Why Britain’s food couriers are in endless limbo

A courier cycling at night.
A courier is cycling at night. Rudy and Peter Skitterians/Pixabay.

It was 2 am on the second Saturday of June on London’s Great Portland Street, but it felt like a rush hour. Dozens of people had exited the 229 venue, where punk band Crown Court just finished its gig. Some were chatting and smoking at the car park, while others were waiting for a cab outside the gate.

Then came Sainath, slowly cycling through the crowd outside, trying to find someone who was having a late-night craving for chicken nuggets. He found the hungry man, gave the nuggets, and left.

For Sainath, weekends are not the time to party. The 23-year-old Indian, who has been an Uber Eats courier for a month, works 10-12 hours a day for four days a week—mostly on weekends. He splits his workday into two shifts. The first one is from 10 am to 2 pm, while the second is from 7 pm up to 4 am.

He has just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of East London, and is now saving money to apply for a master’s course. “I’m not planning to do this [delivery work] for long term. So, this is just for now,” he said, adding that the flexibility to choose his own working hours was the key factor that had lured him into doing gig work.

Sainath’s story tells a lot about today’s gig economy, which the UK government defines as involving “the exchange of labour for money between individuals or companies via digital platforms” on a short-term and payment-by-task basis.

Gig economy, including the online food delivery sector, significantly grew in the early phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people relied on self-employed couriers to deliver everyday essentials to their homes. The number of people doing gig jobs at least once a week stood at 4.4 million across England and Wales in 2021, nearly three times bigger than five years before, said the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

The UK’s food delivery market, in particular, skyrocketed by 128% between February 2020 and February 2021. The market size was estimated at £3.1 billion last year, with Just Eat, Uber Eats, and Deliveroo dominating the industry.

Like Sainath, many other gig workers are attracted by the flexibility promised by digital labour platforms, without realising that it’s only a myth.

Gig companies often use algorithmic management to exert significant control over their workforces, as noted in a 2019 report by Data & Society Research Institute. This involves a “prolific data collection and surveillance of workers”, rating systems, and the use of nudges and penalties to “indirectly incentivise worker behaviours”.

The algorithms, the study says, have eventually become a tool that enables gig platforms to classify their workers as self-employed contractors. Without income certainty and basic employment benefits, gig workers are then often pushed to work longer hours than those in full-time jobs.

Jake Thomas, the communications officer at the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), said gig companies used those algorithmic systems to find the lowest possible fee for any amount of work. “It creates this race to the bottom where people are so desperate that they will start doing things for less and less,” said the former Deliveroo courier.

Conversation with Jake Thomas of IWGB

What Thomas says rings especially true during the UK’s cost-of-living crisis. With inflation reaching the highest figure in four decades in October last year due to bloated energy bills and food prices, many were forced to rein in their spending. That, coupled with the fact that people had started eating out again post-lockdown, led to a year-on-year drop in delivery and takeaway sales for 15 months in a row leading up to January, according to CGA by NielsenIQ. And, subsequently, food delivery couriers were affected.

A 2023 study led by the University of Bristol found that, on average, the UK gig workers earned £8.97 per hour last year, around 15% below the current minimum wage. They spent 28 hours a week doing gig jobs, which generated 60% of their total income.

What’s more concerning is about 76% of gig workers said they had work-related insecurity and anxiety, with 28% felt they were risking their health or safety in doing gig jobs and 25% “experienced pain on the job”.

“A major factor contributing to low pay rates is that this work involves spending significant amounts of time waiting or looking for work while logged on to a platform. Not only is the work low paid, but it is also extremely insecure and risky,” said Alex Wood, a senior lecturer in human resource management and future of work at the University of Bristol.

Wood added: “The self-employed who are dependent on platforms to make a living are urgently in need of labour protections to shield them against the huge power asymmetries that exist in the sector. This clearly warrants the expansion of the current ‘worker’ status to protect them.”

What’s in a status?
Homayun Roshid was living on a tight budget. In September, when the UK inflation was nearly reaching its peak, he was forced to do food delivery and various odd jobs to make ends meet, all while pursuing a master’s degree at London South Bank University.

The 25-year-old Bangladeshi spent about £1,200 a month to live in London (including £700 for the rent) and £900 for the monthly instalment of his postgraduate tuition fees. He relied on his family in Bangladesh to cover the instalments, but must deal with the living cost himself.

Roshid had limited options. It’s difficult for him to do a part-time job at a restaurant, for instance, as the work shifts often conflicted with his class schedule. That’s why he decided to go with Just Eat, which provided him with better flexibility. But, still, it’s not enough.

“I earn £200 to £220 per week with Just Eat. So, it’s about £800 to £900 per month. There’s still a gap [with the monthly cost],” he said. “When it’s totally impossible [to get additional income from odd jobs], I call back home.”

Many international students like Roshid were delivering food with Just Eat as, unlike its rivals, the company was offering worker contracts to those coming to the UK with student visas, in addition to employing self-employed contractors. It must be noted that the UK student visa does not allow self-employment, hence legally preventing foreign students from doing gig jobs with the likes of Uber Eats and Deliveroo.

The UK now recognises three main types of employment status: employees, workers, and self-employed individuals. While employees are entitled to all employment rights and self-employed people generally have none, workers enjoy some rights such as the minimum wage and holiday pay and have more flexibility than employees over when, how much, and where they work. The UK is the only country to have the intermediate “workers” category that combines elements of “employees” and “self-employed individuals”.

UK food delivery couriers are generally categorised as self-employed individuals.
UK food couriers are generally categorised as self-employed individuals. DragonImages/Motion Array.

With critics accusing gig companies of exploiting their workers and misclassifying them as self-employed, Just Eat’s decision in 2020 to start offering worker contracts in the UK garnered praises from many. But in less than three years, Just Eat made a U-turn, announcing in March that it was to lay off 1,700 couriers with worker status in the UK and rely entirely on self-employed contractors. This was after the company saw a 10% drop in orders across the UK and Ireland in the last quarter of 2022 and reported a £5 billion loss throughout the year. And, just like that, workers like Roshid were given six weeks notice and let go.

In the end, as noted by Data & Society Research Institute, gig companies use algorithmic systems as labour- and cost-cutting measures.

“The only way for a company to be certain about an individual’s legal status is to treat them as an employee. This is unacceptable or inappropriate for many businesses, so they choose to live with that risk, and structure the working relationship accordingly,” said Charlie Thompson, a partner at law firm Stewarts.

Lengthy legal battles
The bigger the gig economy, the more aware platform workers become of the need to fight for their rights. This has eventually resulted in years-long legal battles between companies and gig workers.

In the UK, Uber spent five years defending its claim that its ride-hailing drivers were self-employed, before losing at the Supreme Court in February 2021. The company subsequently must reclassify about 70,000 drivers in the country as workers and provide them with a minimum wage, holiday pay, and pension plans. Couriers under its Uber Eats arm, however, have remained self-employed.

Uber Eats couriers are still self-employed.
Uber Eats couriers are still self-employed. Szymon Fischer/Unsplash.

Just four months after the Supreme Court ruling on Uber, the UK’s Court of Appeal confirmed that Deliveroo couriers were self-employed and, thus, didn’t have collective bargaining rights. The different decision was due to Deliveroo’s substitution feature, which allows its couriers to ask someone else to do delivery jobs on their behalf. This indicates that Deliveroo’s food delivery couriers were seen to have more control than Uber’s ride-hailing drivers, even though both must comply with the algorithmic systems developed by the two platforms.

The substitution feature itself is problematic. A study by the Heriot-Watt University and Nottingham Trent University found that some couriers were renting out their accounts to undocumented migrants, who had no other money-making option yet must pay off their debts and support their families. These migrants were eventually distressed as they were overworked and underpaid.

Gig companies lay the responsibility regarding the substitution on the couriers or account holders, who must check themselves whether the substitutes are qualified to work.

A Just Eat spokesperson said: “Legally the courier account holder is responsible for ensuring their substitute meets the necessary standards to deliver on our network. If we find that our high expectations are not met, we will investigate and immediately take action, including removing couriers from our network.”

Uber Eats and Deliveroo do not respond to request for comments, but on their websites they say that account owners are the ones responsible for the substitutes’ right to work.

Pedro Mendonça, an associate professor of work and employment at the Heriot-Watt University, said online takeaway companies often made their identity checks permissive and easy to go around, while at the same time blaming the account holders for any problems arising from it.

“They not only rely on the workers to take all the responsibilities, but also the state. They basically say that it’s the country’s problem. It’s not our problem,” said Mendonça. “They don’t want to do anything really about it, because to remove the substitution clause, that would mean these people will be no longer self-employed.”

There’s still hope, though. The EU is currently working on a new directive, which it says aims to “improve the working conditions and social rights of people working in the gig economy”. The EU feels it’s crucial to regulate gig economy, as around 500 digital labour platforms are currently employing 28 million gig workers in the bloc.

The directive is set to introduce a legal presumption of employment, which will automatically classify gig workers as employees if they meet at least two of the five proposed criteria. They include conditions in which workers’ level of remuneration is determined by a platform, their work performance is supervised, and their freedom to choose their own working hours is restricted.

As the UK is no longer part of the EU, the country is not obliged to comply with the union’s directive. Nevertheless, as noted by PwC, the UK-based entities must still be mindful of the upcoming EU rules. It’s because, among others, they may have workers based in EU countries and platforms need to comply with the new algorithmic management requirements.

“The UK will, at the very least, be looking at the EU’s new platform working regime to decide the extent [if any] to which it should act as a roadmap for the future of contingent work here,” PwC stated.

In the future, gig worker Sainath may prefer attending concerts than delivering food on weekends, and will already be in bed at 2 am. Who knows?


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top