For private hire drivers and food delivery couriers in the gig economy who have to pay for the costs of their own vehicle, surging fuel prices are pushing them to the brink. The Gig Economy Project speaks to a British and a French gig worker respectively to find out just how bad the situation is on-the-ground.
ON Wednesday [16 March], fuel costs reached a new peak in the UK. The average price of petrol was £1.65 a litre, and £1.76 for diesel. Just one month ago, petrol was 16p a litre cheaper, and diesel 24p less.
Even before the Ukraine war began, fuel costs had risen 30% in the UK in the past year. For ‘self-employed’ workers in the gig economy driving a car or a motorcycle, the burden of rising fuel costs is 100% on their shoulders, not the platform they are working for. Along with the general rise in prices for essential goods which has seen inflation hit a 30-year high, many of these workers have been left completely out of pocket.
Bryn Atkinson Woodcock delivers food in his diesel car in Sheffield, but despite working for both Stuart Delivery and Uber Eats, he has had to take on a third job driving for the local council, just to be able to pay the bills.
His daily diesel costs has risen from £65 to £90, but he tells the Gig Economy Project that rising fuel costs is just one of the problems he has had to contend with, as the price of his insurance has also shot up.
“The fuel crisis exacerbates the problem, but even without that the expenses are astronomical,” he says. “They must be the highest of any job in the UK.
“Maybe you can work 10 hours and make £100 a day, but if it’s going to cost you £30-£40 per day to make that, it means the job is way below even the minimum wage, never mind the living wage.”
Woodcock is a member of the IWGB union and, along with other Stuart Delivery couriers in Sheffield, has been on strike since December after the company introduced a new pay system which the union claims has reduced earnings by 24% on average. Woodcock says it is “pure greed” on the party of Stuart’s CEO, Damien Bon.
“When there’s a war in Europe, energy prices are soaring, fuel prices soaring, rent is going up, you can’t crush your workforce like this,” he says. “We’ve been loyal to this company. I’ve had to abandon my car two or three times in the snow just because I went out on snowy days to do food deliveries for people who are snowed in. And this is the treatment we get.”
With reports of Uber private hire drivers in London sleeping in their cars, the US ride hail giant announced a 20% increase in fares in the UK capital on Monday [14 March], but that doesn’t help those delivering food on Uber Eats, like Woodcock.
He is relieved to have found additional work now, but says that when he started out in food delivery a few years ago he could support himself “on just one app”. The declining income in the gig economy has lead many workers to get out of the gig economy altogether, he says.
“All the older drivers when I started, they’ve now left the business. They’re working full-time in KFC and places like that instead because it’s more beneficial for their families. Do you think my job sounds appealing based on that evidence alone?”
Before finding his job with the council , Woodcock was delivering food 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, he works for the council 9-4pm, then delivers food in the evening until 10pm.
“I’ve worked seven days a week throughout the pandemic and I’m still broke,” he says. “I started this job with a good car and savings, now I’m on my third car and all my savings are gone, and all I’ve done is work.”
He says all the full-time food delivery workers he knows are currently working more than 10 hours a day to get by, longer than the recommended driving limit.
“It’s dangerous because of the hours people are working and because they aren’t changing their tyres when they need to because they can’t afford it,” he says.
“People have families and they’re struggling. I’ve seen drivers in tears or breaking down. It’s heartbreaking because they don’t see their kids and they’ve come to a breaking point.”
He says the narrative in the media about gig work and the cost of living crisis is wrong.
“Newspapers keep saying ‘drivers have to work more to earn the same’, but that’s not right,” Woodcock argues. “If you were driving 8-10 hours originally and now you are driving 10-12 hours you are not working a few hours more to get the same because you are risking your life more, your risking your vehicle more, you are paying more for maintenance, you are paying more for fuel. So it’s not a true reflection of the situation.”
He wants the government to step in to stop gig workers from being “exploited”, but has no faith that is going to happen, citing the fact that Stuart Delivery’s owners are La Poste, the French postal service 100% owned by the state, as evidence.
“We are working for the French Government,” he says. “How have we got to the point where 25,000 UK drivers are working for the French Government below minimum wage?”
French Uber drivers income “melting like snow in the sun”
On the other side of the English Channel, gig workers are doing little better. Uber France has announced that its private hire drivers will get a boost of “€100 net per month” once it’s temporary 75% fare rise comes into effect from 25 March, but Ben Ali Brahim, General Secretary of the INV union and an Uber driver, says it is not enough.
“We have suffered several waves of injustice in France and the rise in fuel has not helped anything,” he tells The Gig Economy Project.
“We want to negotiate our prices with the government and not matchmaking platforms that play with prices.”
The INV union, which organises Uber drivers, has called a demonstration in Paris on 28-29 March to demand the government takes action. Ali Brahim expects the turn-out to be “very large”.
The union wants a limit on the commission platforms can take per ride; that the EU Commission’s platform work directive – which found that platform workers should be considered employees as the default legal presumption – is immediately implemented in France; a reduction in fuel tax; and energy vouchers to support drivers struggling with fuel costs.
“The laxity of the government in not regulating this sector of activity, which is a machine of precariousness, has seen the emergence of solutions in favour of platforms,” Ali Brahim explains. “The consequence of this is to encourage the emergence of a market of ‘false rights’ leading inevitably to the formation of ‘false prices’.”
He adds that drivers are leaving the sector everyday because their “incomes have been melting like snow in the sun”.
The first round of the French Presidential election will take place on 10 April, but are politicians listening to the concerns of gig workers?
“The candidates for election are not at all sensitive to our working conditions, except Jean-Luc Mélenchon [the left-wing ‘France Insoumise’ candidate] who talks about it often,” Ali Brahim says.
“I am preparing a platform and a video to raise awareness among the other candidates and prepare a debate around the problem of Uberisation.”
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