This summer’s balmy temperatures give an idyllic image to the job of the humble gig economy courier. Cool wind streams through your hair as you cruise from drop to drop, and even the most agitated of taxi drivers seem to be a little more relaxed.
As I sit here in the IWGB’s North London office, I can hear those Deliveroo scooters cruising past outside the window, over the ever-present hum of revolution that fills the room. It’s a sound of grievance calls being attended to, tape being stuck to banners of various sizes and shirts adorned with assorted inflammatory slogans being packaged up. Because despite what things may seem as you’re handed your food through a half-open front door, the real picture is not so pretty – as I write this, tomorrow (13 July) is a strike of Deliveroo riders in London, and it’s full organising speed ahead to get ready.
At the beginning of July, Deliveroo introduced a new payments structure to all UK riders. Previously, Deliveroo operated a flat-fee system of between £3.75 and £4.25 – but now, with no say in the matter, all riders were moved to a distance-based system. While Deliveroo’s headline claim may be correct – that this system is fairer, in that you get paid more for longer deliveries and less for shorter ones – the fact that some fees are less than the previous national floor of £3.75 indicates that Deliveroo will use this first step back as an excuse to walk all over us.
A ‘stack bonus’, where riders perform rounds of multiple deliveries, does not help these stacked jobs amount to the previous £8+ payment, instead often falling short at little more than £6. Not only that, but the minimum payment is now a dynamically changing value – giving the company a frictionless way to reduce wages beyond this, with (as they hope) minimal fanfare.
It’s the IWGB’s organising that stands in the way of this. Deliveroo’s employment structures, which even Royal Mail’s CEO Moya Greene describes as “definitional sleight of hand”, are targeted in the courts and streets, alongside not just other so-called ‘gig economy’ companies, but traditional delivery courier companies too. Highly distributed workforces with an abnormally high rate of turnover are notoriously difficult to organise, but the IWGB and similar young organisations such as the UVW and IWW are experiencing incredible success. We’re embracing the technology that employers such as Deliveroo use to exploit and repurposing it for organisation. Deliveroo use their avenues of communication to divide riders and create false competition – ours unite workers to demand more of their employers.
It’s early evening now and Mags Dewhurst, union Vice-President, medical courier and main claimant against the courier firm CitySprint walks in and begins reading over my shoulder. “Exactly! It’s not your friend’s fault that they earnt more money! You’re being shafted, he’s also being shafted – collectively, you’re being massively screwed over. Focus your energy on the company. You know what I mean? The common denominator here is that the company isn’t paying either of you nearly enough for the work that you’ve done.”
A key tenet of the IWGB’s activities is inspiring hope in workplaces that have none. At companies like Deliveroo, workers are isolated and hyper-exploited, meeting only at traffic lights. Often gathering workers together to talk about their work and the issues they face is the only match that needs to be dropped before people realise they’re not alone, and there is a path forward.
Alongside our noisy and visible campaigns, our Central Arbitration Committee case, which is about to go to judicial review, is our way of gaining legally enforceable improvements to the contracts of the food delivery precariat. ‘Limb B Worker Status’, a subcategory of self-employed, will bring basic employment rights such as sick pay, the National Minimum Wage, and union recognition for Deliveroo’s 15,000 UK riders which are currently cruelly deprived of this.
Our case is the biggest in employment law in a generation, fighting the bogus terms and conditions that these companies impose on their workers that are about to spill over into employment as a whole. Unfortunately, we are a mere minnow to the deep legal pockets of Deliveroo – crowdfunding has earned us a staggering £31k, but this still may not be enough. We must stand together and defend the rights that those before us have fought for, and fight for a future of fair work.
The sun is setting over the Angel and across the city, hundreds of couriers on bicycle and scooter are heading out for an evening’s potentially sub-minimum-wage work, myself included. I catch Mags on the stairs as my phone bleeps, warning me that I must hurry up and get moving on my bike before I am penalised. Any final thoughts, I ask.
“There’s an Assata Shakur quote which says, ‘It is our duty to fight. It is our duty to win.’ If you don’t ask for it you’re not gonna get it, basically. If you’re not asking for the London Living Wage, you’re gonna get bugger all. We have to make demands on these people.”