Ben Wray – Corona Crisis: ‘We have to fight for our lives while we’re still trying to save other people’s lives’: Interview with UK medical courier Alex Marshall

The public should have learnt by now, many of those crucially essential workers who are pulling us through the corona crisis are poorly paid, and treated like rubbish by their employers. It is not applause they need but direct action and solidarity.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Lipman-Miliband Trust

Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here:


Photo by ‘stephengg’ of an IWGB Doctors Laboratory demonstration in 2018, London.

There’s few more daunting jobs in a pandemic than to be a medical courier. Handling Coronavirus specimens while riding a bike around central London is not fun and games. Medical couriers at The Doctors Laboratory [TDL], a fast growing private healthcare firm in the UK, have been experiencing this on a daily basis for two months, but now they have a new threat to deal with.

The company is looking to make ten of its medical couriers redundant, a cut that is strongly suspected to be motivated by a desire to break the trade union. Alex Marshall, chair of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) Couriers & Logistics Branch, is one of those couriers that has been at the centre of union organising at TDL, and is up for the chop under the muted plans. The IWGB have called a strike ballot among TDL members over the threat to jobs.

The Gig Economy Project spoke to Marshall about TDL, the planned strike and what it has been like to work as a medical courier in London during the Covid-19 crisis.

Q: What’s been your experience on the frontline of Covid-19 as a medical courier?

The first couple of weeks of lockdown were a really funny time. The streets were empty and it was really emotional – a couple of the guys were in tears – because you are being pulled apart by this dilemma. You’re thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be out, but I’ve got to be out to earn.’ At the beginning it was a really unpleasant time, but it’s strange how quickly you get normalised to a situation.

We have been going into hospitals and picking up Coronavirus specimens. The fucked up thing is these aren’t anonymous specimens; you can look over and see people in a bed. So you’re thinking: “These are the people who come up on the news just as numbers”.

Going into testing drive-through centres and picking up bin-bags of specimens; you feel like a bomb-disposal person. The whole of the world is hiding from this thing and you’ve got it in your bag while you ride a bike.

Q: How did the company respond to the pandemic?

TDL was not quick to respond. When we started handling Coronavirus specimens, we were unsure about the packaging. The company was telling us one-thing while the website said another – it was a bit of a mess.

The company, like the government, were sitting on their hands as long as possible, and when the PPE came after we sent a letter threatening action, it was already very late.

The PPE is a little bag of gloves, a small bottle of hand sanitisers that we can refill, and masks that really aren’t fit for purpose; they are nothing that anyone with any medical knowledge would wear if they had another choice. Completely token; nothing more than a gesture to make it look like they’ve done something.

We have been trying to get regular testing, because we believe that even if we were asymptomatic we could have been spreading the virus. As with every union demand, no matter how reasonable it is, they just shut-up shop.

We drew up a list of ten demands and I got a letter back from the CEO, basically saying no to everything. We were even told there was no point in testing, which is remarkable from a company that offers medical testing.

Q: What about pay for those self-isolating?

The fleet is a mixture of self-employed workers and those who are contracted. The contracted workers have a small sick pay package, but for the self-employed we get nothing. We only get government sick pay [SSP], which is grossly inadequate. Unions are taking the government to court over how inadequate that £95 is to live off.

So we applied more pressure on that front, and the company got back and said you could get a loan, which would mean you’ld continue to get your full wages but you’ld have to pay it back within three months. So they offered financial detriment now or later. We’ve got one guy at work who is 62 and is a push-biker, he lives on his own and he contracted the virus. He was off for two weeks and he used his holiday pay to get him through because he couldn’t afford to live off SSP. And the chances are that – going into these high-risk, high concentration places – he picked it up at work.

The CEO told me “we all need to pull together”, having said no to ten quite basic demands to protect a workforce that were going through quite a bit of emotional trauma.

Q: And after all that, The Doctors Laboratory are about to cut jobs.

On Friday last week, May Day, we get told by the company that out of 158 people in the couriers department they could not possibly hold onto or see any further use for ten couriers; six ‘push-bikes’ and four ‘walkers’.

Us push-bike riders; we are among the lowest paid workers at the whole company and they’ve done a number on us. It’s partly because we are the nucleus of the union. I’m the chair of the branch and I’ve led them to getting a paid holiday, various tribunals, various pay-rises, and it’s really hard to see this as anything other than an attack on the trade union. Because there’s no way that we’re redundant.

The push-bikes were brought in six years ago and they kept increasing the numbers; they doubled the fleet size within a few months because they saw what a good job we were doing. It was only in response to the unionisation that they’ve started to try and phase us out. The company is quite London-centric, so to only have motorbikes operating in Central London makes no sense; they need to find somewhere to park, which means it takes longer and they end up paying a parking ticket! Push-bikes and walkers can get through the traffic no problem.

They could furlough workers if they are worried about business not picking up in the short-term. But they’ve decided not to do that, and instead basically do a hit-job on some of the most vocal union members in the whole fleet.

Q: It seems odd that there has been a fall in demand for medical couriers in the middle of a pandemic.

Loads of GPs have closed their doors, and are doing only online consultations and emergencies. So a lot of our regular pick-ups that we usually go to three, four, five times a day are not there right now. The business we have coming in has changed, but it is down overall.

It’s the medical industry – these places haven’t gone bust. We’re talking about picking up from some of the most prestigious medical places in the world. People travel from all over to get treatment on Harley Street. All of these surgeries that have been put on hold, they will suddenly green light them when the quarantine eases.

For example, fertility clinics: we have heard they are opening as of Monday. We pick up from loads of fertility clinics around central London. It will be gradual to start, but it will return.

Q: What is the financial position of the company?

I said to them in the company meeting yesterday: ‘You guys have just published your financial report: £28 million in profit, the CEO on over £1 million. You also state in the financials that you have enough resources to last however long if you get a bump in the road, but the only people that are experiencing the damage of this are ten people. How many executives are taking a pay-cut?’ None, of course. They said that they had got rid of some agency workers, so probably some other low-paid workers are taking the hit while they still have these nice plump pay packages rolling in.

The parent company is called Sonic Health, it’s based in Australia but is also the largest medical laboratory provider in Europe. Revenue $6.2 billion last year. The CEO, Colin Goldschmidt, made over $5 million. And TDL is growing at an alarming rate; they could easily absorb this blow. They just took on 25 couriers to manage a new cervical contract. The government is constantly carving up the NHS for more private contracts, and TDL is always looking at how to get a piece of that. They outgrew an office on Euston Road within weeks of moving in.

Q: You have just announced the strike ballot. How is it looking?

We’ve had a good up-take. We’re medical couriers that are working through a pandemic, and it’s really sad but the default instinct is still to look over your shoulder and wonder if you’re next. So the expectation is that we’re going to have a really good turnout.

We think we’re going to be able to get this thing turned around. It was almost a year ago that we were doing exactly the same thing when the company was trying to impose pay cuts. So we’re used to it, and we know this company only ever speak one language: it’s profits over people every single time, and we have to fight for our lives while we’re still trying to save other people’s lives.

We’ve had a real outpouring of support as well, from other couriers and trade unions. In the role that I’ve been doing, I’ve been working tirelessly for the last few years not just in my company but with couriers all over the UK. There’s no other way of dressing this up than an attack on one of the most vocal trade unionist’s at the company. So a lot of people are seeing it that way as well. It doesn’t just seem like an attack on key workers, it feels like an attack on trade unions. A big private company trying to put an end to a big union movement on their doorstep.

So there’s a lot of solidarity, it’s a question of how we can deliver an effective strike, because demand isn’t as high as normal, so a normal strike might not be as crippling to the company. We’re going to have to think about how to make this as effective as possible. We’re hoping to get a big press pick-up, we already have some high-profile MPs supporting it, and we’re looking for a barrage of support from the public. We’ve kicked off an e-mail campaign already to the CEO; already about 300 e-mails have been sent to him and that number is still rising.

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