“Hold on a minute, I’m just making a delivery,” says Dee as he rushes around the streets of Sheffield, dropping off lunch orders for Deliveroo while talking over a crackly Bluetooth headset. It’s an uncharacteristically busy day for the father of three, who has struggled to earn money for the past eight months.
It’s not through lack of trying. Every day, Dee takes his kids to school and starts his shift. By the time he gets back home at 10pm, they’re in bed. “I’m working seven days a week, ten to 12 hour shifts. Yesterday I worked 12 hours and I earned £75,” he says. Since the pandemic hit the UK, his income has plummeted and he can no longer afford to take any days off as he struggles to make ends meet.
Dee is one of the thousands of couriers who worked for Deliveroo throughout the worst of lockdown. This week, the delivery company announced plans to add 15,000 new couriers to its system by the end of the year, on top of the thousands already added during the pandemic. A Deliveroo spokesperson says this is in response to “rising customer demand” for restaurant and supermarket deliveries on its platform. “Riders are heroes and we are so proud of the vital role that they are carrying out in their local communities during the pandemic,” Deliveroo chief executive Will Shu said in a statement that accompanied the announcement.
Delivery drivers have been key workers during this pandemic – getting food to millions of people – and deserve to be treated with dignity at work, “not like disposable labour”, says TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “Ministers must use the forthcoming employment bill to end the scandal of false self-employment, which enables unscrupulous bosses to avoid paying the national minimum wage, holiday and sick pay.”
Despite being referred to as “heroes”, some Deliveroo couriers feel like they have been short-changed. “We risked life and limbs to support people around Sheffield, and all we got was lower fees and not even a thank you,” says Dee. “Our voices are not being heard.” He and other couriers claim that they are struggling to earn a living, and that additional competition will only make things impossible. Couriers claim that their average fee per delivery has dropped from £4.25 to a minimum of £3.15 per order. The Deliveroo riders say this works out to them making around £6 per hour working 12-hour shifts, and that they believe that this will worsen over the coming months.
Many of Deliveroo’s couriers deny that they earn “well above minimum wage” and claim that the addition of new restaurants on the network – 11,500 have joined Deliveroo since lockdown – has not equalled a rise in work for them.
Archie, a Deliveroo courier based in London who previously relied on demand from office workers, says competition amongst riders is fierce even though much of central London is still a ghost town. “I’m sure Deliveroo hired a lot more people, especially to cope with the demand on weekends, because that really went up during lockdown. But stuff during the week was non-existent. It was a lot of waiting around during the week and then hoping we could make up for it at the weekends. With an influx of riders, it wasn’t possible anymore.” There were some evenings when Archie, who has been a Deliveroo courier for over a year, didn’t make any money at all. “It felt like a real slap in the face, especially when you saw so many new riders wearing the kit, cycling around.”
Martin, a full-time student at Aberdeen University who started as a courier on Deliveroo last year, has similar issues. He says he hasn’t managed to earn enough to cover his rent this month after he fell ill and couldn’t cycle around. As he works around his classes to make up for lost time, he says that additional competition for deliveries will be “very grim”.
“It was great when I was calling my mum up at the start of the pandemic, telling her ‘I’m a hero!’,” he says. “But [couriers] don’t have any more rights now than we had before the pandemic. I was earning £5 an hour in April and I was working the good hours [dinner time, between 6pm and 9pm], so I can’t imagine what it was like for people working eight to ten hours a day.”
He says he always works when Deliveroo advertises that he can earn up to £15 or £17 an hour. But on his bike, with winter coming and faced with the prospect of more competition, Martin isn’t feeling optimistic. “It’s raining, it’s windy. And when you’re on your bike in the middle of January, and it’s three degrees outside, wind, a lot of rain – it’s obviously very difficult,” he says.
But such harsh realities are unlikely to put off new recruits. By mid-2019, gig economy companies were already employing one in ten adults in the UK – or 4.7 million people. As the pandemic continues to impact businesses and the unemployment rate reaches record levels, gig economy companies may soon fill the void left by hospitality and retail, two sectors that continue to struggle.
Matthew Taylor, author of the Taylor Review into working practices and current CEO of the RSA, says that gig economy companies have operated almost exclusively in “tight labour markets” until now, where there has been enough work to go around. But now things are different. “I said this before Covid: the test of the gig economy was how it operated in a buyer’s market,” Taylor says. “The platforms have now got hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people desperate for work. What gig work does is transfer all the risk onto the shoulders of the worker, and none of the risk on the shoulders of the platform.”
Without a regulatory framework from the government, the danger of people being exploited may increase, Taylor warns. “I’ve argued that many forms of gig work should not be portrayed as self employment, which means that people are not entitled to the minimum wage or other protections. They should be, as some trade unions have argued, defined as workers. They would then be entitled to the minimum wage, and they would attract national insurance payments by the employer.”
At peak times – during lunch and dinner – the average couriers earn in the UK is £11.63 but the top range is significantly higher, according to Deliveroo data. The company maintains that on average, riders earn more than minimum wage. “New riders will only be able to start working with the company in specific parts of the country where we are seeing the rise in customer demand, so that we have the right numbers of riders on the road and rider earnings are protected,” a Deliveroo spokesperson says. Deliveroo is “absolutely committed to supporting riders” and are proud of the vital role they are carrying out in their local communities, they claim.
But as Deliveroo orders in more couriers, the people who depend on it to make ends meet feel increasingly isolated. Ashley* from Edinburgh, who lives with high risk people in a six-bed flat, felt like he had no other choice but to continue to courier for Deliveroo during the pandemic, even though he knew it was a risk. “I didn’t have any other income,” he says. Since lockdown, he says activity has picked up to almost pre-pandemic levels and that he is starting to see a lot of new faces on his route. “Everyone’s going to be applying for the [Deliveroo] roles. So what that tends to mean is that there will be more waiting around for us.” Ashley says he loves the exercise and thinks being able to work flexibility is a positive. “But it’s not really sustainable for me to continue,” he says.
As it stands, Deliveroo’s hiring spree is “a hammer blow to these riders,” says Alex Marshall, chair of the couriers and logistics branch of the IWGB union. “It’s just a blatant opportunity to do what they always do: they oversupply towns and cities to drive down the cost of labour, to keep a quick turnover of riders to make sure that people are happy as they continue driving down the cost of labour until it’s unbearable for everyone. It’s just insane.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
More great stories from WIRED
🌐 TikTok was conquering the world. But Trump’s battle heralds the ugly birth of a new splinternet
🎮 We now know everything about the next-gen consoles. So which should is better – the PS5 or Xbox Series X?
🎬 Why Netflix keeps cancelling your favourite shows after two seasons
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.