Gig Economy Project: UK Valentine’s Day strike: Interview with Rafael, rider and strike organiser

A Valentine’s Day strike across the UK looks set to shutdown the operations of food delivery platforms like Uber Eats and Deliveroo for the second time in two weeks. The Gig Economy Project spoke to one of the strike leaders about what motivated him and how the strike has been organised.

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One of the most eagerly anticipated strikes in the history of the UK’s gig economy is set to take place. 

On 14 February, Valentine’s Day, thousands of food delivery couriers for Deliveroo, Uber Eats, Stuart Delivery and Just Eat will refuse to take deliveries across the country, demanding an end to what strike organisers have called “appalling working conditions”. 

Excitement for the strike is enormous due to the power of the last one, held on 2 February, when approximately 3,000 riders shutdown ‘dark kitchens’ and picketed restaurants in locations all over London, as well as Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. 

The strike caused widespread disruption to the operations of the platforms, with orders piling up in restaurants across many locations, while customers complained that they couldn’t make orders. In some areas, the platforms resorted to raising the prices well above their usual rates to attract riders to break the strike. All of this was grassroots-organised by a group of riders operating through social media accounts called ‘Delivery Job UK’

Ahead of the Valentine’s Day action, the Gig Economy Project spoke to Rafael (name changed for anonymity purposes), a Brazilian food delivery courier in Bromley, south-east London, and a spokesperson for Delivery Job UK. Rafael explains his experience of being a rider, how the strikes are being organised and what his hopes are for the February 14 action.

The Gig Economy Project: Tell us about your experience of being a food delivery courier: what has motivated you to strike?

Rafael: I’ve been working as a courier since the pandemic. I used to work in the restaurant industry, I lost my job in the second lockdown and since then I’ve been working as a delivery driver. 

I work for four platforms: Uber, Deliveroo, Stuart Delivery and GoPuff. I work four days a week, and the other three days I study International Business at university.

When I started during the pandemic there was a lot of demand for food delivery, the platforms were paying well and they were giving a lot of incentives.

In January things started to get worse. Deliveroo had a flat fee of £4 for up to 1.8 miles, and they slashed that to £3.50. 

In the previous year, when I got my Stuart Delivery account, they were the ones who were paying the best, but they slashed it from £4.50 to £3.70. 

Since I’ve been with Uber Eats they’ve had a flat fee of £2.80, but I’ve been talking to people who were working for Uber Eats before my time and they said Uber Eats used to pay really well, something like £4.50. 

READ MORE – ‘A middle finger to the apps’: UK sees historic riders’ strike

The first red flag came on 1 January. Usually the platforms give crazy boosts because no one wants to work on that day, everyone’s got a hangover, so you can make crazy money. But on 1 January this year there were no boosts, it was flat.

The following week we started seeing trips that we would normally be paid £7 for, and now they were offering £4.50. This was shocking to us. 

Then Deliveroo stopped offering the boost that it used to offer on weekends, and we started saying: ‘What’s going on here?’

So that’s the main trigger for the strike: people became angry. We were making £150 in 8 hours, now we’re doing £105 in 10 hours. 

This completely changes the livelihood of many of the riders. We have a lot of guys who need to provide for their families, who don’t know if they are going to meet their targets for the end of the week. There’s people who are working longer hours and it’s affecting their relationship with their wife. There’s people complaining that they can barely see their kids. 

GEP: How did you start to organise the first strike?

Rafael: There was a group of riders at one of the dark kitchens in Battersea (London) who decided to organise a strike, and at first it was only going to be at that dark kitchen. But then more people wanted to get involved, we created the first WhatsApp group and from there we have three WhatsApp groups with about 1,000 people each, only with Portuguese speakers, mainly Brazilian nationals and a few Portuguese. 

We also now have another group with more than 1,000 people of English speakers with different nationalities: Algerians, Albanians, Romanians, Indians, people from all over the world. 

We also have groups of people in different cities. Bristol, Brighton, Peterborough, and a new group in Dublin. We are mentoring them to do their own strike in Dublin.

So we now have about 4,000 that we know, and of course there are many people who are not on these WhatsApp groups but know about the strike. 

Every day I get stopped by delivery drivers who say ‘hey, I know about the strike, can you put me in one of the groups?’

GEP: So the core group was Brazilian riders at first, and then it has spread to other communities from there?

Rafael: Yeah, it started with the Brazilians and then we started spreading the word around. 

One of the funny things is that there was a lot of disbelief between the different nationalities: so the Indians were saying ‘the Brazilians won’t stop’, the Brazilians were saying ‘the Indians won’t stop’, and the Algerians were saying ‘I don’t believe the Brazilians or the Indians will stop’. And in the end everyone stopped together!

That’s really nice because now we know that in an area where there are two Brazilians who don’t want to do the strike, we know it will be secure because we have the Algerians’ striking, and so on. 

GEP: The first strike was one of the most powerful that many of us have ever seen in the food delivery sector. Why do you think it was so powerful?

Rafael: Firstly, it was really well-organised, and I was surprised because the time-frame was really short. 

We had the big four WhatsApp groups I mentioned, and from there we narrowed it down to a group that’s called ‘the captains’. 

That’s about 200 people, with two or three people from different areas, and through that group we organise the actions and have votes. Every captain is responsible to pass on the information to their local groups.

LISTEN – Podcast: The Historic Stuart Delivery Strike

On the day of the strike we had a map of neighbourhoods and we just mark areas and make the different groups responsible for the picket lines.

Another part of the reason the strike was very successful is because we used technology very well. We use Reels [on Instagram], we use TikTok. 

I’m interested in Artificial Intelligence and we were able to use AI to translate our message into 15 different languages in five minutes. We can also use technology to make professional looking digital flyers.

GEP: Have you had any contact with the platforms since the first strike?

Rafael: We wrote an open letter to them. Deliveroo responded with a letter saying that the GMB union represented couriers with the company. That was really upsetting, because we’ve never been contacted by the GMB before. 

On the same day, GMB sent an email blast through Deliveroo to every single rider to introduce themselves, and the riders were posting on the WhatsApp groups saying: ‘What the fuck is this!?’

Yesterday, some representatives of Deliveroo showed up at one of the dark kitchens where we had the strike, some of the organisers went to talk to them and there were people from Deliveroo filming. That was scary because they clearly wanted to identify who we are.

READ MORE: Mixed reaction as GMB and Deliveroo sign first union recognition deal for riders in the UK

There are a lot of riders who are concerned about being de-activated from the apps, so any communication we do have with them we have to be very careful.

Uber Eats hasn’t responded to us, but they are speaking to the media about the Valentine’s Day strike. 

With the news last week of Uber making $1.1 billion in profit, if they shared 10% between all the workers that’s £110 million. Instead we see videos online of them holding parties, it’s disgusting.

GEP: Do you think the Government should take action to regulate the food delivery platforms?

Rafael: I think they should regulate [the platforms] more. We see reports from Australia where people have got a pay rise through state intervention. I have been told that in Spain they have regulated the food delivery sector there. 

Especially because of the upcoming election in the UK, we’d hope that the parties would try to regulate. 

Another issue is that a lot of us have back problems. You stay with your spine curved for 10-11 hours, and it’s like a needle in your back. 

There is a black market of people buying strong painkillers from Brazil that you can’t get here. That’s how bad it is. 

GEP: What is your expectations for the Valentine’s Day strike?

Rafael: We think it will be steady. This was a strategic decision to strike on Valentine’s Day, we know it’s a big day for the apps and if we break the supply chain there will be an outcry on social media and that will work against them.

We also have support from many independent restaurant owners, who have told us they will just shutdown their delivery offer. 

Because in the first strike, some restaurants kept their app open and they made a loss, because the delivery companies didn’t re-fund them for the deliveries that didn’t go out. The platforms re-fund the big restaurants like McDonald’s and Wagamama because they have separate agreements with them.

GEP: Across Europe and beyond there are many food delivery couriers who would like to organise a strike but perhaps are fearful to do so. What advice would you give them?

Rafael: Try to organise a strong WhatsApp group. From this, find the people who participate the most, and get those people and put them in a separate WhatsApp group for organising and making strategic decisions. 

Get good social media accounts on Instagram and Twitter, and you’ll get more attention and find people who can help you.

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