered.

“Financial precariousness can turn to disastrous poverty with just one accident on the road,” notes Jonathan Katona, a courier for CitySprint. “It speaks volumes to how we’re treated that if I have an accident, the goods are insured but  the courier isn’t.”

Mags Dewhurst is a London-based cycle courier for CitySprint. She won a turning-point employment tribunal case last month that she should be recognised as a worker rather than self-employed. “People can put up with the fluctuating income, or the fact they have to provide and pay to maintain their own equipment, but the final nail in the coffin for a lot of people is the contempt you’re held in,” she says. “You’re intimidated by this constant feeling that if you don’t behave, there will be unknown repercussions. It’s psychological abuse.”

Although it was possible for her to refuse to carry out a job she feared slipping down the pecking order of favouritism. With the dread of losing hours looming over them, she says workers can resort to desperate measures.

“There’s a huge amount of bribing that goes on [in the courier industry],” she alleges. “A lot of people know they’ll get more work if they give their controller drugs. If they give their controller free cocaine, they can generally expect £200 or more of work each week.

“Rather than being driven out, myself and others are standing up, unionising, and trying to change things from the inside.”

This is part of a growing trend in the atomized gig economy. Last summer, Deliveroo riders in London organised a picket of the company’s HQ via WhatsApp, over an attempt to introduce a new piece rate of £3.75p per delivery, without the relative safety net of an hourly wage.

Den understands their concerns all too well. He was paid £4 per delivery and in peak times – evenings – he could theoretically earn £8-£12 an hour, provided the restaurants were in close proximity to their customers and nothing went wrong. However, “they would often give me jobs where you’re riding to a restaurant two miles away, waiting 15 minutes there for the food, then riding to a customer three miles away”. Not even Bradley Wiggins could make money out of that.

During the daytimes, pickings were slim. “I would sit in my apartment, logged in, waiting for a job. In the space of three hours, I would get two deliveries, sometimes less.

“You’d think: what on earth am I doing working for this company? And then you’d have to work the evening shifts – you’d have no choice.”

Den quit in December after a typically short career. “A lot of drivers don’t last long, which is why Deliveroo are constantly recruiting. Even now, I get a text every four days saying ‘we can give you £100 to refer a rider and £250 for a motorbike rider.’”

* Names have been changed

Gig economy ‘must be taught a lesson’

It may be a loss of revenue to HMRC that restrains the growing gig economy rather than concern for the workers.

“The government is now beginning to form an idea of just how big an impact the gig economy is having on tax revenues – the current estimate is a multi-billion pound black hole in the tax base,” says Frank Field, Birkenhead MP and chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee.

“On top of income tax and national insurance losses, there is an absence of company pension contributions, which means people working in the gig economy will be penalised when they retire, and are more likely to require state support to prevent them becoming destitute.”

Some retailers are considering following the likes of Über and Deliveroo and adopting a gig economy-style employment model, whereby they can have people on call for an hour or two during busy periods. “If we’re not careful, we could all wake up tomorrow with no employment rights,” warns Justin Moyer Lee, chair of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. “That’s why we need to nip this in the bud before it spreads. 2017 needs to be the year the gig economy was taught a lesson.”

Frank Field: “A multi-billion pound blck hole.”
Frank Field compares the way Über treats its drivers to “Victorian sweated labour”

With no workers’ rights, intimidation is rampant, says Field, who has produced reports on delivery giant Hermes and Über. “There were so many devastating testimonies from couriers, a couple of whom had contemplated taking their own lives because of the unbearable stress they were being put under at work.

“One Hermes courier was threatened with the loss of work while he was caring for his wife who was dying of a terminal illness.”

Field compares the way Über treats its drivers to “Victorian sweated labour”. It issues a weekly report, which includes their average customer rating out of five.

“If a driver’s average rating fell below 4.2 out of five, they were at risk of deactivation,” says Annie Powell, a lawyer at the employment team at Leigh Day who successfully proved in October that 19 Über drivers were bogusly self-employed.

A lot of passengers award four stars if a journey is good – they’ll rarely give five stars unless it’s exceptional. But if everyone gave four out of five, these people risk losing their jobs.”

Field adds: “It may be drivers are marked down because a customer is not allowed to smoke in the back of a car, for example.”

Field found some drivers are taking home less than a third of the national minimum wage. A cut in fares coupled with a rise in the commission Über takes has “taken a heavy toll, not only on themselves, but also their families”.

Why don’t they simply go and work elsewhere? “Because of the financial outlay they have made to work for Über. Some drivers feel as though they are tied to the company until they have paid off their debts on their vehicles and so on,” explains Field.

“Another factor is that in the areas it is active, Über controls such a significant and growing share of the market, it is growing increasingly difficult for drivers to find work elsewhere.”

The employment tribunal in October was conclusive that: “The notion that Über is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common platform is to our minds faintly ridiculous.”

Although the judgement only applies to the drivers who brought the case, the ramifications are huge.

“Über controls all drivers in the same way, so it is extremely likely any other driver who brought a claim would be a worker as well,” says Powell. Über has appealed against the ruling.

Scare tactics were built into Deliveroo’s rider contract. Until last week an insidious clause said: “Neither you nor anyone acting on your behalf will present a claim to the Employment Tribunal or any civil court in which it is contended that you are an employee or a worker.”

Powell says: “That clause is unenforceable and reprehensible. If they’ve had any legal advice, the only reason Deliveroo would put that clause in the contract is to frighten people off asserting their rights.”

But at a Commons select committee hearing last week, Deliveroo’s managing director Dan Warne said it would drop the clause.

Illustration: Mark Wheeler

The companies respond


“Deliveroo is proud to have a strong relationship with our riders and we are pleased to be able to offer them the flexible work they value. Riders choose when and where to work, and for how long, allowing them to fit their work around their other priorities, such as studying, starting a small business, other freelance activities or personal commitments. Over 10,000 people apply to ride with us each week, which shows that working with Deliveroo is extremely popular and valued by riders right across the country.”


“Tens of thousands of people in London drive with Über precisely because they want to be self-employed and their own boss. The overwhelming majority of drivers who use the Über app want to keep the freedom and flexibility of being able to drive when and where they want.”


“We are disappointed with the ruling [employment tribunal saying a courier was a worker, not self-employed]. It is important to remember that this applies to a single individual and was not a test case. Because of the complexity of the judgement we will be reviewing it in detail before making any further comment.

“We enjoy a good relationship with our fleet, many of whom have worked with us for some time, and have always strived to help them maximise their earnings. Evidence presented at the tribunal confirmed that the vast majority of our couriers enjoy the freedom and flexibility of their current role.

“As was clearly highlighted in this case, CitySprint is a good company that pays its couriers some of the best rates in the industry. This case has demonstrated that there is still widespread confusion regarding this area of law, which is why we are calling on the government to provide better support and help for businesses across the UK who could be similarly affected.”

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