James, 27, is a full-time courier, working at one of the leading food delivery companies. This interview was recorded a few days before the COVID-19 lockdown began, and has been lightly edited for structure and concision.
Before I started as a courier, I worked in coffee shops and restaurants. I’d just bought a new bike, and I wanted more flexible hours. So that’s why I started and I’ve been full-time since.
I start my day by cycling to the city centre. I’ll have coffee and log into the app about half past 11. I think it's good to have a routine. I'll go into town and stay to a specified time or until I’ve met a target. The orders don't come through as frequent as they used to, because the company over-hired. There are a lot more riders now.
When I decide to take a job I look at what the fee is, how far away the order is, and how difficult the journey will be. If you're delivering out of the city centre, you've got to go uphill, which for cyclists isn't always easy. Generally I'll do about 25, 30 orders a day.
Contact with the company is all done through the app, or through the website. It’s pretty faceless - you can call the company or you can email them through their own help webpage but you can't actually send them an email. The answers you get back are generic template answers. There is no manager. The system, the algorithm, is called Frank, named after a character in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
The only interaction you’ve got is at the restaurant picking up the order — generally you don't say much to them – and the customer who just says ‘thanks, cheers, bye’. So the riders built a social community so that we can feel connected. If anything ever happens, like a rider is attacked or bikes get stolen, it goes straight on the group and then presto, five minutes later you've got riders at that location helping. I guess we are a team even though we're not.
If we have a safety concern we can log that in the app. But I think there is more they could do. For example, at night we may get offered an order that’s going to a shady area of the city. If we don't want to do that we can put ‘dislike delivery area’. But the system doesn't remember that. It will just keep offering you similar orders going to the same location. There are places I don't want to go on my push bike at night. The system should always be learning. If I say ‘distance is too long’ for a rejection reason, then it will still offer me similar distances. They say that Frank always learns — but he's not learning.
With this company you have to commit to a tip before you order. Tips are few and far between. Our pay is getting squeezed and you have to work harder and do more orders per day to get what you used to a year ago. They started putting the fees down. Then they removed the minimum fee.
Riders are rated statistically. So if you don't attend a shift you get penalised. If you don't work Fridays or weekends at peak times you get marked down. If you cancel a shift for whatever reason with less than 24 hours’ notice, you get penalised.
I’ve heard some riders will use GPS manipulation apps, so they'll have a spoof GPS location, trick the system into thinking they’re in the centre so they get offered more of a fee. Some riders have multiple accounts, so they're getting more of the orders. There are some stories of people doing that but four-fold, they’ll have a car with four people, each of them with two or three phones. It's amazing, but you know, maybe they're doing this thing to survive.
Two years ago the company terminated over a hundred riders for what they called ‘order fraud’, where riders pick up the food and then don’t deliver it. Customers were ordering the food, riders were picking up the orders, delivering to the customer and the customer would say, ‘I never received my order’ so they could get another meal or a refund. The company didn’t really investigate. The riders just got terminated. No right to appeal. No right to an investigation. A lifetime ban with immediate effect. That was when I joined a union.
We did our first strike after they dropped the minimum fee. In one of our strikes we tried using the system. We would create small orders for something like a sachet of ketchup — use the accounts with free delivery to basically create hundreds of small orders to overload the system, causing it to crash. It’s quite effective.
Generally I think the system works well for the customers. I’d like for the company to work with riders, for there to be a forum of riders to report back on what changes the system could do to help benefit the riders. Information usually doesn’t get filtered down to us. We had to read it in the newspapers today that the company had said they would pay riders who have to self-isolate or get coronavirus. Will they? How much? No one has spoken to us.
If this is the future of work, it needs to be legislated by the government. We are very precarious in the work that we do. We don't work, we don't get paid.
We can't take holiday pay. There’s no minimum wage. We’re falsely classified as self-employed workers. Self-employed workers should be able to set their rates and fees. They should be able to discuss with their clients how much they want to charge. We don't get that. There’s another category called ‘limb b’ where you are recognised as a worker. You do get a minimum wage. You do get holiday pay. You get a pension. And that's where we should be.
Regarding technology, and the way we work now, I’d like to see us not move too far away from society as it used to be. There’s freedom working this way but it can be isolating when you hardly speak to anyone. How much further can it go?