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The Plight of Deliveroo Riders: Dickensian Conditions in the 21st Century

Photograph: Garry Knight / Flickr https://flickr.com/photos/garryknight/52591354156/

Staff Writer Alex Martin Astley argues Deliveroo workers in the UK have to work hard for measly pay, but states KCL students can help: tip your riders.

 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”. The memorable opening line from A Tale of Two Cities is one of polar extremes – a reflection of, and warning against, the society which Dickens lived in – and was appalled by. A period marked by both great wealth and rampant poverty, by the advancement of technology and the regression of society. What is troubling is how this epitaph to the mid 19th century has become so suitable for describing our own. After a decade of austerity, Brexit, and a perfunctory “levelling up” campaign, the UK now has one of the highest levels of income inequality in Europe. These gaping inequities were laid bare as a small number of tech companies and their shareholders enjoyed profits during the Covid pandemic that Dickens could only have gawped at. Deliveroo, among the other food delivery platforms, offers a case in point.

For those of us living in London, the sight of those teal cubes that serve as delivery backpacks has become as commonplace in recent years as the black cab or the red telephone box. But we rarely spare a second thought for the 15,000 riders who carry them across the city. For them, working conditions are often bleak. The Independent found that for many riders, a typical working day entails a 10 to 12 hour shift (with no tips), dodging London traffic and London weather for dozens of miles – bike thieves adding to the list of occupational hazards. Occasionally, we may become aware of these conditions when especially egregious incidents surface in the news. To name just two from last year: in May, a 44-year-old courier was killed in a hit-and-run incident in Streatham; two months later, in north London, a rider was stabbed in broad daylight while trying to prevent thieves from stealing his bicycle.

We might hope that such drudgery is compensated with fair wages. But personal accounts from riders suggest that typical earnings for a 12-hour shift are £60 to £80 – around half the minimum wage, and this is often lower if there is less demand. In some cases, pay has been shown to be as little as £2 an hour. Information on the amount riders earn, and the way they are paid, is nebulous, and intentionally so. Over the years, Deliveroo has made its payment system less transparent to both the public and the riders. Earnings used to be pegged at £6 to £7 an hour, plus £1 per delivery, but in 2017 hourly pay was scrapped and riders were given a fixed £3.75 to £4.50 per delivery instead. In 2019, Deliveroo stopped publishing its wages altogether, though the company claims that its riders will earn over £10 an hour on average. Today, payment and assignment of deliveries are handled by an algorithm whose model is not publicised, leaving riders in the dark over their workload and how their earnings are calculated.

Last year, a landmark study by the University of Bristol helped provide clarity. Its findings revealed that gig economy workers, including Deliveroo couriers, received an average pay of £8.97 an hour – 15% below the current minimum wage for over-23 year olds. The disparity between actual hourly pay and the figures touted by Deliveroo arises from how the company defines the work given to its riders. Conveniently, riders are paid per delivery and not on an hourly basis, so the time that riders spend waiting between orders is not taken into consideration, making their working day far shorter in the eyes of the company. On account of this miserly excuse, Deliveroo can pay its contractors less than minimum wage while maintaining the appearance of a fair employer. Meanwhile, the CEO and founder Will Shu received a £5m share pay-out in April 2022, on top of his annual salary of £600,000. These truly are the best and worst of times.

To complete this Victorian hellscape, everything Deliveroo is doing is perfectly legal under UK labour law. Its riders are not legally classed as employees, meaning they do not have access to basic employment rights like a minimum wage, holidays, and collective bargaining. This was confirmed by a Supreme Court ruling in November last year after the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) sought to negotiate better pay and conditions. Unlike Uber drivers – whose employment status was recognised by the Supreme Court in 2021 – Deliveroo workers are technically self-employed due to a “substitution clause” in their contracts that allows riders to delegate their orders to someone else. In reality, this clause is rarely used, but this loophole allows Deliveroo to avoid classifying its riders as employees, as well as the inconvenient costs and responsibilities that come with this. Deliveroo boasts that its business model offers its riders “flexible work” and “attractive earning opportunities”: Orwellian terms that translate to “exploitation” and “unfair pay.”

Once again, the UK has fallen behind its European neighbours, several of whom have established legal protections for gig economy workers. Last month, a labour court in Belgium ruled that Deliveroo riders should be classed as employees. While in 2021, the Spanish government announced legislation on similar terms, rejecting the claim that riders were self-employed. At the EU level, new rules on platform work were put forward in 2021 and are set to become law. Once in force, gig workers across the EU will have the benefit of better protections and access to their rights as employees. And, in a pioneering move, new laws will enforce greater transparency of the algorithms used on delivery platforms so that workers are informed on the systems that use their data and decide their work.

With exam week coming to an end, late-night food orders to the library are more tempting than ever – after all, we’re duly encouraged by Deliveroo’s relentless marketing campaigns targeted at university students. For now, riders in the UK will have to keep fighting for basic employment rights. In the meantime, if you happen to feel a pang of guilt next time you order, there is one small way you can help: tip your riders, this money will go straight to them.  

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