© Guy Smallman/Getty Images

“In my dreams I’m still doing the deliveries": Inside the battle against the gig economy

Food delivery apps have exploded in popularity throughout the pandemic. Couriers are now organising and demanding a fairer deal
July 15, 2021

On the cold morning of 7th April, Ian Morrison slipped on his fluorescent green Deliveroo jacket, fastened the laces of his Nike trainers, and pulled a snood over his head. Then Morrison, a courier from south London, ended his usual routine with a new ritual: he ripped off a strip of black masking tape and stuck it over his heart, obscuring Deliveroo’s logo—an angular kangaroo head known within the company as the “Roo mark”—on the jacket.

Morrison wasn’t working today. He was driving north of the river to demonstrate with scores of other striking riders against the company’s employment practices. The strike was planned by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to coincide with Deliveroo’s shares opening for public trading. His blacked out badge signalled couriers were angry. “We’re working for you,” Morrison said, “but what are you doing for us?”

As riders gathered to demonstrate outside the City offices of Deliveroo, the London Stock Exchange and Goldman Sachs (which had helped list the company), a chorus of honking scooter horns echoed around the empty streets of London’s still largely locked-down financial district. “Good turnout, innit?” Alex Marshall, IWGB president, said to a colleague. As Marshall cycled, he sparked a flare, enclosing the riders in a shroud of red mist. Photographers jostled for the best picture. There were chants of “Shame on Roo” and “Shame on Shu,” referring to the co-founder and chief executive of the company, Will Shu. Some demonstrators wore masks of Shu’s face, alongside signs reading: “You’re Taking Us For A Ride.”

Shu, a former Morgan Stanley analyst, set up Deliveroo from his Chelsea flat in 2013—along with developer Greg Orlowski—based on a compelling idea: deliver good food fast. A year later, Shu attracted venture capital to expand to Brighton, Paris and Berlin. Around this time, politicians like the chancellor George Osborne were positioning Britain as a global “gig economy” leader, or, as they sometimes called it then, the “online sharing economy.” In cities like London, Deliveroo became a household name. By 2021 the company valued itself at around £8bn, and was shooting for the largest UK initial public offering in a decade. The eight-year-old company, with few physical assets, was sold as being more valuable than Sainsbury’s and having more than double the market capitalisation of Marks & Spencer.

But by the day of the strike, the shine was wearing off. In the immediate run-up to the float, around £1bn had been shaved off the valuation range—with much worse to come. Deliveroo’s IPO saw its shares drop by as much as 31 per cent, with the Financial Times reporting that the float was perhaps “the worst in the history of the London market.”

So what went wrong? Well, Deliveroo has never made a profit—even after the pandemic boosted its revenues by making it the gatekeeper for restaurant food. However investors are very patient with tech startups, and the company continues to grow apace: between January and December 2021, it will have expanded to 100 new UK towns and cities. Then there is Shu’s decision to list on a dual-class share structure—allowing him to raise cash but retain control. Although far from unheard of in tech, that blocked some funds from investing. Perhaps the most damaging problem of all, however, are concerns about the rights of the company’s workers: its relationship to the people, like Morrison, who actually do the driving.

Contested territory

Not long ago, the gig economy felt like the future, with every industry primed for tech-enabled “disruption” as inevitably as a train barrelling towards its destination. Empty flats, underused cars, flexible workers and more were to be matched via app-based platforms with whoever demanded them most. For evangelists like Wingham Rowan, the social entrepreneur behind non-profit Modern Markets for All, gig efficiencies promised to be empowering for everybody—from lone parents who wanted to work odd hours, to cafés that needed hired hands at short notice. And many consumers enjoyed the new flexibility. Calling an Uber through a smartphone soon felt as natural as hailing a cab.

The engine of this new model was Silicon Valley. But since Deliveroo launched in London, British politicians have latched onto it as their home-grown exemplar. As recently as this March, the current chancellor Rishi Sunak praised the firm as a “true British tech success story.”

And yet as early as 2016, there were murmurs that the gig economy employment model was sickly—and that political treatment may be required. After a wave of strikes from Uber Eats and Deliveroo couriers in 2016, Conservative prime minister Theresa May was pressured into setting up an independent review of working practices. Led by Matthew Taylor, a think-tanker and former Tony Blair aide, the commission’s July 2017 report sought to chart a middle way, with proposals aiming to balance the gig economy’s dynamism with greater stability for workers. But even if it had been immediately implemented with none of the inevitable delay, it wouldn’t have shut down the argument: unions criticised the recommendations as weak and inadequate.

The same year, London mayor Sadiq Khan supported Transport for London’s then shocking decision to strip Uber of its licence in the city, over concerns the company was failing to vet its drivers adequately to safeguard passengers. Uber eventually won its court battle with TfL in September last year—it had continued to operate while appealing the decision—but the four-year saga had shown that gig companies could not rely on skirting regulatory oversight, or avoiding the political heat.

Then, this February, the UK Supreme Court lit a match under the sector’s employment model, by ruling that Uber drivers should be classified as “workers” instead of “contractors”—entitling them to minimum wage and holiday pay—because they are in a “position of subordination to Uber.” Known formally as “limb (b) workers,” this is a sort of halfway category between fully protected employees and unprotected self-employed people under the 1996 Employment Rights Act. The status argument goes to the heart of the controversy: it pits the gig companies’ claims that workers enjoy self-employed-style autonomy over their time, against the workers’ argument that they are under the control of the firm in other ways.

From couriers to care home workers to waiters, it seemed as if consequences from the ruling would soon ripple across the gig economy, which had grown to the point—as a 2019 Ipsos MORI survey found—where it employed nearly one in 10 Britons aged 16-75 at least once a week. The Supreme Court cast once shiny startups in an unforgiving light: gig economy workers never were really their own boss, and gig companies had thrived by offloading risk onto workers.

“Couriers told me the same story: they initially enjoyed the job and its flexibility, but low pay made it an uphill struggle simply to cover costs”

But this is an ongoing battle. The February ruling wrenched away the idea that tech platforms could dispense with employer-worker obligations with clever contracts describing them as self-employed. But this does not mean an instant reboot in every case: everything still turns on the exact details of the real economic relationship.

In a parallel development concerning union rights, the Court of Appeal in June sided with Deliveroo, finding drivers are not entitled to have their membership of IWGB recognised. Deliveroo did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. But a company spokesperson said in April that “this small self-appointed union does not represent the vast majority of riders.” Still, the ruling is not the end of the matter. The judgment relied on, without fully reassessing, a previous ruling that claimed couriers were contractors, not workers. IWGB told me it is weighing up an application to take the recognition dispute to the Supreme Court.

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Ian Morrison at a Deliveroo courier’s strike on 7th April © Jem Bartholomew

Through the fog of uncertainty over the gig economy, one thing cuts through: its way of contracting with workers is now contested terrain. The February ruling leaves some firms facing existential questions: not necessarily in terms of immediate bankruptcy, but rather regulatory legitimacy. “If a company isn’t able to function without… respecting very basic working-time protections,” says Alan Bogg, professor of labour law at the University of Bristol, then “I don’t think we should lament businesses that struggle to function.” That, in combination with projected higher costs and lower profits, could send investors fleeing.

It was the uncertainty, more than anything else, that stymied Deliveroo’s momentum this spring. Nobody can be sure how sustainable or profitable the company will be until there is clarity about what obligations—or not—it has towards its tens of thousands of drivers. A few days before the flotation, Aviva Investors, one of the UK’s 10 biggest asset managers, told the BBC’s Today programme that it would not invest because, among other things, Deliveroo riders were not guaranteed the minimum wage, sick leave and holiday pay.

Investor hesitancy is compounded by the sense, according to Tim Sharp of the Trades Union Congress, that there is now “strong cross-party support” for reforms to protect workers. Just after winning the December 2019 election, Boris Johnson’s government promised an Employment Bill to ensure the “security that workers deserve,” with special reference to the “gig economy.” No such bill was included in this year’s Queen’s Speech; No 10 says it will come after the pandemic. That remains to be seen. But in the meantime workers are not waiting—and a fightback is underway.

Platforms like Uber and Deliveroo are having to spend more time on court battles. Union membership, which had for decades been declining since the 1979 peak of 13.2m, has edged slightly back up for four straight years, to 6.6m, with small nimble “startup” unions like IWGB helping to turn the tide. Meanwhile, the pandemic has reset attitudes about the way workers are treated. “Many workers who’ve almost been hidden previously—care home workers, delivery drivers—suddenly the pandemic brought them into the spotlight,” Sharp says, adding that “people were shocked by the way some employers treat them.”

As the couriers arrived at Deliveroo’s locked-down offices during the April strike, Marshall, a belligerent campaigner, sounded defiant addressing the crowd through a megaphone. “You guys are all absolute heroes,” he said to cheers. Streets that had been empty were buzzing with an electric atmosphere. “We want better pay, we want better rights and we want better safety,” Marshall said. “You guys do not deserve to be doing such a dangerous job for less than minimum wage.”

Atomised, not alone

When Morrison began driving for Deliveroo and Uber Eats in 2018, he loved it. The freedom of riding a moped across London beat shuffling between tables at his old restaurant job. His feet no longer ached. His hours were enviably flexible. He was comfortably making £500 to £600 a week. It barely felt like work at all. But Morrison said a series of changes enacted by Deliveroo across 2018 and 2019—gradually replacing a system whereby shifts in many London zones were pre-booked, which rewarded regular drivers, with more free-for-all zones, which produced more competition for orders—roughly halved his wages. “That’s when it started feeling like work,” he tells me.

Morrison, a 29-year-old raised in West Norwood, has had to bring home an income to support his siblings since his mother died a few years ago. A third of his pay cheque goes on operating costs such as petrol and loan repayments, which, if he was a conventional employee, his company would bear. (He took out a £2,000 loan to pay for his Peugeot 125 scooter, worth around £1,200, and other equipment.) Money is tight. “It’s just impossible,” he says. “How can anybody live like this, you know?”

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 7: Striking Deliveroo riders protest outside the Deliveroo headquarters on April 6, 2021 in London, England. Deliveroo riders strike for better pay, better rights and better safety. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images) LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 7: Striking Deliveroo riders protest outside the Deliveroo headquarters on April 6, 2021 in London, England. Deliveroo riders strike for better pay, better rights and better safety. (Photo by Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

IWGB president, Alex Marshall, holds a red flare at the demonstration © Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Multiple full-time couriers told me the same story: they initially enjoyed the job and its flexibility, but low and precarious pay made it an uphill struggle simply to cover costs. Each morning at around 11, Ismail Eloued leaves his Mile End house-share and logs onto the Deliveroo app. He rides his electric bicycle for roughly four hours, ferrying food in his backpack to homes and offices over lunchtime. Then his bike’s battery dims. He returns home to charge up—“to maximise the hours”—before hitting the streets again around seven. Eloued, in his early 20s, moved to the UK in 2018 from Italy, and first worked for a gig economy platform for kitchen portering jobs. He’s been a delivery rider for a year. “I’m working basically every day,” he told me during the last lockdown. Most people I spoke to rarely took a day off. One self-employed courier whose jobs come from a Mayfair restaurant’s in-house delivery service told me: “sometimes in my dreams I’m still doing the deliveries.”

For Morrison, the long hours took a toll. Weekends seeing friends evaporated. It was a lonely slog. But then one day, as he was waiting on the street outside a restaurant, a courier friend said to him: “you should join the union. If we’ve got the union on our side, we’ve got a much better chance.” He signed up, attending a demonstration criticising Deliveroo for its low pay and lack of protections. Morrison was new to politics but the speeches chimed with him. He felt couriers were working ever harder for vanishing rewards—and realised how many others felt exactly the same way.

Free fall

Throughout 2019, Morrison was slowly becoming more involved with the IWGB union. But it wasn’t until an evening that November that he felt its true importance. Around the time Deliveroo began gradually expanding its free-for-all log-in system across London, Morrison said he also often had to travel further afield on delivery drops.

Morrison recalls shuttling from Waterloo to Greenwich at around 9pm to deliver a kebab to a block of flats. The location felt a little sketchy. His fluorescent uniform stuck out in the dark. The next thing Morrison knew he was being attacked by a gang of eight people. They kicked him off his bike. They seized his moped and, with the key still in the ignition, starting driving away. In the moment Morrison forgot all sense of danger and started pursuing them. “It was such an adrenaline rush” and his heart was “pumping like mad,” he said. Now he was catching up with his attackers. The only thought in Morrison’s mind was “I need to pay my bills, I can’t afford to lose this.” He tried wrestling it back. But the men scattered, and, as he watched, the red taillight of his bike sailed away into the night.

Morrison rang the police but they couldn’t catch the thieves. His insurance did not cover theft. When he called Deliveroo, they were sympathetic, telling him not to work in that area in the future. But he sensed a disconnect between the company’s words and actions—its app, after all, had sent him there. There is not and has never been any suggestion that Deliveroo is legally responsible for couriers’ bikes. But for couriers, vehicle robbery can be a catastrophe: the loss of an asset (which, like Morrison, they might be paying for or that might be under insured) at the same time as disappearance of income.

Listen out for them, and you will hear many more stories like Morrison’s. When Bora Radu, who drives for Uber Eats and Just Eat in Swindon, had his Yamaha 150 stolen at knifepoint in January, he told me he’d lost around £1,000 in income by the time police retrieved it a week later; he was pushed into debt just to cover his rent. Radu didn’t even think to ask Uber Eats for support.

As for Morrison, whatever the law says, his feelings were clear. “I felt abandoned” by Deliveroo, he told me. The only practical support Morrison felt he received was from IWGB, which offered him an electric bike for a week while he got back on his feet—but he declined the offer. He became unwell, spiralling into depression. The city he’d grown up in had overnight become dark and frightening. The experience played over and over in his head. Deliveroo does not offer riders sick pay, so to cushion his freefalling bank balance he signed up for Universal Credit. (In this way, the gig economy passes risks not just on to workers but on to the taxpayer, too.) In the end, Morrison ceased working as a courier for over six months and returned to his old waitering job, but kept in touch with people at IWGB.

Wages of discord

When the company and the IWGB union that it refuses to recognise talk about the gig economy, they sound like they could be describing entirely different worlds. Deliveroo claims it conducted a survey of 8,500 riders which found 89 per cent were “satisfied” with their job, and says workers “value the total flexibility they enjoy.” (IWGB disputes the survey and its findings.) The two sides even disagree on what many would think the most basic and verifiable of facts: hourly pay. Deliveroo says drivers have “the ability to earn over £13 an hour,” whereas the IWGB claims the rate can fall to just £2 when demand for deliveries falls, which is less than a quarter of the headline minimum wage.

The crux of the issue is the definition of what counts as “clocking in.” Gig economy couriers are often paid a fee only when a driver accepts a passenger or food order. The firms say the couriers are not working (or even “on call,” a state that carries some protection for employees) until this moment. Up until that point, they say, drivers are free to decline trips. For their part, unions say that time spent logged into an app and ready to go, waiting outside a McDonald’s, should also count as work. If the companies don’t need them, then—from the workers’ point of view—they should fix their algorithms to prevent drivers sitting by the curb. “If you’re working in a pub,” Marshall says, “do you only get paid every time you pour a pint?

“When the company and the union talk about the gig economy, they sound like they could be describing entirely different worlds”

This conceptual dispute frustrates every attempt to settle on the facts. In March, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism analysed 318 Deliveroo invoices covering 34,000 working hours. They found 17 per cent of riders were earning below £6.45 an hour—until this April the minimum wage for 18-20 year olds—and 41 per cent were earning below £8.72 an hour, the minimum wage for 25-year-olds and over. But the company told the Bureau: “time logged on does not mean they are working.” Deliveroo calculates average pay “from the moment a rider accepts a Deliveroo order until they complete the order. This is more than the national minimum wage.” But Frank Field, former chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, looked at dead time, and in a 2018 report likened Deliveroo’s business model to Britain’s early 20th-century ports, “where workers would gather around the dock gate desperately hoping that they would be offered work.”

For Uber, at least, the Supreme Court’s February ruling has moved the argument on: working time begins when an Uber driver opens the app. “Obviously, that’s relevant to the calculation of national minimum wage and holiday pay, etcetera,” Susannah Kintish, employment lawyer and partner at Mishcon de Reya, told me. The ruling is already influencing lower courts. Gig platform companies could find themselves with “whacking great liabilities,” Kintish says, for fulfilling backdated holiday and sick pay over years for thousands of workers. And, for Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG Group, this “does call into question this growth-at-any-cost, high cash-burn kind of model.” To critics, reality is finally catching up with the tech utopians who they say have long manipulated the rules on employment law.

Against the machine

The fightback has been driven by scrappy upstart unions like IWGB, which has around 6,000 members, and others. “Those new forms of organising are a response to new forms of employment that appear to be designed to avoid traditional employment law and organising methods,” Paddy Bettington, research officer at the union-sponsored think tank the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS), told me. Small independent unions see their role as different from Labour Party affiliated giants like Unite (1.4m members), Unison (1.3m) or GMB (620,000); they are political outsiders, and often deploy more combative tactics.

Among startup unions, there are concerns employers will move to cut deals with bigger and more familiar unions with minimal boots-on-the-ground organising density. Since Uber lost its Supreme Court fight over drivers’ status and rights to the small App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), for instance, it has struck a recognition deal of sorts with GMB. A few years ago it would have been unimaginable for a gig platform to buckle to a union that represents people it insists are independent contractors. The GMB’s Mick Rix claims that the deal has created a “safety net” that drivers cannot fall through. But it’s equally striking that this deal does not cover pay bargaining. The ADCU did not seek recognition; a source told me it would only seek to bargain with Uber after it adhered to basic statutory employment rights. “Tensions between small scrappy unions and bigger legacy unions over voluntary recognition agreements with employers are likely to continue in the coming years,” says Bristol law professor Bogg.

Just Eat and Deliveroo courriers seen in Dublin city center during Level 5 Covid-19 lockdown.  On Saturday, 16 January, 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Just Eat and Deliveroo courriers seen in Dublin city center during Level 5 Covid-19 lockdown. On Saturday, 16 January, 2021, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Gig couriers have helped many a restaurant through the pandemic, but is anyone looking out for them? © Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Big unions’ bureaucracies can create a barrier between officials and workers, said Alberto Durango, co-founder and former president of IWGB, now national organiser at the tiny Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union. Only unions of a few thousand, he told me, can strike the right balance of being truly worker-led while crowdsourcing the resources to make an impact.

Before being elected IWGB president in November 2020, Marshall worked as a courier for a laboratory, depositing medical equipment across London. In February last year, “We started to see specimens with these little yellow stickers on them saying ‘Covid-19 Specimen,’” he says. “We were like, ‘what?’” A few weeks later the roads were ghostlike. Marshall recalled crying as he was cycling to work through the empty city—the fountains of Trafalgar Square splashing away with no one to hear them—initially without PPE or masks. He has asthma, and feared that he would succumb to the virus. Marshall told me that such recent direct experience, which would be unlikely in a larger union where it takes time to rise through the ranks, colours the way he approaches running IWGB.

Levelling down

So if Johnson gets round to implementing the bill he promised, what do campaigners want in it? First, they want to make sure existing protections can be counted on. “We have massively underinvested in our enforcement capacity over decades,” Tony Wilson, director of the Institute for Employment Studies, told me. A January IES report found that, on average, UK employers can expect a knock on the door from wage enforcers only “once every 500 years.” The problem is all the more pressing in an economy swimming with contracts for labour whose very form is disputed; this uncertainty makes it difficult for workers even to know what their rights are. One idea is to create a single enforcement agency—with a big budget and a stiff mandate—streamlining powers that sit siloed across a handful of Whitehall departments, and ideally armed with the ability to issue punitive fines to deter employers from bending the rules.

At the same time, campaigners want it made much easier for workers to assert their rights. The Uber ruling took five years of fighting through the courts, expending time and resources many workers cannot access. This tilts the scales, the TUC’s Sharp says, because “the likes of Uber and Deliveroo have deep pockets.”

Campaigners also want changes to legislation to facilitate easier union recognition. (Currently, employers grant unions recognition. If denied, unions must seek arbitration.) For Wilson, the very category of “worker”—which the courts have now applied to Uber drivers—is “a real fudge of a grey area.” It could be scrapped, establishing a legal presumption that someone whose labour is being deployed by a firm is an employee until they are shown to be self-employed. Some continental countries insist that every worker must be one thing or the other.

Over the past few years of rapid gig economy growth, the sort of policy changes required have barely started: the government already knows what it could do, but has been dragging its feet. After the Queen’s Speech omission, there is another wait of at least a year before anything happens in parliament, and of even longer before its consequences are felt in the real world. The result, Wilson said, is “you’re potentially allowing employers to level down on standards and level down on protection.”

Power up

For gig economy executives, the pandemic has only supercharged their industry. Uber Eats reported a 150 per cent spike in orders in the three months leading up to September 2020. Deliveroo says it doubled its UK couriers from 25,000 to 50,000 last year. They also expect that habits built during the pandemic—ordering far more restaurant food or groceries with the swipe of a finger—will persist like muscle memory far beyond it. The gig economy’s critics, however, fear that the corollary will be even more precarious jobs. In a fragile recovery, in which many traditional employers on the high street and elsewhere won’t survive, even more people could soon find gigs the only option to help put food on the table.

The mood among many gig workers is already sour. After the November 2019 robbery, Morrison’s depressive episode lasted months. He eventually began delivering again last summer. It wasn’t the same. He deliberated over orders at night, anxiously checking the postcode. But it wasn’t just fear; something else had shifted in Morrison. He began to realise that the way he had been working had made him sick: the unreliable hours and pay, the guilt from taking a single day off, the stress of upkeeping expensive gear, the panic about wages whenever more couriers were hired, and the utter impossibility of changing it all—at least by himself. “You feel powerless,” he says.

The way Morrison wrestled power back was through the union. “It’s a massive difference, honestly,” he said when I caught up with him at April’s Deliveroo strike. For that he thanks the friend who nudged him to join. “I feel empowered, because I know I’m not alone and I’ve got other people fighting for the same thing.” He went on, “we’re always there for one another, you know. If one person’s down we all pick each other up.” He has just landed an employment contract with a grocery courier firm, Getir, which means more stable hours. Recently, someone at IWGB wondered if Morrison might like to run for the committee. He was elected disability officer, and now campaigns for accessibility adjustments such as for hard-of-hearing or menstruating couriers. Often, nowadays, when Morrison is stood waiting on the street with other couriers, he’ll tell them: “you should join the union.”