Sam Sheppard works as a food courier for Deliveroo and Uber Eats in Glasgow and this is his story.
It was one of those glorious sunny evenings, I was on my way down Maryhill Road up near the station, having just dropped off a steaming paper bag of fish suppers, when the clapping started. At first just isolated sounds off in the distance somewhere, then building into a surround sound experience – folk leaning out of their windows banging pots and pans, shouts drifting on the wind from the Wyndford high flats, car horns blaring in all directions. The city caught in a moment of collective euphoria, a brief holiday from staring into screens to instead look outwards, make eye contact with neighbours and strangers alike. I added to the din with the shrill dinging of my bell, amplified as I cycled under the canal. Clap for the NHS. Clap for Carers. Occasionally, clap for Key Workers which, according to some, included me.
I felt entirely undeserving of the title, or even ashamed to be able to continue my life almost as normal. While others were out there saving lives, out of a job and running down their savings, or dodging the cops to take a second jog of the day, I was enjoying the evening sun, swooping through empty streets, to delivery gifts to the hungry public. wearing my branded uniform, my key worker suit, as protection against judgement.
Food couriers, especially those of us on bikes, have become a symbol, bodies onto which societies fears and fantasies of the future are projected: poster boys (and we are mostly boys, or at least young men) of the gig economy; the glorious pinnacle of the age of convenience; the final merging of the proletariat and the entrepreneurial class; or the helpless victims of the new economy, depending on who you ask and how hungry they are.
(A brief side note on the demographic composition of the workforce – while we’re mostly young men, and often ‘outsiders’ in the cities in which we work, many of us can often be split into two very different groups – on the one hand university students/graduates/dropouts, mostly white and often middle class and of British or EU origin (the group which, despite entering my mid-thirties, I clearly belong to). On the other hand, migrants from the global south. I do wonder how much of the, often condescending, sympathy on display on the pages of the Guardian etc. is due to parental fear that their educated middle class children should be reduced would work a dangerous job alongside the migrant youth of the global south.)
As we kept working while much of the population, and with it the traffic, came to a halt during the first lockdown, our public visibility was further exaggerated. For some the ability to have prepared food delivered straight to the front door was a genuine godsend. We’d be out there risking infection so those who needed to shield, or protect family members, didn’t have to. But even in this regard we were the high-vis adorned tip of the iceberg, the public-facing element of a whole chain of production, from fields to factories to kitchens, which brought you your bubble tea, falafel wrap, or Waitrose groceries. While we were out in the fresh air, easily able to keep our distance, often enjoying cycling through unusually quiet streets, the chefs were cramped inside poorly ventilated kitchens performing repetitive, regimented, work.
Not only do we receive the face-to-face gratitude of the customer (a welcome social interaction in the isolating lockdown days), and possibly a tip, but now we were acknowledged as ‘key workers’, the saviours of pre-prepared food, where the rest of the supply chain was largely forgotten about in their factories, and warehouses, and kitchens and counters.
“You must be busy these days” my neighbour would say as we passed in the lobby. This was a common assumption, and perhaps held true in certain cases, but what I experienced in Glasgow was more complicated. From the perspective of a courier, Deliveroo functions like a market. Not a free-market mind you (as if such as thing has ever existed), but a market who’s parameters are constantly tweaked from above by the platform owner. We are paid for each completed delivery. The rate fluctuates, with ‘boosts’ offered during busy hours, and a base rate which wanders up and down (mostly down), all adjusted for the distance of the delivery. If we were paid by hour, it would be in the platforms interest to ensure they employed as few of us they could get away with, and that we completed as many deliveries as possible per hour. The way it stands, they really couldn’t care less how many deliveries we complete an hour (so long as individual deliveries don’t take too long), and want as many of us logged on as possible. That ‘surplus army’ of workers, hanging around on street corners or idling their cars means there’s always somebody ready to collect that next order. And, most importantly, the platforms don’t have to pay them for this time.
How ‘busy’ we are, and how much we are able to earn, is therefore not just based on how many orders are being placed, but the orders placed divided by the number of workers available for work. In busy times, when demand (for deliveries) exceeds supply (of workers), we get, more or less, back-to-back orders. This is where the boosts come in – Deliveroo needs to incentivise more workers to log on in such times, so they increase our pay.
On a rainy weekend evening, for example, with a “1.4 boost” in place (1.4 x regular pay), it’s not uncommon to make in excess of £20 an hour. On a sunny Tuesday afternoon however, you might struggle to get one order an hour, at the base pay rate which (depending on distance) could be as low as £2.80.
Back to the spring of 2020, there may have been an increase in orders, but it was quickly followed by a greater increase in those available for work. This included those who were on furlough, or fired, from other jobs, but also those who were working from home and just wanted an excuse to get out of the house (away from the family) for a few hours in the evening. Some of these already had unused accounts on the platform taking up memory on their phones, others were new hires, the platforms having seen opportunity in the disruption of the job market and gone on big hiring benders. Suddenly, our regular evening boosts vanished, and unfamiliar faces appeared, wearing the latest generation of courier boxes.
While any potential bottleneck created by a lack of couriers was avoided by saturating the market with new hires and out-of-retirement couriers, the disruption of business-as-usual created new bottlenecks. With the closure of many restaurants (including the early-on closure of McDonalds! A staple for all UberEats workers), other restaurants saw an increase in delivery throughput. To compound this, many were already running skeleton staff. Ideally, the app should ‘know’ when food will be ready for collection, and not send a courier until that point. Reality is, as always, more complicated. App-based deliveries are, rather than cleanly integrated into the labour process of restaurants, most often tacked on top as another job for the front-of-house to coordinate, with little special accommodation made except a space behind the counter to hold the tablet through which orders arrive.
The upshot is, when restaurants are busy, we end up having to wait for food to be prepared. Like waiting to be allocated an order, this is dead-time when it comes to our earnings. In many ways it is psychologically worse, since it feels so pointless – in the 20 minutes you might spend waiting, unpaid, outside of Mozzas (one of several particularly bad establishments) for a pizza to be prepared you could have completed another order, and be five pounds richer/less skint.
You can’t fault the staff for seeing us as just another stress to add to an already stressful job. Showing up sweaty, clogging doorways with our oversized backpacks, shouting muffled order numbers through face masks, we neither require the courtesy of customers, nor the esprit de corps of the colleagues. I always have a massive amount of respect for the majority of front-of-house staff who, regardless of the unnecessarily antagonistic relationship our respective employers put us in, treat us with patience and compassion.
There are plenty of potential remedies to this. We are allowed to ‘reject’ orders which are taking too long, so if the restaurant can let us know the food will be a while, we can normally leave it to another courier and try to catch another order. Otherwise, the platforms themselves could tweak the incentives – pay couriers a bit for their time, and charge the restaurant an equivalent fee for the delays. The former would rely on good communication between the kitchen and the front of house, which doesn’t always happen, whether due to the obstinance, or relative collective power, of the kitchen staff, or simply poor management. The latter solution would seem in keeping with the incentive-based modus operandi of the platforms, but I can only imagine the relative weight given to the respective interests of ‘delivery partners’ and ‘restaurant partners’ prevents it. The platform economy, “multi-sided markets” in business school speak, are all about such juggling of incentives between different parties.
Regardless of root causes, or hypothetical solutions, an interesting side effect of this misalignment of incentives is that it brings couriers together, united by proximity and shared frustration. Especially during the first lockdown, where, even for those of us working in public spaces, social interactions were reduced, this was a time for chatting, sharing cigarettes and anecdotes, asking about families, aspirations, earnings, gripes, and a space opens up for building those tentative bonds of solidarity, of collective identity.
But here comes the irony. What is the solution in such situation? From experience and common sense, an effective strike is difficult, to say the least, with such a fluid and transient workforce (and would just give scabs an opportunity to increase their earnings!), and most of us have the decency not to take our frustration out on the poor bugger behind the counter. So what else can we do? One aspect of control afforded to couriers is to choose which orders to accept (this has been cited in court as justification for our classification as self-employed). In our little huddle outside of the restaurant we pledge to each other that we will never accept orders from this restaurant again. An informal collective boycott! Assuming there are enough orders elsewhere, we can get by without Mozzas, or Absurd Bird. And, in doing so, we deny ourselves those rare spaces in which we conspire. A busy worker doesn’t have time to plot, and when you’re paid by the job you want to be busy!
The mechanism of control, “The Algorithm”, is the marketplace itself, the aggregate of the self-activity of atomised workers, mediated by a (probably very simple) bit of decision making code. So long they are individualised, attempts at resistance simply feed it, optimise it, and attempts to collectivise those struggles tend to undermine themselves. Deliveroo can’t explicitly encourage us to jump red lights, or take that shortcut across the pavement, but if we chose to take the initiative, and the risk, then all the better for them.
I’ve been working as a food courier for a few years now. I started as a stop-gap measure between bailing on a PhD and re-establishing myself as a web developer, but never stopped. I like ‘freedom’ of the job, choosing when to work, which jobs to take, never having to deal with a boss. Even while I fully acknowledge this ‘freedom’ is there to serve my masters and not me, and the construction of an entrepreneurial consciousness is an assault on the collective consciousness that arises through waged work, I weigh up my options, and this is where I chose to be. Even on the most miserable evenings I’ve never envied the chefs, shut away in their steamy kitchens, or the front of house staff having to hold that customer service smile for hours on end for streams of customers (or couriers!). I’m sure there are desk jobs I’m sure I could qualify for, and see an increase in my earnings, but I feel claustrophobic just thinking about it. And a return to software, perhaps even the other side of the platform economy? The idea of spending 40+ hours a week bashing away at a keyboard with feigned enthusiasm for a project, and a boss, that I despise is nauseating.
I told myself from the beginning that if (or when) my average earnings dropped below around £12 an hour I’d find a ‘proper job’. This finally happened a little while into the lockdown when we were dealt another blow – students, a good chunk of our customer base, started to leave the city – If your going to be stuck your bedroom, staring at a screen, then you may as well do it your parents home, and replace those solitary, cold, soggy, KFCs, with family dinners. Combined with the lack of summer tourists and saturation of workers, our workload dropped further, and, thanks to market forces having no sense of justice, the base pay rate had another slice shaved off it.
Thankfully, just as it looked like the dream was over, and I’d have to get a ‘proper job’, Rishi Sunak came to save the day, or at least further delay the inevitable. Being fortunate to have a few years tax returns behind me, I applied for the self-employed grant from the government, equivalent to 80% of the previous years earnings in three month chunks. For many of my colleagues, for various reasons, this wasn’t an option, and I was happy to take a while off and leave the jobs to them. Live off the state for a while. For the first time in years I got out my running shoes, and even went on the odd bike ride just for fun! While the endorphin rush, and the fresh air, was welcome, I couldn’t help but think “I could be getting paid for this.”