A member of the Delivery Guild investigates the conditions of courier work in Edinburgh, and the challenges of organising within a dispersed community. With thanks to Notes from Below, who first published the inquiry as part of a new collection of worker writing, From the Workplace.
Food delivery couriers are now a ubiquitous part of any city in the UK, including Edinburgh, Scotland’s hilly, cobbled, capital. Cycling here can be a challenge for the most experienced rider, particularly on the rainy, windy days we are accustomed to on the east coast. But it’s also one of the most beautiful places to work in, from the medieval Old Town with the steep volcanic spine of the Royal Mile running between the Castle and Holyrood Palace, contrasting with the grand sweeping Georgian streets of the New Town – together they form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even in winter, when it gets dark by 3.30 PM and the temperature often drops below zero degrees, the streets become empty and you have the city to yourself.
The often young and male couriers are highly visible due to their turquoise jackets and large cube boxes bouncing around in the wind and over potholes. Many workers sign-up to the job looking for part-time and flexible work, something to do in between university assignments and over the weekends. Adverts on Gumtree promise: “earn up to £16 per hour, completely flexible, be your own boss!”. There are indeed couriers who will experience this sort of pay. They are probably fit and healthy, own a decent bike and work a few evenings to make some extra income on top of student loans. This is certainly the image companies like Deliveroo and UberEats want you to think of. But it conceals a more complicated, varied picture of who riders are, their background and motivation.
Despite the variety of reasons people work for these platforms, there is often a shared sense of precarity. The job hooks you in with promises of good pay, flexibility, and freedom but ultimately you are at the whim of the companies. Pay fluctuates outside your control, there is a highly sophisticated algorithm that dictates who gets orders, and apps are designed to gamify each task – oh don’t forget that there’s no access to basic working rights! The platforms provide us with opportunities to “earn”, not work. Riders get sucked into this, and what is intended to be a short-term side-job becomes a regular part of life. Workers keep searching for those elusive days when they make great fees, dismissing all those quiet winter months when there are no jobs, long unpaid waiting times in restaurants, even customers who pretend you didn’t deliver (risking your job) just to get a free meal. All for £16 an hour, right?!
How I became a courier
I‘ve been working as a bike courier since 2016, beginning with Deliveroo but moving on to other companies as they came to Edinburgh, including UberEats, City Sprint, We Bringg, Beelivery, Just Eat, to name a few. The way I started was similar to many. I was finishing up my undergraduate studies and was looking for work over the summer before I started a part-funded Masters program in September.
The decent wage and promise of flexible working drew me in, both, because those sound good, but also because it wasn’t another minimum wage bar job. This is an important element of the gig economy which I think is often overlooked: even if it is unpredictable and precarious, there’s the potential to earn more than the £8.71 you receive for other kinds of busy, stressful work. Often you’re micromanaged by senior staff and following a schedule which changes every week. You have little responsibility or sense of valued contribution, all to put profits in someone else’s pocket. I remember being told so many times: “if you’re leaning, you should be cleaning!” while I was behind the bar. All of that combined with the emotional labour to keep smiling however I felt, deflecting questions about my personal life or appearance from customers… This has left me in no hurry to go back to hospitality work if I can help it.
I’m grateful to Notes from Below for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts on my experiences of working within the gig economy. It’s also has given me a chance to reflect and go over things which have happened. I have chosen to write mainly about my experiences with UberEats, but I also include information and thoughts on Deliveroo and others. After all, I see my courier work being a composite thing, as I tend to chop and change or work multiple apps at once, rather than having multiple jobs. Of course, each company has its differences as well as similarities. This piece uses the worker’s inquiry method. It is ‘from below’, as it involves me as a worker, leading the production of knowledge. It begins with a brief background of Uber Eats, before moving on to discuss the technical, social, and then political dimensions of the work.
Background to UberEats
UberEats launched in Edinburgh in April 2017. It is currently available in over 250 cities and is a key player in the food delivery scene, alongside Deliveroo and Just Eat. It is hard to assess the true scale of UberEats presence, including numbers of orders by customers and how many couriers there are. Data by Edinburgh City Council gives figures for those who are self-employed but there is no breakdown of this data further to give any indication how many are in traditional self-employed roles, such as plumbers or hairdressers, and those working in the gig economy. In lots of ways, this lack of data contrasts with the high visibility of riders on the road with their delivery cubes. Even then it is impossible to tell who is working for which company, as many multi-app at the same time. Wearing a Deliveroo jacket and using an UberEats bag is not uncommon as we no longer have to work exclusively for one company at a time, and they can’t require us to wear a set uniform.
The technical details of the work
An issue across the gig economy is the arrangement where we are classed as “self-employed subcontractors.” Platforms like UberEats claim that couriers run their own “micro-business” and that the companies, therefore, do not have the legal obligations they would if we were employed. This includes the minimum wage, holiday or sick pay, pension and National Insurance contributions, and protection from unfair dismissal. For some, these might be a cost they are willing to pay, but I wonder how this will manifest itself in the future. For example, what happens when people reach retirement age and have many gaps in their contributions? On the other hand, considering consequences so far ahead is outweighed by the need to survive and make ends meet in the here and now. It is concerning that this is the reality for so many people living and working in one of the richest and most developed countries in Western Europe. The uncertainty of retirement and future of work is of course not restricted to couriers and many young people today are facing this changing world of employment.
A consequence of being a “freelancer” is that work becomes a “free-for-all.” UberEats works on a free login basis, meaning that you can access the app any time during opening hours, and from any point in the city. This goes for every courier, regardless of how high the demand is. This is the flexibility which UberEats (and Deliveroo) cite as being important for couriers. However, it is only part of the story and rather than shifts, couriers are managed in more subtle ways, including where and when they might work. We also do not control many aspects of the job, except for whether we work or not. One way that couriers are managed is by “boosts.” These are in different areas of the city, displayed onto the app’s map. Each one has a “boost” that multiplies the “base fare” which fluctuates according to demand. Usually, this is by the time and day – for example, a higher boost might be in the city centre on Friday dinner time – but it can change over holidays or other events. This is a covert way in which UberEats can try to distribute couriers without having set areas or shifts to work in. Couriers are incentivised to go to the higher boost zones, where UberEats wants to have a steady supply of couriers to meet demand. However, there is no obligation to accept orders, and likewise, UberEats do not guarantee you will receive any. This can mean waiting in a higher boost area and receiving few orders if there are more couriers than the demand requires.
Speaking of waiting times – they are not paid. Whether that is waiting to receive an order or once inside a restaurant and the food is not ready yet, UberEats and Deliveroo do not count this as working time. During the lockdown, waiting while logged on but not receiving any orders was a big problem, especially for cyclists as the algorithm prioritises motorised vehicles. As we are only paid per delivery, this meant earning very little money. Sometimes I have been waiting outside a restaurant getting nothing but watching the same few moped drivers come and go multiple times. During the end of March, I was logged in for over 60 hours just to make £100. This was so frustrating and depressing. I was doing all I could yet felt utterly powerless. The companies had no interest in supporting us, yet pushed for us to be considered “key workers” so we could still log on and move orders around the city.
Another strange feature of lockdown was that UberEats claimed they would pay couriers who became ill with Covid-19 or had to self isolate but would not have given sick pay for any other illness which prevented them working. There are many other occasions where UberEats made public promises that did not materialise. For example, PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) was purported to have been given to all couriers, yet many found their order did not arrive for over a month, and when it did, the package included a couple of disposable masks and a small bottle of hand sanitiser. So much for being key workers…
When a problem arises, there are a limited number of ways to access support. These have reduced over time. When I first started there was an office where we went to sign up, to “onboard” (their term for hiring), pick up equipment, or generally ask questions. At first, this was in a temporary location, giving it a transitory sense like the companies were not even sure themselves how long they would stay in a city and could leave any minute. Later, Uber moved to a permanent office, but it wasn’t very accessible. It was only open two days a week for a few hours and often you would not be seen without an appointment. The staff were focused on signing up restaurants, couriers were a second thought. Although they did order food quite often! We were so numerous we were regarded as disposable, however long or hard we had worked. In theory, there is a phone line you can call with an issue while on an order, but it often doesn’t connect. We are now directed to use in-app help or email, which has limited help too, as it is either automated replies or someone with a script they must stick to. It is so frustrating to get an automated reply to a concern you have got or a genuine problem on the road. Everyone has a story of someone being asked “Can you still deliver the food?”, after reporting a crash – a bleak reminder of UberEats priorities.
Tying in closely with hard to access support is the issue of being “terminated” and account suspensions. As we are “self-employed”, we don’t have a right to fair dismissals and UberEats aren’t obliged to give us any evidence to support their reason for closing an account. Reasons range from specific things like allowing someone to substitute using your account (without prior approval) to the vague “unusual patterns in deliveries.” Once again, the power balance is skewed against the courier, with the word of a restaurant or customer against you being almost impossible to counter. It is not because these claims are always hard to evidence, it is about the lack of will to engage and listen to the courier. If a restaurant manager decides they don’t like you, they can flag your account on the system. This can mean having your account suspended, either for a few days or forever. Writing to Uber support is a thankless task. This difficulty with communication is one of the most frustrating parts of doing this job. All platforms use this tactic of stonewalling you until you give up and go away.
The withdrawal of support could be another way that the company deliberately distances itself from couriers and responsibilities. Call centres are outsourced to other countries, and face to face contact is now impossible to receive in the UK. It also follows a trend where companies are using the pandemic to cut budgets and restructure, knowing this can happen without the same level of scrutiny as in normal times. For example, “boosts” are now the lowest I have ever seen, making our earnings drop despite doing exactly the same job. However, brief moments serve as reminders that this huge company still exists in a world which is inherently connected, and in unpredictable ways. For example, at the start of lockdown UberEats suddenly became unavailable for hours, with no explanation. It turned out that the Philippines (where the call centre work has been outsourced to) had gone into emergency lockdown, impacting couriers as far away as here in Edinburgh.
A community of couriers
Edinburgh has a strong hospitality and service industry, with many people working in cafes, shops, restaurants and pubs. Tourism is a vital part of the economy, with the Edinburgh Fringe and International Festival (amongst others) bringing huge numbers of visitors to the city every August. There are four universities and a college with several campuses around the city – all prime sources of both customers and riders. In recent years, Edinburgh has become an important financial centre in the UK outside of London and emerging sectors such as biotech, AI, and data sciences are growing areas of research and employment. Living costs are relatively high and it is one of the most expensive cities in the UK – except for London, of course.
Despite the expense, many people are drawn to work or study in Edinburgh, particularly from Europe, and Spanish or Polish are often heard as you go about town. UberEats is no exception, with the workforce including a wide range of nationalities. Amongst my colleagues, Deliveroo is made up of more Western European nationalities, like Spain, France and Italy, perhaps having moved here to study. In contrast, UberEats drivers are often from Eastern Europe, including Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania. Almost all drivers (rather than cyclists) are male and older, perhaps with a family, and work full time. While I am waiting in restaurants for an order to be ready, I keep myself to myself and don’t often engage in conversation with other riders or drivers. Differences in culture, background and age make it harder to connect socially. Many of the men do speak with each other and there is a clear feeling of comradery between them. This is a big change to when I did Deliveroo full time, where I would frequently see friends and colleagues around and catch up while waiting.
Sometimes I will keep getting orders within an area outside the city centre, which can mean seeing less familiar faces while working. Combined with the reduced interaction while waiting, this can make the job quite isolating and lonely. The impact of this work on mental health is an important topic for me – and often not talked about. I have experienced poor mental health since my early teens and I know that bike courier work has both helped me deal with it, as well as making it worse. Do I continue taking jobs long past when I meant to go home, feeling anxious because I need to work while it is busy (and there is no guarantee how long that lasts)? Should I meet with a friend who is only free on Friday evening and miss a potentially busy dinner run? Friends and colleagues that I see on the road frequently talk about how much money they have made that day. Asking “you been busy?” is a common opening question. On a good day, people happily show you their phone screen with the total deliveries done, other times you see guys putting on a show of bravado, saying how much they made yesterday so it does not matter about today, they are sure it will pick up for them later anyway. I find this ritual uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. Imposter syndrome comes up, am I going to be disregarded for not being strong or fast like my male colleagues? I know I have gained a lot of experience since I started this job. I am as agile and determined as any of the guys, but insecurity is still there for me and the anxiety of precarious work makes those moments of individual competitiveness find a weak point in my self-confidence.
I first became involved in unions soon after I started doing Deliveroo work. Although I had not had any experience with them before, I was lucky to meet a couple of friends who were union members and activists, involved in campaigns such as the Living Rent and Fair Fringe campaigns. We joined up with a project run by Unite called Better Than Zero (BTZ). They work with young people on zero-hour contracts in the hospitality sector. BTZ are keen to get involved but there was a feeling that established big “business” unions do not know what to make of us as couriers and are not sure whether they can include us within their organisation.
Our initial organising was inspiring and looking back I am impressed at the different things we did together. The main actions were a letter to Deliveroo’s Managing Director, outlining our grievances as riders in Edinburgh, and a petition calling for public support of our efforts to hold Deliveroo to account. The grievances we raised were identified through an online survey we conducted amongst riders. Back then, Deliveroo was still a relatively new company and most riders were in touch and connected on WhatsApp groups. Three of us wrote up the survey using the group chats as a basis to form questions, with space for people to add their comments. This was positive in a few ways. Firstly, it gave evidence of our claims. This was important as Deliveroo would often say their data represented drivers’ views. Secondly, it brought riders together – not only in understanding our shared problems but also to take tangible action to try and remedy these. Deliveroo responded to our letter, dismissing everything we had said and parroting their usual script about how x% of riders are making £x amount and enjoy the flexibility the job gives.
Whilst it was incredibly frustrating, getting Deliveroo to respond was positive. Today Deliveroo rarely engages with riders. Silence is a powerful way of shutting down debate and dispersing anger. Our petition gained around 3000 public signatures, including high profile leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon. Unfortunately following the flat response to our letter, momentum started to dwindle in Edinburgh, and our organising struggled to get going again. This was compounded by losing the other two in the initial group, who moved away or took up other jobs. The transient nature of much of the courier workforce is something which makes organising hard and maintaining this quite a challenge.
After this first bit of organising, by mid-2017, I was working full time. After experiencing some mental health issues myself, I took a little time out to visit a friend in France and ended up travelling around the country for several months. Initially, this was to take a break from work, but I soon found myself involved with a self-organised group of riders in Lyon. They were very motivated and engaged with the campaign, which was pushing back on many changes we had already begun to see in the UK, such as changing from PPH (pay per hour) to PPD (pay per drop). I learned a lot from seeing how the group interacted with each other and some of the creative ideas they had for direct action! For a few weeks in August, different events were planned such as boycotting certain restaurants, doing press interviews, putting up posters in busy areas, and holding a protest outside Deliveroo’s main office, all trying to force them to engage in dialogue. These actions culminated in a final evening of action: a coordinated mass “fall over.” Riders called Deliveroo support to say, unfortunately, they had been in an accident and could no longer deliver the food, which was then given to homeless people. Customers were informed of this action a week prior and only the larger restaurants were targeted. Following this, a critical mass of riders came together to form a “flying picket.” Making lots of noise and holding banners we cycled throughout the busy city centre, Lyon’s famous restaurant district where many tables are set out on the street. Riders joined as we made our way around the area. We were not hopeful that the changes would be reversed, but these riders were not going to go out without a bang either.
Upon returning to Scotland, I found my contract had changed too. I was no longer earning £6 per hour (plus £1 per order), but now only a flat £4.25 per order. At first, this felt wrong and troubled me – what if I got no orders? – but I realised I was earning more, and it was more motivating to catch those drops. Now if things had remained stable, we might have continued business as usual. It was by no means perfect, but the money was good. Jobs were regular and there was a community of friends all on the roads together. But of course, things are rarely that simple. More changes were introduced: now fees were calculated by distance, over-hiring began again, and the zone areas were dropped. Suddenly people were being offered long orders to be picked up across town for fees which were becoming a joke. A minimum of £3.90 was introduced but this soon became the average.
Soon after, a new rider told me about a group called the Couriers Network that was forming branches across the UK. They were being supported by the IWW. I had lost my job at Deliveroo, and while I didn’t have much hope that I would ever get it back, I was interested in having another go at organising. The idea behind the Couriers Network was that riders would come together to self-organise, and be supported by their local IWW branch. The Network would be free to join but participants were encouraged to join the IWW union. Cities would be autonomous but connected, allowing space for specific local issues to be addressed, but not isolated as many problems were unfortunately shared. Our first meeting was well attended, with over 40 people turning up! Much to the horror of the national coffee chain, I was working for at the time, where we decided to meet. I was excited to help get something going but I also didn’t exactly know what that would involve. Similar to other meetings, a big challenge we found was how to move meetings towards action, or at least discussing what we could do.
I have a lot of respect for IWW and it’s members, all of whom are volunteers and I do believe they are pushing for change. However, we encountered a lot of challenges organising as a Couriers Network. There were a lot of pressures on people’s time, a lack of resources, and a diverse range of views on what the main problems and solutions were. The creation and ambitions of the Courier Networks were great, but it was a much bigger challenge to create and support this in real life. There was also a bit of a separation I was experiencing, between my colleagues and friends (some were members of the Couriers Network, some were not), and the friends and colleagues I had in the union. In some ways, I felt like my role was to negotiate between the two and try to explain each side to the other.
In October 2018 there were protests by restaurant workers and couriers, supported by the network. In Edinburgh, we held a protest outside of McDonalds but it was mainly IWW branch members rather than riders. Later that month I went to a large international meeting of riders held in Brussels. Many groups of riders came, some supported by trade unions, others had formed independent associations. There were riders from across Europe, including France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Finland, Norway, Italy and the UK. It was inspiring being with a broad range of voices, all engaged and motivated to push for change. This meeting launched the Transnational Federation of Couriers. As it was an initial meeting and the first of its kind, much of the time was spent understanding the differences between each country and discussing what action had been tried. Nevertheless, it was a positive experience and while I don’t feel like there is much political engagement back in Scotland it is good to hear what else is going on further afield.
We tried to restart the Courier Network a few times in 2019. It was hard to remain motivated and enthusiastic when we were quite isolated in Edinburgh. Other cities were struggling too. In the summer I visited London and took part in some IWW organised protests outside of Deliveroo Editions kitchens, mainly attended by non-courier branch members and friends. I appreciated how different working and organising within a huge city like London is. Later in the year, I decided to join the IWGB (the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain). I had not joined so far, as they had focused traditionally on Deliveroo riders in London, but the union is expanding and starting to have a presence across the UK – including Scotland! I was impressed with the IWGB: group chats for each company, which are (mostly) moderated, caseworkers, an office with resources and regular meetings. As I have returned to university to try and (finally) finish my Masters, I am unable to commit a lot of time but keep in touch and continue working with UberEats and Just Eat.
As 2020 started, we all know what happened: the UK was turned upside down with Covid-19 and suddenly we were in a national lockdown. Much of IWGB’s work continued, but now online. Whilst everyone has experienced the pitfalls of Zoom meetings, they are still useful and I gained a lot socially and mentally from being part of this community during the lockdown. Work is very difficult, no protection from companies and wages plummet to the worst they have been. Sadly, this experience is still not uniting riders in Edinburgh and the community is quite dispersed. Some people are doing well, running multiple apps (and accounts) at once, they may be living with their parents or are on furlough from other jobs. Some are really struggling, with long empty days hanging around waiting for an order to come in. Much has changed during my time as a courier, but it is now clear that the idea we are “all in this together” was a myth. The platforms still refuse to communicate or support workers through Covid-19.