Cycling through the streets of central London, with somebody else’s burger and milkshake strapped to me in an implausibly large backpack, rain slapping against my face, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t moments when I wondered what I was doing with my life.
I left teaching thinking it would be nice to try something different, but this wasn’t entirely the vision. I was working for Deliveroo, the app based food delivery company who promise “the food you love, delivered to your door.”
Except I was really working undercover for ITV News, kitted out with a hidden camera and microphone concealed in a button on an otherwise perfectly normal (and convincingly unfashionable) shirt. My mission was to find out what it’s really like to work for one of the companies at the centre of the so-called gig economy. Characteristic of these firms, Uber and CitySprint being two other notable examples, is that workers are self-employed. In theory that offers workers more flexibility, but it also means there's no obligation on the company to provide paid holiday, sick leave or even the minimum wage.
As I turned up for my interview at a nondescript building in Ealing, I felt pretty sure they would take one look at me and immediately realise I was an undercover journalist. But when the guy who took me out on a test ride implied that The Highway Code was only important for the trial shift, I realised I must be getting away with it. Not that I really heard what he said at the time: I was too busy wondering whether I had definitely turned the camera on, and whether the mic would pick anything up over the sound of my heart.
After passing the bike test despite taking a wrong turning, and passing a multiple choice test on the company’s practices, I was posing the questions we had prepared to a representative from the company. Her answers revealed the big problem with the Deliveroo model as I see it: the supposed advantage of being self-employed is the flexibility, but they don’t offer loads of flexibility. She told me where I could (and couldn’t) work in London, and when (only between 11.30 and 2.30 for the lunch shift, and 6.30 and 9.30 for the dinner shift). I had to do dinner shifts on two of Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. And I had to wear their uniform for the duration of the shift. If the one big advantage (flexibility) is actually not relevant, then you’re left only with the downsides.
My pay was to be £7 per hour plus a £1 bonus per delivery, and I was told I could expect to earn £9 or £10 per hour, not quite the £16 per hour advertised on the Deliveroo website. Before I knew it, she had booked me in for four weeks of shifts and I was being handed my uniform. £150 would, I was told, be deducted from my earnings to cover my uniform and the box-that’s-the-size-of-the-world that would be strapped to my back, although they said they would pay this back when I returned them. I had to provide the bike and the mobile phone data. My first thought was that at least I had got the job; the thought of phoning the newsroom to tell them I had been rejected was too horrific to contemplate.
I started work that very evening, and did five three hour shifts with the hidden camera on the whole time. It’s not easy work: traffic and pedestrians in central London are crazy, the weather makes it miserable, and lots of people seem to be too cool to have their house numbers on their doors these days. It was lonely too: you miss having someone to tell you you’re getting the hang of the job. Combine those things with the extreme monotony of picking up order after order and taking them to ungrateful punters and it’s not a lot of fun.
I did get chatting to a few other riders, but the whole time felt a nagging sense of guilt that I was appearing to make friends with them while actually secretly filming them. I told myself that I could justify it because it was their cause we were taking up.
I had been briefed by the ITN lawyers not to incite anyone into saying anything they wouldn’t otherwise have said, but in the event people were really happy to chat about the job. It’s fair to say that quite a few liked it. It suited their lifestyles for whatever reason: it was a job on the side, or they were students, or they loved cycling. But others talked about how tough the work was, and how they didn’t feel the pay was fair for the difficulty of the work. “The tips in London are appalling too,” one guy said, and as I counted mine (it didn’t take long - £2 over the week) I could only agree.
Towards a Conclusion
As I dragged my carcass around London’s highways and byways, I had time to reflect on the gig economy and what place, if any, it has in our society. It works well for some workers, of that there is no doubt. It allows companies to keep prices down, and let’s face it we all like that.
But at what price are we getting cheap takeaways and cab rides? If it’s at the expense of workers’ rights, then that’s uncomfortable. There are, of course, plenty of low paid jobs which involve manual labour infinitely tougher than being a Deliveroo rider, but they generally come with the security and dignity of a guaranteed wage, paid holiday and the right to sick pay.
There is an argument that if people are happy to do the job, knowing the pay and conditions, they should have the right to. But is this a direction of travel we’re happy to see society taking? Shouldn’t there, in a civilised country, be statutory protections which set a basic minimum standard? That might mean that we as customers have to pay a little more, and it might mean that students, and those who appreciate the flexibility as it currently stands, may find the job a little less appealing. But that seems to me a price worth paying to protect those who are relying on Deliveroo, or Uber or CitySprint or whoever, to look after their families.
A cabbie beckoned me over while I was cycling in my uniform and said, “this is the modern day equivalent of sending children up chimneys.” That might be overstating the case a little, but strip away the app and the box and the bikes, and there is something Dickensian about Deliveroo.