Platform work companies are not only dodging their legal responsibilities as employers by not recognising their workers as employees. Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Glovo are thriving in the gig economy also by effectively outsourcing risks onto couriers and encouraging them to break the law.
Falling asleep at the car’s wheel after 12 hours of work every day, six, sometimes seven days a week. Running red lights to get an average of three deliveries per hour or parking one’s vehicle on the pavement to save time. Handcuffing and holding motorbike thieves accountable before the police does so. These are recurrent work incidents amongst platform food couriers that we rarely hear about. In a year and a half since I began researching their working conditions I discovered not just their prevalence, but also the extent to which the very design of the platforms makes them possible.
Two weeks into the war in Ukraine, Glovo, one of the biggest platform delivery companies operating in the country, issued a press release announcing it was resuming operations in twenty cities ‘to provide humanitarian support and offer essential logistics to those in need’. The company based its decision on the ‘increased demand for vital services’ to residents and NGOs who are unable to access food, medicine and other urgent basic goods. As for the workers, Glovo promises to stop operations immediately and require all couriers ‘to follow necessary safety protocols in case of attacks’. The company claims not to seek any financial gains from running its services and says it is adapting the active couriers’ compensation to ensure they can support themselves and their families. I would have imagined that these compensations already cover enough for a living and that they aren’t simply ‘adapted’ during exceptional times.
This is not the first time platform delivery companies across Europe have used different crises to their advantage. They regularly endanger the wellbeing of couriers who are not salaried employees, but subcontracted freelancers, and towards whom they do not have any employer responsibilities. In early 2020, for example, when storms Ciara and Dennis battered the British Islands, Deliveroo incentivised the workers with extra money paid per delivery to go out in the inclement weather and risk their lives. In Manchester, where at the time I was researching working conditions amongst platform workers, local couriers were taking up this challenge set by Deliveroo. At the same time, they warned each other to stay safe on the WhatsApp group I had also joined: ‘Guys, be really careful when the powerful gusts come through’. This reckless attitude was still visible this year during storm Eunice, when Gorillas, a similar on-demand grocery delivery company, kept its services up and running in the Netherlands, despite the government asking everyone to stay indoors.
Academics, legislators, journalists and commentators alike have time and again highlighted the exploitative working conditions of these giggers, urging for more transparency regarding how algorithmic decisions are made or for more accountability for platforms who should reclassify their workforce as employers, rather than self-employed. But what about the nitty-gritty details of their work? While various forms of collective resistance amongst platform workers, such as strikes and protests, have been widely reported in the media, not much is known about individual, less visible and illegal acts of resistance amongst food couriers. As a platform worker for Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Glovo in Manchester and Cluj (Romania), I witnessed the desperate ingenuity and infractions that these workers deploy in order to make a living. These can be innocent daily traffic violations, but also more serious actions such as working more hours than the maximum weekly allowed. This doesn’t only result in physical and mental fatigue but can lead to vehicle crashes. Beyond individual responsibility for such acts, we must see these instances as part of a corporate crime culture embedded in the gig economy. Faced with the constant platform inertia to address couriers’ daily problems at work, some couriers even end up organising emergency WhatsApp groups they use when attacked.
Crisis, more generally, proves a good opportunity for platforms to delegate health and safety responsibilities to the couriers and engender them. This transfer often results in endangering their wellbeing. For instance, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, reliance of the public on platform food deliveries increased exponentially, while couriers were hailed as essential workers and praised for their commitment to ‘feed the nation’ during lockdowns. In late 2020 and early 2021 I worked as a courier and the only people I could see late in the evening roaming the empty streets of Manchester were my colleagues carrying around colourful cubic boxes, and homeless people. For many couriers who were previously employed by businesses that closed temporarily or permanently, a hard choice had to be made: either risk their health and provide for their families or stay safe at home and starve their loved ones.
Deliveroo saw its market value skyrocketing to £8,8bn during this time, yet did little to effectively protect the couriers at work. It took me two and a half months since I started the job to finally receive the personal protective equipment: 10 gel bottles and 4 reusable masks. Around me, many riders were paralysed with fear they would contract the virus and couldn’t afford to stop working since no sick pay was available for them. Regular testing was also out of the question and high risk couriers with pre-existing health conditions could not self-isolate and receive full pay.
It is not only during spectacular crises such as storms, pandemic or the unfolding war in Ukraine that Deliveroo and other platforms have taken advantage of the self-employed status of couriers and pushed them to risk their lives and pursue illegal activities. By opting to pay couriers per drop and not an hourly wage, Deliveroo has forced many to work 10-12 hours every day (often for as little as £2 per hour), six to seven days each week, for for enough to make ends meet. Similar working conditions are experienced by Glovo couriers I spoke to during my research in Romania. After working long hours far beyond what is legally allowed, the risk of falling asleep at the steering wheel is more likely than ever. One woman in her early 20s admitted that last summer, during a music festival in Cluj, she had an accident. ‘I worked 10-12 hours every day for more than a week and I fell asleep while driving. I hit a safety barrier. Luckily, I was okay and didn’t get hurt. Ever since, I take breaks and I’ve learned to stop working so hard. It’s not worth it, it’s slavery’, she tells me. At that point, Glovo was raising the bonuses to attract more riders to the platform.
App-notifications can easily become a source of distraction. Couriers in both cities described to me near missed episodes, which occur because many engage in what they call multi-apping: using two apps at the same time in hopes of maximising earnings. It happened to one motorcycle courier in Manchester who almost got run over by a car: ‘I was riding while checking an Uber delivery on the phone. I saw on the map it’s a straight road for one mile and I thought I have time. But I didn’t realise there could be junctions in the middle. I was doing this Uber thing with one hand and looking at my phone. Suddenly I heard a horn very loud. I stopped at the side of the road, took few minutes to gather myself, had some water and turned off my Uber device’.
The very design of gig platforms means not only that the couriers have to work long hours for a decent living but that they must do it at a very fast pace. Time is literally money and every minute spent in traffic or waiting for orders means fewer earnings. The vast majority of the couriers I spoke with are regularly breaking the traffic rules to arrive more quickly to the destination. When I asked one cycle courier if he ever breaks traffic rules, he made my question sound almost rhetorical: ‘We do it every time. If you don’t break the rules, you are not going to make anything, to be honest. If you stop at every red signal, you are wasting too much time and you are not going to make any money’. For car drivers, on the other hand, most traffic offences relate to parking illegally. One such courier in Cluj tells me how she deals with the frequent situations when she needs to park in the very busy city centre: ‘It’s more difficult to park during the day, although I am quite lucky, I never got a fine from the local police. When I need to pick an order from there, I allow myself five minutes after receiving the order before I head there, just to make sure the order has been prepared. I leave the car for one minute and nobody will say anything if it’s there for one minute’.
Whenever accidents occur, the platforms pay little to no compensation to cover medical expenses. One other woman suffered an accident doing cycle deliveries in Manchester for Uber Eats, which forced her to take two months off work and go through several facial reconstruction surgeries. ‘I sent them the pictures of my face and the place where it happened. I explained everything. And they said <Oh, we have nothing to do with this. You have to contact this place that will refund you>. They sent me the link and I filled in a form, and I never got anything back’. In Romania, where the platform couriers are officially employed by a subcontracting company, I did not receive the mandatory health and safety training and couriers similarly lack any protection in case of an accident. ‘When I signed the work contract, the boss told me to avoid accidents. I avoid accidents, of course, everyone does, but they happen. I had to accept what he told me because I have to work’, told me one of the couriers in Cluj.
Left without adequate support, couriers take matters into their own hands. Street attacks towards cycle couriers are common in many cities and Manchester is no exception. One evening early last year, as I was cycling in Hulme, an inner-city area south of the centre, I was almost knocked off my bicycle. In a park I was crossing, I could see a couple of male adolescents in front of me, hanging out in the middle of the cycle path. I immediately started to panic as one of them came towards me and tried to scare me by stomping one foot on the ground. I kept my nerves and managed to quickly pass by as they burst into laughter. One courier told me he encountered a similar situation in a park in Salford, where his bicycle was almost stolen. To anticipate such possibilities, another female cycle courier always carries pepper spray with her when doing deliveries: ‘The sister of my partner bought it for me. He heard some stories in Salford Park, that they beat some driver and he thought I should be careful. It’s not just me who is scared, but also my family’, she justifies her decision.
The more worrying responses to street attacks take place via WhatsApp groups, where a handful of motorcycle couriers quickly organise in case one of their peers is attacked. The person under threat simply shares his location with others, who come to their help. This is seen as a solidarity group set up as an alternative to the local police emergency response, which is considered ineffective. One of the couriers explains to me the logic of the group: ‘The police only tell us <This is your crime number>. We created this group because we can’t take this anymore. We only contact the police if someone loses his bike, that’s it’. In a raw video footage, shot last summer, which one of the couriers shared with me, a group of motorcyclists surround two handcuffed teenagers who are sitting on a road kerb. They are suspected of stealing one motorcycle and I could hear ominous threats directed to them: ‘Tell your friends that if they steal, it’s dangerous, we are a gang and we will catch them’.
Under the guise of entrepreneurship, autonomy and flexibility, Deliveroo, Uber Eats or Glovo are actively avoiding most responsibilities they have towards workers. Most corporate crimes perpetrated by these platforms are less visible involving wage theft, tax avoidance or environmental crimes. We should nevertheless be equally concerned with the everyday safety crimes against their workers that these platforms commit on a regular basis.
Cosmin Popan is a Leverhulme post-doctoral researcher from Romania, currently based at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research focuses on the platform-based gig economy and its reconfiguration of urban spaces, by investigating the management, solidarity and resistance of cycle couriers in three European cities: Manchester, Cluj (Romania) and Lyon (France). More details about his fieldwork can be found at https://gigwork.city/, a website which gathers, in a multimedia and interactive format, platform food courier stories.