On October 4th, Deliveroo & UberEats riders took concerted strike action across the UK. As part of New Syndicalist’s Too Many Men series, we sat down to talk with an organiser from the IWW’s Courier Network about her experience as a precarious women worker in the courier industry and issues of gender in the union movement. You can listen to previous New Syndicalist podcasts on Deliveroo and UberEats organising here and here, as well as reading about the organising methods used in these strikes here.
How would you describe your work?
I work full-time as a bike courier, currently for the food delivery platforms Deliveroo and UberEats. I also work part-time at a coffee shop during the week.
How these platforms work is simple, I log on to the app, receive an order, go to that restaurant and deliver it to the customer. In practice however, it’s rarely as smooth as this. The app frequently crashes or has bugs, there can be a lot of waiting (for an order to be offered, in the restaurant, even for the customer to wander down and pick it up…).
As it is app-based I don’t have a manager physically present but it’s misleading to say we are truly in control of how, when and where we work as these companies promote. If I want to work doing Deliveroo I have to book an available shift through the app. Shifts are released each Monday in three stages; those with the best statistics are given priority booking. With UberEats you can log on any time 8am-2am although it can be difficult to get offered orders if lots of other riders are logged on at the same time.
I’m classed as ‘self employed’ which means I’m not entitled to the same rights at work as employees, including the National Minimum Wage. There’s no sick pay or insurance so if I’m ill or injured at work (or my bike is damaged) I have to pay from my own pocket and rely on savings or help from friends and family until I’m well enough to work again. There has been times when I’ve returned to work sooner than I’d like to because I know I need the pay.
We are paid per ‘drop’, eg each completed delivery. When I started Deliveroo in 2016 the hourly pay was still active; £6 per hour flat rate with £1 extra for each drop. Now we receive a complicated formula, loosely based on a rate-per-km with pick up and drop off costs. Orders vary in pay from £3.90 for a short distance and £6+ for very long orders (over 3 miles!). Uber has a similar model although there are also boosts which change depending on the area and time of day. It’s impossible to know how much you will earn each shift, usually I work towards a weekly target. As I’m not paid for time, but number of orders, I feel under pressure to complete as many as possible. Bike courier work is already risky and highly physical but this lack of security only compounds it.
As ‘self employed’ I account for my own taxes and National Insurance contributions. I don’t have the right to not be unfairly dismissed, to take maternity/parental leave, to not be discriminated against or protection under Health and Safety law. This situation sucks, so why don’t riders collectively do something? We don’t have protection against discrimination for being a member of a Trade Union or the right to collective bargaining….more on this below.
What do you like about your job?
I love cycling, being out and about in the city, and seeing the seasons change. Each day varies. I’m lucky to work with some of my good friends – the courier community is really tight and we look out for one another. While the job is micro-managed to a degree by our phone and the app, there’s a far greater sense of freedom and flexibility than other jobs, where a manager is nagging you or telling you to upsell more. Edinburgh is a beautiful place (although it is hilly and there’s lots of cobbles…) and I’d rather not be confined to an office with regular 9-5 hours.
What do you dislike about your job?
It’s not all riding around in the sunshine delivering burritos to hungover students – the weather can be awful (horizontal rain anyone?), road conditions suck, many drivers don’t look or they shout abuse (taxis are the worst). Pedestrians aren’t much better, wandering into the road while looking at their phone or telling you to get a car.
As mentioned already, the lack of rights as ‘self-employed’ is a concern and has many real implications which I’ve experience myself. In April 2018 after 2 years of working at Deliveroo I was fired without warning or explanation and have never been given an opportunity to defend myself. They refused to acknowledge my emails, which I sent on advice given when I met with staff in the Scotland head office.
A widespread issue of unfair dismissals include many riders on the old PPH (pay per hour) scheme, who were told their ‘acceptance rate’ (the number of orders you accept and deliver) was too low and therefore fired. This is despite there being no way of measuring your acceptance rate or being given a minimum target to adhere to. The feeling amongst riders is this is part of a wider, aggressive strategy Deliveroo have to make all their ‘self employed’ staff on the PPD (pay per drop) scheme. PPD benefits Deliveroo in several ways; firstly it costs less to have people only being paid for a completed order and not by time – Deliveroo can afford to have many riders on ‘stand by’ as it’s free labour until they actively have an order. Deliveroo also saves vast amounts of money by not paying any of the costs that come with employing (holiday/sick pay, etc as above). It also reinforces Deliveroo’s claim riders are ‘self employed’ and not waged workers (funny how this change happened just before the first parliamentary enquiry into the gig economy last year…). This lack of transparency and accountability is a real issue for riders and raises wider concerns about how much a business can ‘get away with’.
Riders shoulder all of the risk and cost of the job while Deliveroo continue to gain vast amounts of money and grow as a company. The claim that Deliveroo is a ‘start-up’ so cannot afford to pay better or are restricted by employment law in providing better rights for riders is laughable – if it wasn’t so grim.
Some examples of sexism or misogyny I encounter while working include catcalling, getting shouted at (pedestrians, drivers), patronising comments or creepy looks. I’ve been off the road fixing something on my bike and had men stop to offer a hand to then admit they know nothing about bikes and don’t have any tools with them. I’ve had restaurant staff try and have conversations which are more like an interview of personal questions – things like ‘Are you single? Do you live alone? Where do you live? Does your boyfriend mind you working like this?’ which they then get offended if I don’t answer. I have also received texts from restaurant staff who have gone onto the Deliveroo tablet to find my contact information. I was told to just ignore it when I raised it with Deliveroo – pretty awkward going back to that restaurant afterwards. And no, any of this doesn’t translate into more tips, in case my colleagues were wondering.
Is there anything you do on the job that makes it easier/safer/easier/more enjoyable?
Working with a tight team of friends and colleagues is important as the job can be very isolating and stressful as you are cycling around the city for long hours, often by yourself. Having a like-minded group of people to share experiences with, complain or laugh about the day can really help. Sometimes this is a few pints or a coffee – we also have a large WhatsApp group chat for any riders which is a really valuable way of communicating, sharing ideas or helping each other out.
One of my fellow riders runs a shop in the centre of town called Social Bike. It’s a social enterprise where you can get cheap second-hand parts, pay for repairs or fix your own bike. Having a space that you can just drop by for a coffee and a chat in between orders is a great facility to have.
Why do you think cycle courier industry is such a male dominated industry? What do you think the major companies in this industry could do to change this?
I agree that bike courier work is overwhelmingly male; my experience having worked in the UK and France definitely supports this. There are multiple reasons why less women are working in this industry and the answer is complex – there isn’t a catch all solution that I think will challenge the current situation.
The bike courier industry being dominated by men reflects the broader trend which sees more men than women taking up cycling. This is due to a variety of reasons, largely concerning practical concerns about safety and fears of harassment or unwanted attention.
Societal attitudes towards women, especially concerning partaking in sport, may also be a factor. Very generally, boys are encouraged to participate in more physical/outdoor tasks by people and other influences around them (media, books, peers, parents, school, advertising). They also have more male role-models to look up to. While encouragement (or lack of) doesn’t mean a child will want to take up cycling, it shouldn’t be overlooked as a factor in a bigger picture, where women and men have different roles. Traditional societal expectations regarding gender are a powerful aspect of socialisation and should not be underestimated. They affect both men and women (and everyone in between).
Another element which reduces access to cycling is that men and women frequently have different time constraints, for example, there is very often an unequal distribution of domestic/family tasks and chores between men and women, with women still taking on the majority of childcare, and day to day shopping, cooking, cleaning etc. Men tend to work more but with clearer defined work/leisure time. Figures suggest women often work less less but this doesn’t recognise domestic tasks as being labour, causing an inaccurate picture of the divide between the amount men and women work. The biggest difference is that women tend to work many hours in the day, but this generally disjointed and ad hoc.
In this respect, courier work, especially those platforms which allow ‘free login’, could be a positive job role as it can be very flexible in terms of when and for how long you work. However this leads us to other reasons that discourage women from making a neutral choice about whether they want to apply for this job, as men do.
One such barrier that may put off women from working as a courier is it can be an aggressive, competitive industry where toxic masculinity is present. This doesn’t only exclude women, but anyone who doesn’t identify with this rigid idea of what being ‘male’ means is unlikely to feel welcome and that they can participate without extra issues, in addition to those of precarity and risk already touched upon above. From my own experience, this is one of the most off-putting features of the work. I hope that it’s one which can be challenged – I see increased unionising amongst riders as an important way towards this.
So what could companies like Deliveroo and Ubereats do to counter this situation? Improving and expanding cycling infrastructure lies with local councils and the government, however, these companies could use their influence and reach with riders to lobby for this. Real training could be introduced for riders to build confidence on the roads (currently training is only videos online). A whole change in the work culture that sees riders pressurised to work quickly and take more risks is a big ask but may underline a lot of these issues – it’s of course not only women who would benefit from this.
What does solidarity in your work mean to you?
The solidarity I feel from my fellow workers and union colleagues is invaluable. Courier work can be lonely and some days when the weather is rubbish, your bike accumulates problems, the customer gives you the wrong address, some ass-hat driver tries to under-take you… it can be demoralising. Solidarity isn’t only amongst riders and the union, forming bonds with staff you see regularly in restaurants or being mindful of the numbers of staff who are all in challenging hospitality and service industry jobs is important too.
Recently I attended a European Riders Summit in Brussels where over 30 different associations, organisations and unions by and for couriers all met for the first event of its scale. A motion was voted in to create a Transnational Federation of Couriers – a truly impressive show of solidarity! I’m excited to see how the Federation will navigate the rapidly changing ‘gig economy’ and keep in touch with fellow workers from countries across Europe – and beyond.
What does a union mean to you?
Being part of a union means I’m not in this alone. I also value the expertise and experience that comes from such a varied group of people with different backgrounds and interests. Being listened and taken seriously is not something I’d underestimate and its powerful within a job role where an app is your boss and you can be fired by email. Given the fast-changing work environment which has seen the ‘gig economy’ phenomenon quickly spread I also feel it’s important to address the issue now – who knows what the workplace will look like in five years. We have to act sooner rather than later; there is a duty to hold these companies like Deliveroo and Uber to account. Collective action is the only way our voices can be heard.
What union campaigns have you been active in whilst working in your job? If you’ve been in multiple campaigns, how have they differed, and are there lessons to be learned for other organisers?
I’m currently a member of IWW and the IWW Courier Network. My first experience was with Unite after hearing about their campaign, Better Than Zero, based in Glasgow, which helped young workers in the hospitality industry (particularly those on zero-hours contracts) to receive more favourable conditions. In Edinburgh myself and a couple of colleagues at Deliveroo tried to kick start action in Edinburgh, with moderate success. There was a rider survey to document what were the most crucial issues to tackle, a public petition which gained over 1000 signatures and some media exposure – while largely symbolic, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon both signed. A grievance letter was sent on behalf of Edinburgh riders to the Deliveroo UK MD, Dan Warne. This was met with a reply which not only didn’t engage with any of the points raised in the letter but it was completely dismissed as having no standing since Deliveroo don’t recognise any union to speak on behalf of riders. Incredibly frustrating result which gradually saw riders disengage with the campaign and our work with Unite fell away.
It is hard work being an organiser or mobilising within any workplace but this challenge increases when you are tackling a whole new form of work, the so-called ‘gig economy’, where lots of grey areas exist and UK employment law is weak. The nature of the job itself makes it tricky to get riders involved, there isn’t a communal office space (or ‘water cooler’) and while we have the bike shop as a meeting point, it’s only open during the day). People come and go, hours and days worked vary – turnover is high.
With these issues in mind I remain hopeful that working with the IWW and restarting the Courier Network Edinburgh can be another go at improving the working conditions of this job.
Are the majority of active organisers in your union male or female? Why do you think this is?
This is an interesting question; currently there are not many others organising in Edinburgh, it is mainly myself with the support of my IWW fellow workers which includes men and women. The majority of organisers I have met and worked with however are men. I attribute this to several reasons, including the reality that the courier industry has traditionally been male-dominated. I suspect there is a similar trend across the union movement, although to a lesser degree. When we did the first round of organising at Deliveroo there were two women and one man.
What sort of things are creating barriers or putting more women off from becoming an organiser? Partly this could be to do with not wanting to ‘stick your neck out’ or be the focus of a particular attention, both positive and negative. In my experience women are subject to increased scrutiny, comment and attention than their male colleagues may face. People comment on my appearance (make up or lack of!), what I wear, how I cycle, whether I’m fast or not, number of orders, amount of money made that day. Bringing in questions about the union, workplace problems or general grievances is something I’m happy to do but I also have days when I lack confidence or just want to keep to myself.
What do you think unions could do to promote greater female leadership?
Each group/area/industry is naturally going to vary in terms of what things could make union work more accessible and attractive for women to participate in, although there are some general ideas that may help.
Having a strong and reliable support network from colleagues and members of the union is something I’ve found helpful. Acknowledging and understanding that my perspective and experience is gendered is beneficial too.
Another reason to account for the disparity between men and women taking part in union activity is a difference in work/life balance, especially when it comes to sharing domestic and childcare duties. Making adjustments to where and when meetings are held, such as accommodating children is one way that could make them more accessible for parents. Other ideas include having and following an effective ‘safer spaces’ code of conduct which all members must adhere to be able to participate. This doesn’t have to be an exhaustive list or take up a lot of time to implement. I admire the work of our Equality Officer in the IWW Scotland branch who has produced straightforward guidelines. It’s important to not just ‘tack on’ these ideas, they should be part and parcel of how union work is conducted. This creates a more pleasant and productive place for everyone, not only women.