Many people’s experience of Deliveroo is hungover; when you’re opening a door and taking a bag of food. Or perhaps you’ve seen a worker sat on a street corner staring at their phone, or you work in a restaurant and watch a steady stream of fluorescent jackets bustling through the kitchens. You may even ride yourself.
But how the job actually works is hidden to many. I knew little when I signed up in 2017, but I was under no illusions: I was still aware that I was part of a company playing an outsized role in building an economy of precarious work, where hourly wages are replaced by per-job fees, and financial, legal and physical risk are transferred from companies onto ‘freelance’ individuals.
Studying their new movements and tactics is Callum Cant, who joined Deliveroo in 2016 after leaving an office job which “absolutely bored the shit” out of him. He joined just as the first major strikes were kicking off, and his experience played into his doctoral research project. His new book Riding for Deliveroo, out now with Polity Press, continues his research into the new strategies of resistance being employed by these riders.
When I started working for Deliveroo, one of the most interesting things was recognising the difference between the image and the reality of the work. There are three different visions that the company put out there, to customers, investors, and workers. What did you find?
Callum Cant: People either take one of two mistaken approaches. The first is to assert that Deliveroo is really something transformatively new; a completely innovative system. And the other is to say that there’s absolutely nothing new, it’s just like any other job, and everything’s basically the same because it’s all capitalism.
I think this leads to wider misconceptions about the social role Deliveroo plays. When we talk about Deliveroo, who actually uses it and how they use it is a part of advertising. What Deliveroo project is the idea that the people who use it are hip, young, urban consumers. The line they often fall back on is they want restaurant-quality food without going to a restaurant. There’s this notion that what you want is the same experience as a restaurant. This is always imagined using exotic food; sushi, fancy burgers, New York-style box noodles. The reality is very different; most people are ordering the cheapest stuff on the menu. In Brighton there was an Indian restaurant where it was like £20 for a curry, I did a few deliveries from there, but the bulk was dirt cheap; pizza, pasta, fried food, KFC, Burger King, that kind of stuff.
I think it’s an intentional misrepresentation of how the platform is used. It’s meant to obscure the fact that many people use Deliveroo to deal with a crisis of social reproduction. They use Deliveroo because they’re single parents, or depressed, or struggling to get to the shops because they work so many hours, or people who are forced to stay in the office late. This platform is, to a degree, proof of a creeping crisis of social reproduction, getting into the layers of the white-collar workforce which previously considered itself safe from that crisis. Really, the market segment it occupies is really no different from ready meal curries from Aldi.
Finally, I remember the adverts that brought me on board with Deliveroo, it was a young guy in a cycling jersey with a flippy cap and a fixie bike. I actually only met one courier who looked like that. Most of the time it’s students on beat-up mountain bikes with ripped clothes or it’s bikers on mopeds. So the projected image of the young worker who’s trying to keep fit and earn money at the same time is just bullshit. The vast majority of work is done by people who are otherwise excluded from the labour market, who live in sublets, or their migration status doesn’t allow them to work, or they don’t have the language skills, and who’re attempting to get by working ridiculous hours.
On an individual basis, what issues are faced by people working under this model of employment?
Callum Cant: I think safety is the single biggest one. This is something that I only understand in retrospect after I stopped working the job. Only then did I start to look at what our injury rates were actually like. In the book, I tell the story of Pablo Avendano, a courier from Philadelphia who got hit and killed, and since then there have sadly been more instances of couriers dying on the job. I think it is really pervasive, this way that payment per-drop intensifies how people are working. As the payment is driven down, so the need to do more drops per hour increases. If you’re doing every delivery in 12 minutes rather than 10 minutes, that means in one hour you’ve lost one delivery. So people push themselves and it’s incredibly dangerous.
What sort of tactics are Deliveroo doing to keep their model of employment in place and profitable? In the book, you mention wage disparity between cities, the pay differences for mopeds and cyclists, and a deliberate attempt to keep workers ignorant of these facts.
Callum Cant: Well they’re fighting in courtrooms. Not only are they attempting to increase domination in the workplace, but they’re attempting to do things like completely rewrite the laws. In France, Uber literally rewrote sections of employment law in cooperation with Macron’s party, En Marche, to create a third category between employed and self-employed. These companies have lobbyists who will wholesale redraft legislation. So their intention is not only to remodel the world of work in their particular sectors, but to remodel the employment relationship on a social scale.
So what do you see as the route going forward to workers? Fighting these companies in the courts, through unions, or a kind of wildcat, ad hoc response?
Callum Cant: I’d say it’s a combination of these things, but I think there’s more potential power in a strike than a legal case. We know the law is not designed for workers, it’s designed for ruling class institutions. Personally, I’d prioritise the spread of worker self-organisation. There need to be linkages with other food workers. I write about the Fast Food Shutdown where workers collaborated despite having different employers, demanding equal pay.
I also think a coalition with the Labour Party shouldn’t be understated. But also the organisation within the company between the tech workers and delivery workers. There’s a real potential for white-collar office workers, who are doing a lot of this technical work, to see themselves as on the side as workers on the other side of the app. I think that it would be a hugely promising development if we have the people designing the tech and operating the tech working together, then we’d really have the bosses in a trap.
The industry is changing really fast, even in the time since I stopped working for them they’ve slashed the fees, they’ve cut the hourly rate, they’ve increased the demand placed on riders to go quicker or buy mopeds. What do you think we can expect from them in the future?
Callum Cant: I talk about that in the book, where I write about three visions for the future: the customers’ vision, the bosses’ vision, and the worker’s vision. I finished the first draft of the book in November 2018, we’re now a year on and things have changed. The ease of which Deliveroo can reorganise work means it’s constantly shifting, but I think the longer-term trend, in terms of how they see themselves becoming profitable, remains the same: They want to automate food delivery, they want to start offering automated food production, they want these ‘dark kitchens’ to become part of a hub network to centralise production. They want to expand their market by offering things so cheap that people won’t bother to cook at home and cannibalise a large part of the restaurant industry. They want to cut out huge parts of the fast-food market entirely for themselves.
So, what would you say to gig economy workers who are looking to organise?
Callum Cant: I think the first point is that we are the solution to the problems we face; no-ones coming to save us, there is not going to be an external improvement of conditions. One worker once said to me, ‘either we fight or we’re fucked.’ I think that’s particularly true for gig economy workers. It’s important to find other people at work, talking together, cultivating a common culture and identity, developing organisational links and solidarity that allow for collective action. Then, when you get a chance to exert power you have to – completely ruthlessly. You have to take on these platforms, don’t feel sorry for them, don’t think that maybe they have your best interests at heart because they don’t. They’re interested in profit, and to make that they’re willing to expose people to all kinds of risks – to do whatever necessary, and we should be willing to do whatever necessary in return.
We’ve been talking about the self-organisation of workers, but what can the customers of these services do to help workers?
Callum Cant: First, tip your drivers! More generally, a consumer might be a consumer in one environment, but they’re also producers in their own workplace. If you want to help gig economy workers, it’s not about boycotting the app or changing the way you consume, it’s about organising the workers’ movement where you are, and then linking that up with gig economy workers. If your office wants to go on strike, then coordinate a day with your local gig workers and take action collectively. How we’ll get through this is through working-class solidarity, not ethical consumption.
Riding for Deliveroo is out now.
Follow Jacob Charles Wilson on Twitter.