In 2016, the online food delivery service Deliveroo announced that wages of its delivery workers would be changed from a flat hourly rate of $9.25 with a $1.30 bonus per completed delivery plus an additional petrol bonus for moped riders to a fee-per-delivery wage of just $4.30 with no hourly rate. And, if there were no food orders, bike and moped riders would not earn any money. Almost immediately, Deliveroo’s delivery workers already on starving wages began a strike in the city of Brighton in southern England. Britain’s IWGB union raised $33,000 to support the strike.
Shortly after that, the corporation said they are willing to listen to “individual” workers’ claims. Workers rejected that. They wanted collective bargaining. One worker told Deliveroo, they demanded $10.50 plus $1.30 per delivery. But Deliveroo refused to engage in collective bargaining and rejected trade union representation outright. Instead, Deliveroo maintains the legal fiction that its riders were independent contractors – a semi-criminal fiction upheld by UK courts. Perhaps under corporate capitalism, the leitmotif is: any fiction is good fiction as long as it supports corporations.
Deliveroo was founded in London in 2013 and has gone on to expand globally. Between 2013 and 2016, Deliveroo’s revenue grew by a whopping 107,117%. This is not a typo. Deliveroo really grew by one hundred and seven thousand, one hundred and seventeen per cent. Making profits on the backs of underpaid riders. It turned Deliveroo into one of the fastest-growing companies in Europe. Surprisingly and despite paying poverty wages, Deliveroo’s profit margins were smaller than 1%. It needed to employ lots of workers and deliver plenty of food to make money.
Beyond that Deliveroo is a true signifier of platform capitalism. But Deliveroo remained a geographically dependent platform. Unlike Amazon and eBay, Deliveroo operates in specific regional areas – it cannot be relocated to China as it linked local customers to local restaurants. By 2017, Deliveroo employed 15,000 riders in the UK – about the same number of workers running London’s Stansted Airport.
Key to Deliveroo’s operation is the use of algorithmic management. It partially automates the labour process of supervision and coordination. This could become an increasingly common practice in a wide range of industries. Corporations like Deliveroo are increasingly free to operate with control-enhancing algorithmic management and pay its employees low wages as trade unions have been in terminal decline given Britain’s right-wing press and a seamless succession of equally right-wing governments. Trade unions in the UK are getting smaller, and their membership is getting older. Their bite is getting weaker, and strikes are getting less frequent. By the year 2017, just 30,000 workers went on strike in the UK. This was the smallest number since records began in 1893.
Just like in the case of Uber, etc. before starting to work for a delivery platform, there are plenty of grant promises mostly about high wages and flexible working conditions. Some workers at Deliveroo were promised up to $16.- per hour. But once fully employed, the savouring if not sobering, the reality of poverty wages kicks in. As Deliveroo relies on algorithmic management, there is not even a manager anymore to whom a worker can talk to.
Upon employment, workers at Deliveroo are given a code. This code is needed to install the Deliveroo App on a mobile phone. Next, new workers at Deliveroo are also given a kit with waterproof trousers and jacket, a t-shirt, a cycling jersey, a battery pack, a cheap phone mount, some even cheaper lights, a helmet, and finally the all-important thermal backpack. For such a rather doubtful corporate privilege, workers have to have 50% of their first $400 earned deducted to pay a $200 deposit right away.
Workers were also told they had to work for at least two shifts of four hours between Friday and Sunday twice a month or they would be deactivated. So much for flexibility. Overall, the labour process at Deliveroo is simple and repetitive. Workers access the Deliveroo App, log in, and select available for orders. As soon as a worker does that, his – most riders are men with a 15-to-1 male ratio – location and availability begin to be factored into the order allocation process. Deliveroo’s App tells riders to ride their bikes to a place called zone centre, which usually is a central point in a city mostly near busy restaurants.
From there, they pick up food, put it in their Deliveroo backpack and deliver it. It is physically demanding work. Workers are under time pressure. While work is hard, the pay is bad. At times, Deliveroo pay riders for fewer orders than they had actually completed and would often do so a day or two after workers were supposed to be paid. Meanwhile, for moped riders, bike theft was a real risk. For cyclists, it tends to be mugging that is a constant worry.
Under Deliveroo’s algorithmic management system, even the role of the dispatcher is transformed. Algorithmic management is the partial automation of supervision as well as the labour process, coordination, and control. Now it occurs through the use of information technology. Of course, under corporate capitalism, it is profits that dictate what kind of work gets automated – not human need. The automated dispatcher has four advantages for Deliveroo:
algorithms are better at multi-factor calculations, planning, and controlling the labour process than human dispatchers;
it increases the amount of data that are collected from the labour process;
it eliminates one of the most obvious sources of human error: the human dispatchers who can make mistakes; and finally,
dispatchers used to develop favourite riders who they give preferential treatment to. Under algorithmic management, this is no longer possible.
All of this is good for Deliveroo. For workers, it means, that algorithmic management is automated authoritarianism. Under this system, Deliveroo’s App issues a sequence of repetitive commands. Workers just have to carry them out. This marks the simplicity and brutality of the labour process. Its capitalist and exploitative elements do not appear to have changed since Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in Britain in 1844.
Most cleverly, Deliveroo’s system has the following key feature. Deliveroo only reveals information about the delivery process to its workers, stage by stage. This is designed to stop workers from getting themselves unassigned from orders that are difficult or take a long time to deliver. Very soon, workers understand Deliveroo’s system. Deliveroo’s deskills workers who have no control over the labour process. They are forced to follow Deliveroo’s instructions again and again. In a relatively short time, they became demotivated and uncommitted to the Deliveroo platform. Workers understand that they are compelled to do dangerous, difficult, and precarious work in order to make someone else rich. Still, workers at Deliveroo do resist.
Work at Deliveroo is deliberately structured in a way so that the company has no legal requirement to recognise trade unions. By the same token, the UK’s harsh and legalistic restrictions on strike action no longer applied as well. Still, workers at Deliveroo do not have access to sick pay, holiday pay, and the few formal employment rights left after decades of neoliberalism in the UK. Despite facing a hostile government and a well-organised corporation, workers at Deliveroo organised an emergency general meeting about pay and working conditions in 2016. The meeting voted unanimously to unionise and to issue three demands of the company:
a pay rise to $6.60 a drop;
a hiring freeze because Deliveroo had hired rafts of new workers to create an oversupply of labour; and
no victimisation of union members.
Deliveroo was given two weeks to respond. After that vote, the strikers set off across the city in a giant convoy of mopeds and bikes. But over summer the movement collapsed. Still, it won a hiring freeze. By 2017, new plans for a strike were hatched. This second strike showed workers something new. Even though a union branch can fall apart because key activists had gotten other jobs, and they only won some small concessions, that doesn’t mean everything is over.
The second mobilisation also included the city of Leeds. At almost the same time, French workers mobilised on in Marseilles and Paris. This time their action spread even farther. Workers in Germany organised in Berlin. Spain saw a first national coordinated strike across three cities: Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid. France followed with Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon. Soon thereafter came the third wave. Mobilisations took place in Brighton, Amsterdam, Brussels, Bologna, Turin, and Berlin all in the month of November 2017.
Two years on from the initial strike that started it all in 2016, another strike broke out in London. This time, the primary target was UberEats – not Deliveroo – even though almost all the couriers involved worked for both. By 2019, workers continued to resist Deliveroo. On the 17th of February 2019, Deliveroo workers continued their fight. During this time, Deliveroo workers striked in Birmingham, Bristol, Cheltenham, London and Nottingham over poor pay and worsening conditions. A number of these strikes were self-organised by the riders. As workers continue to resist Deliveroo, the industry is changing. Algorithmic management and platform capitalism may face three possible scenarios:
Scenario 1: The first scenario is run by the corporation. It aims to double profit margins and to halve the cost, i.e. reduce wages even further. This also means further automation with more robots and potentially automated delivery systems like drones like Amazon’s Scout Drown Delivery System. This scenario is also linked to what became known as the “dark kitchen”. These are highly automated workshop like mini factories for the production of food. They are guarded by security and a few engineers. These automated places do not need light. Robots can work in the dark, and they turn out vast quantities of cheap fast food ready to be delivered. The idea is that future platforms and dark kitchen lockout traditional restaurants as much as possible. The ultimate goal is that traditional chefs, even software engineers, and of course courier riders are all at risk of being tossed onto the scrapheap if Deliveroo’s utopia is realised.
Scenario 2: The second scenario is what one might call “be nice” capitalism. It is based on progressive liberalism that runs under the leitmotif; we have to go with the system we have and try to make it nicer.
Scenario 3: Scenario three is about platform cooperatives that connect workers with customers via a new cooperative platform structure. This may well mean that the dominance of existing private platforms could be challenged. However, if a successful large-scale cooperative food delivery platform is to be established, it would immediately become the focus of a very serious onslaught by the dominant corporate platforms. Still, such an ambitious alternative of a cooperative platform will be under workers’ control. Workers take ownership of resources of food platforms such as their data centres, restaurants, kitchens, and customer base. Eventually, such collective kitchens could be run by a community providing a multitude of social goods. It takes back the economy.
The last scenario is nothing new in the history of human beings. Community provision of food has always been an integral part of how human beings look after each other. This has been so since the dawn of time as Marshall Sahlins “Stone Age Economics” has shown. Aided with today’s technology, this would be a new vision and an extension of human solidarity through modern technology. Mutual Aid is what makes us human.
Callum Cant’s Riding for Deliveroo is published by Polity Books.