When your food comes via a delivery app, the exploitation is baked right in

<span>Illustration: Matt Kenyon</span>
Illustration: Matt Kenyon

The working life of a delivery app rider is dictated by the tyranny of time. Time between deliveries, the time it takes to make a delivery, the time that a rider needs to rest, go to the bathroom, eat.

Ulisses Cioffi is a rider who is part of a group that organised last week’s Valentine’s Day strike. There are only a certain amount of deliveries that he can make safely in an hour, he tells me, a maximum of three. For those three, he will make just under £12 an hour. Sometimes, he says, “we cannot even make that”. Every obstacle on the way is a drag on his hourly income. Roadworks, busy restaurants that take longer to prepare deliveries, even the wait on the doorstep. “You’re not going to believe it, but there are a lot of people who order food then go for a shower.”

The big delivery apps have not only reduced the fees paid to drivers, but removed peak hour “boosts”, paid during heavy rain or at the weekends. “I know very experienced drivers who have been doing it longer than me, who are now working 10 or 11 hours a day, and making £105,” Cioffi says. When riders realised that their income was being squeezed and cut, they reached out to each other and compared notes. What emerged, Cioffi says, was a “disgusting” approach on the part of delivery apps, and the riders organised to strike.

Pay is the only thing they have any ability to influence through striking. Conditions are out of their control. Food is regularly stolen from the backs of bikes and mopeds. The lack of sick pay means they work through illness. “Right now, there’s a guy with a broken leg working. My neighbour was working with a broken finger for two weeks. When he had to turn left, he had to use his arms. He couldn’t afford to stay at home.”

“Be your own boss” is how these gig economy roles are advertised. But treating such jobs as if they benefit from the freedom and autonomy of freelance work is a category error. Their circumstances and pay make a mockery of all the touted virtues of self-employment, flexible working hours and being “your own boss”. The hours are only as flexible as your pay is adequate. The boss may not be a line manager, but they very much exist in the architects of the algorithm that demands commitment but offers no guarantees. You are self-employed but you cannot set aside money to finance all the privileges that you have lost in exchange for flexibility – a pension, sick pay, holiday pay, parental leave.

The outcome, and indeed purpose, of such a system is to transfer wealth. It is to cut rights close to the bone and convert those savings into profit margins. Otherwise, the model collapses, or is at least severely stressed. A company whose very service is logistical, rather than product related, must turn the units of those logistics into as low cost a line item as possible. The backend is already expensive, existing as it does in the world of work that is treated as such. Engineers, financial officers, management and admin support, must be paid and retained. They need offices and heating, and electricity and rent.

The cut from restaurants is one part of the income stream, but the riders and drivers bear the cost of everything else by not only being paid a small amount, but by being treated as machines who must foot the bill even for their own servicing. In addition to paying for insurance and maintenance of vehicles, Cioffi says that riders even “have to be our own police” when their bikes are stolen, hunting down the dumped vehicles to retrieve the tracking devices given to them by the delivery app companies.

For such a model to persist and flourish, there must also be a high demand for it: that is, it must be so convenient, so cheap and time-saving that questions about how it can even be possible don’t arise. How is it possible, for a small delivery fee, and other times a subscription fee (in the case of Deliveroo, one bundled up with Amazon Prime), to now receive, if you wish, anything from a coffee and breakfast to a large order of groceries in less than an hour? The answer is that the rider is paying for it.

Related: I deliver food to your door, but not this Valentine’s Day. Here’s why we are on strike in the UK | Anonymous food courier

This is not to blame consumers – it’s not up to them to impose legislation on companies – and Cioffi says that on the day of the strike, the riders were struck by the fact that many customers did not know the delivery fees weren’t going directly to the riders. App users are also subject to changes to their own unpredictable working hours, public transport infrastructure, time constraints and costs of living. Time for cooking meals or a leisurely shop is increasingly limited. In the UK in particular, we work longer hours than our European counterparts, half of us working more than contracted hours. Ordering grocery items that can be at your door in as little as half an hour as opposed to driving or taking public transport to buy them is a no-brainer, even if it ends up costing more.

Who decides and who is responsible are the legislators, under whose watch those in zero-hours and insecure working arrangements have grown to almost 11% of the workforce. Labour’s new deal for working people promises to ban zero-hours contracts, but the party has already watered down its pledge to enhance protection for gig economy workers. The rest of the deal, still ambitious, is coming under pressure from business leaders for its potential to impose “significant costs” on their enterprises.

It’s a brewing confrontation that reveals how much the very viability of many businesses now depends on the withholding of basic rights from their employees. “They know,” Cioffi tells me, “that without us, their businesses are not sustainable.” The business model itself demands exploitation. With every strike and sickening story that riders like Cioffi tell, it grows ever harder for the rest of us to claim that we do not know it too.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist