Seventy-six riders participated in a new in-depth study on working conditions in the food delivery sector in the UK
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A NEW in-depth study of the app-based food delivery sector in the UK, ‘The Gig is Up’, has found that poverty pay, unsafe working conditions and a lack of basic rights are creating an intolerable work environment for delivery couriers (‘riders’).
The study by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) engaged with 76 riders in total, with 49 survey responses, 10 interviews and four focus groups. The research was based on a participatory method called feminist participatory action research (FPAR), where workers in the sector are involved as paid Peer Researchers so that they are active participants in the research from start to finish.
Alberto Ricci, one of the Peer Researchers, said at the launch of the report on Thursday [25 November] that “lack of employment rights, issues with pay, and issues with safety” were the three key issues couriers faced, which “all interlink with each other; the lack of employment rights means that there is a lack of pay and safety protections.”
On the lack of employment rights, 59% of couriers reported having no access to financial support when ill or injured, while also raising issues around inability to access social security benefits, algorithmic transparency – including over terminations from the app – and lack of toilet access.
Forty-three per cent of couriers said they have been afraid about raising issues with the platforms about unfair treatment in case their account is closed, with 31% having the same fear when reporting/complaining about bad working conditions and pay, 27% when organising a strike or boycott, 18% when joining a trade union and 16% when reporting a complaint about harassment or abuse at work.
One courier stated: “If I could change anything about my job it would be everything. Higher pay, an hourly living wage and pay per delivery. Working or for other people, as opposed to an algorithm. Being able to understand how said algorithm works. Entitlement to holiday pay and sick pay.”
Cecilia, A British courier, said: “Even though we’re meant to be self-employed, there were a lot of people who seemed to be getting fired for seemingly no reason […]. There wasn’t really a reason given, they were just told like, “You’re…” I was going to say “fired” but there’s no, there’s nothing like that.”
On pay, 63% reported being paid under the minimum wage after work-related expenses.
Seventy-one per cent of respondents had experienced financial difficulties, with 33% having had to rely on loans or other financial support from family or friends to. Twenty per cent said they experienced not being able to pay their rent or bills on time.
There was also anecdotal evidence of a clear deterioration in pay since the pandemic, as the total number of riders has increased, intensifying competition for gigs. Justine, a British courier, said: “The fees have dropped massively. Like, massively, I can tell there’s a massive difference between when I started versus now. And I think they over-hired on purpose to make us… basically what one rider won’t take another one will.”
Unpaid waiting times also cut into the riders hourly wage rate, meaning they have to work longer to earn sufficient income. A courier called Mustafa said: “Sometimes, if we calculate from the morning, waiting for ten orders for example. Ten orders for fifteen minutes, it’s two hours and a half just waiting. This time is cut from our own time. So instead of working eight hours a day we work twelve, thirteen hours to meet our own earnings target.”
On safety, a massive 82% of respondents had experienced violence at work, with 59% being shouted or sworn at, 24% threatened with physical violence, 24% having their bike stolen, 20% assaulted, 16% shoved, 16% had their delivery stolen and 10% who had their vehicle deliberately damaged.
Women riders faced particular problems with sexual harassment, with 57% of women and non-binary riders experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work.
Very few of the riders (27%) who experienced safety issues at work had reported the incident to the platform because they felt it would make no difference. For two-thirds (67%) of those who did report an issue to a platform, the company did not take any action. Twenty-two per cent of those who reported it to the police did not receive help.
Mustafa told the researchers that the platforms appeared more interested in ensuring the delivery of the food after a road accident than in the wellbeing of the rider, stating: “A friend of mine had an accident while he was picking up food. So, I called them [the company support line], and my friend was inside the ambulance, I called them and said, there is a driver in an ambulance,
he has crashed his bike with a car, blah, blah. They asked me, “Oh, can you tell us what’s the food number, and are you able to pick up this food?”. And I said, “Listen, I’m just calling to say this driver had an accident in the street, he is actually now inside the ambulance” […] and this service, the people we talk to every day, they’re not designed for that. They are just there to guide you if you lost the address or what’s the food number, if you damage the food or if you dropped the food. They don’t listen to [anything else].”
Rhian Brenton, Women and Non-binary Officer of the IWGB couriers branch who has also worked as a courier, spoke at the report launch and highlighted Mustafa’s comment, saying that “this is something I’ve seen myself…those basic things about our safety seem to be totally overlooked.”
Said, an Algerian courier, said: “I feel unsafe all day every day because there are thieves on the street. They steal motorbikes. I’ve been in many situations, four situations, where they have tried to take my motorbike. One time they came to take my motorbike at a petrol station with a machete. […] I have a friend, he’s been attacked as well, with acid. It’s very unsafe.”
Speaking at the report launch, Eleonora Paesani, FLEX research officer and an author of the report, said a disappointing finding of the research was how little expectations riders had in government regulation as a potential solution to the issues they faced, as “most participants mentioned the platform as a relevant actor or trade unions, but not the government”.
Paesani also found an increasing use of sub-contractors in the sector, which did not bode well as “long and complex labour supply chains tend to generate worse terms and conditions”. This, she added, was an international phenomenon, citing the example of Monoprix in France where there are four sub-contractors between the worker and the platform.
Also speaking at the report launch, Emiliano Mellino from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism said that the findings of FLEX’s report largely mirrored BIJ’s own investigation into Deliveroo, which also found that riders were consistently earning below the minimum wage.
“The companies like to argue that when things go wrong it’s isolated incidents, but what you’ve shown, and I think what we have tried to show at the Bureau, is that these are not isolated incidents, these are trends, these are things that are quite common,” Mellino stated.
Dr Kelle Howson from the FairWork Foundation at the University of Oxford also addressed the report launch, saying that the findings of Flex’s report were “shocking but not surprising” as “a lot of it has been well-documented in the literature for a long time”. She described FLEX’s participatory research approach as “incredibly value” as it “challenges the lack of worker voice in the platform economy”.
FLEX’s report is part of a three-year research project which has also included reports on the cleaning and hospitality sectors in the UK, which were published in January and July 2021 respectively. In the introduction to the food delivery report, it states that “while there are clear differences” between gig work and the other low-paid, precarious sectors they have investigated, the report “shows how similar many of the structural drivers of abuse and exploitation are’.
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