In the modern workplace we are facing increased instability, casualisation and expendability at the hands of the so-called “gig economy”. Online food courier companies such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Foodora promise workers flexibility, entrepreneurship and, perhaps most attractively for many, the chance to make a living out in the fresh air on their bikes. What many riders have found, however, is a toxic cocktail of unstable and often low pay, lack of rights to holiday pay, sickness pay or pensions, no cover for bike repairs or compensation for injury and an exceedingly competitive work culture, where riders who don’t make themselves available at the right times can go without being offered more work for weeks or sacked entirely. Josh Bornstein, an Australian employment lawyer for Maurice Blackburn, described work contracts from Deliveroo as “a sham” designed to pay workers “below the award rates” (the industry agreed wage rates in Australia) and “deny their basic benefits”.
The grand strategy of companies like Deliveroo has been to insist that their riders are “self-employed” and therefore not entitled to the national minimum wage or sick pay. This despite the fact that until recently Deliveroo required their riders to wear branded uniforms and bags, the cost of which were deducted from their first paycheck. A landmark case in 2016, which saw the legal recognition of two Uber drivers as workers rather than self-employed, has blown this industry wide open for organisers. But while the courts, the business unions and the government drag their heels over possible reforms, it falls to unions like the IWW and our sister union in London, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), to help riders fight for better conditions in the here and now. Recently the IWGB took Deliveroo to court over the employment status of it’s riders and lost, because the court deemed that riders could subcontract and were therefore self-employed. This is as good an indication as any that it’s up to us to push the envelope further. The following is based on a workshop hosted by a Deliveroo rider in the Bristol branch of the IWW in March 2018.
Who are Deliveroo and what is their plan?
Since being founded in 2013, Deliveroo now has a net worth of ~£1.5 billion, and its company revenue has increased 20-25% a month over 3 years. Despite this, the company has historically been secretive of its overall profits and local profits. It employs 20,000+ riders and has spent at least £285 million in investments in the last year. Pay for riders per drop is £2.50 from the customer and £1.25-1.75 from Deliveroo. Deliveroo make 30% of each drop, minus the £1.25-1.75, so for a £33 pound drop they will make £8.05. It’s quite a lucrative scheme.
What are the problems for riders?
The problems faced by riders are many-faceted, but one that kept coming up as we started organising with them in Bristol was that the low drop fees meant that making the minimum wage often meant cycling dangerously fast through rush hour traffic. When we couple this with lack of cover for bike repairs and injury, it puts riders who want to use Deliveroo to make a living very much in harm’s way, both physically and economically. Even then, making minimum wage throughout the day is often impossible outside of the usual meal times, when riders would find themselves sat waiting for work.
Another worry is that established riders were expected to run trial shifts for the company, where they were expected to decide whether a new applicant was suitable for the job by riding along with them. This despite the fact they were not accredited to do so, and heavy traffic often meant they couldn’t ride alongside their trialist for much of the shift. This is unsafe for everyone involved and did nothing to ensure the new rider was up to the job. If this wasn’t enough, Deliveroo would only pay wages for the first hour of a trail ride, despite often stacking the trialists up to such an extent that riders were taking 3 or 4 at a time. We interviewed a group of riders back in 2016 who all voiced similar concerns.
What has been won so far?
In Bristol the trial leaders got together and agreed not to run trial shifts for one day, in protest. This got the attention of management and made the riders realise they weren’t alone in feeling abused by the company. They began talking and organising together on the job. Many joined the IWW and our sister union the IWGB in London. Since then Bristol riders have won a representative for health and safety, proper accreditation in the trial scheme and a reduction on the number of riders that go out on any given trial. Riders are now also paid properly for the trialists they take on. Another win was Deliveroo admitting what we already knew: that it had no power to make its riders wear uniforms while they are classed as self-employed.
Strikes in London, Brighton, Barcelona, Turin and parts of the Netherlands had already resulted in winning recruitment freezes, an end to victimisation of union activists and, in the Netherlands, a full government investigation into the gig economy. There is still much work to be done but the main thing is that riders have received a huge confidence boost and see the value of getting organised at work.
So what do we do?
The first thing the riders in Bristol did was get together and draft a list of demands to take to management. Get together as colleagues and discuss the problems you face on any given day and what you want to see changed. One method that riders have found useful is the designing and placement of spoke cards in the bike shed, which is a fun and, most importantly, anonymous way to spread union awareness. You may consider getting an IWW or IWGB rep to come with you to meet management if you feel like you need the extra support. Sometimes this is all it takes, but when it isn’t then it’s time to think about escalating things.
As Deliveroo riders are designated as self-employed workers they can’t call an official strike, but an easy workaround is to organise a period where no one clicks into the “available” status on the Deliveroo app which auto-allocates orders. If there are no riders available to pick up, the food sits getting cold, causing the customers and restaurants to complain. To stop this situation escalating, Deliveroo will then close the “zone” (i.e. Bristol). This is what a successful strike would look like. Forcing the cessation of operations for a whole city is actually very easy with a company like Deliveroo if riders organise themselves.
Zone closures are very damaging for Deliveroo, both in terms of profits and public trust.if you order food via a company and it doesn’t turn up, or turns up cold, you’d think twice about using them again. Deliveroo obviously want to avoid this and will pull out all the stops to do so, first by offering bonuses for riders who sign on (known as a ‘fee boost’, typically £1 extra per drop). If this doesn’t work, they will be forced to meet the specific demands you laid out before the strike.
While you’re waiting for them to come around, it’s always a good idea to use this time to campaign publicly about why you’re striking. There will be people wondering why their food isn’t coming, so make as much noise online as possible about the poor conditions you face. This will only add to customer discontent and Deliveroo’s embarrassment. In Leeds, riders staged a large demonstration after several riders were terminated when Deliveroo discovered they were union activists. The demonstration took the form of a ‘critical mass’ bike ride through the city, passing by many restaurants that use Deliveroo and winning support from them and members of the public due to its visibility. Needless to say, the riders were reinstated with significantly improved hours.
Any tips for a successful strike?
Yes! First and foremost, bring any connections you have to visibly support the strike. This includes but is not limited to: other unions (Unison, Unite, UCU, NUT, PCS, FBU, Acorn), local sports teams, churches, music groups, local Labour and Green Party branches, restaurants, bike cafes and of course your friends and family. Get these groups to post messages of support online, donate to and advertise strike funds and push for a Deliveroo boycott during the strike.
You can always ask supportive restaurants to turn off their app for the duration. It’s also worth talking to any riders you see working during the strike, to check they’re aware that a strike is going on and find out whether they want to join. It’s important to watch out for the company hiring lots of new riders after the strikes. It can pay to preempt this by making a recruitment freeze a key demand.
Lastly, it can be helpful to have a place online where riders can send messages to each other. You never know how the situation might change on the day of an action, and it can be hard to cover everything in one or more in-person meeting. Some riders have used WhatsApp and Telegram, but there have been cases of management infiltrating the groups. At Bristol branch we use Loomio, which requires an invite from the group admin before anyone can join and has the added bonus of supporting votes on decisions.
Lastly, get in touch with your local IWW/IWGB branch. There are people there with a lot of experience in helping people organise themselves at work, and they bring with them a small army of activists who can boost your profile online and stand with you on the picket line.
However you choose to go about your workplace dispute, we wish you the best of luck.