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24 September 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 11:56am

“Slaveroo”: How riders are standing up to Uber, Deliveroo and the gig economy

Couriers are rebelling and unions are organising – but opposition feels fraught in the face of a looming monopoly.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Slaveroo” is how one courier described the food delivery company Deliveroo, during the first ever international gathering of riders working for apps – at a fairy-lit brick building down a side street in Liverpool city centre.

Riders from Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, across the UK and elsewhere shared their bad experiences of working for apps like Deliveroo and UberEATS, which have been subject to scrutiny and legal battles over the worker status and bargaining powers for their couriers.

They feel work is becoming increasingly precarious as these gig economy start-up-turned-giants continue to grow – particularly in light of a looming monopoly in the rumoured acquisition of Deliveroo by Uber.

“The work is so precarious you just don’t know how much you’ll make in a week at all,” said Chris, an UberEATS courier who spoke at the gathering, which was organised by The World Transformed – a left-wing festival running parallel to Labour party conference in Liverpool.

UberEATS couriers in Britain continue to strike today, marking six days of action after Uber announced a new pay structure reducing the per delivery fee for its riders (in a move it claims will “boost” earnings in busier times). Couriers on motorbikes have brought traffic to a halt in central London and UberEATS customers have experienced delays in deliveries.

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While last year saw an all-time low in trade union membership, the nature of this work has given rise to action by smaller unions such as the IWGB – the Independent Workers Union whose active courier branch saw the High Court rule in June to give Deliveroo couriers the chance to challenge the company – and the IWW (the Industrial Workers of the World, which has a couriers network that can be joined for free).

“Out of nowhere, a workforce that had been called unorganisable pulled off an incredible and effective strike,” said Callum Cant, a former Deliveroo rider who also spoke at the event. “They were militant, they were effective and they had an amazing ability to make change.”

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Cant said this “workforce will become more and more militant and organised” as the companies continue to grow – the next stage of which could be Uber absorbing Deliveroo.

Indeed, the fear among riders is that this potential monopoly could reduce their pay. When restaurant food delivery company Take Eat Easy went bust in 2016, UberEATS was accused by riders of lowering its pay rates the same day. (The company has not confirmed this, but it did face protests against a cut in pay per delivery very shortly after it happened.)

“All the companies do try to cut the wages from time to time, and they’re very opportunistic about it,” says Max Dewhurst, who has been working for various companies as a courier since 2011 – now a cyclist for eCourier and vice-president of the IWGB union.

“What’s scary about it is that it makes it even more difficult for any other competition to even think about entering the marketplace and providing workers with an alternative employer,” Dewhurts tells me over the phone, regarding the potential monopoly. “If they [Uber] own Deliveroo as well, they’re not going to be worried too much about drivers going and working for Deliveroo.”

However, opposition to such apps is somewhat divided. While some at the gathering in Liverpool called for punters to boycott these companies, others – like Chris the UberEATS courier – said it would be more helpful to have a chat about unionising and workers’ rights with the people who deliver your food when you use these apps.

“Talk to the courier, give them a tip, ask them about their working conditions – this is one of the ways we ask people to help, because folks are going to use these apps regardless really.”

There is also a disagreement among the UK courier unions over whether to focus on legal battles about employment status – a lengthy process the IWGB is battling through – or simply to put pressure on the apps to make immediate improvements to working conditions.

Whatever the course of action, riders agree that their struggle needs to be recognised at a national political level as these companies become more powerful.

“The couriers are the first to blame and the last to be thought about in these sorts of situations,” says Dewhurst. “We’re not even an asset or staff. We’re like an administrative cost.”

Neither UberEATS nor Deliveroo have confirmed the acquisition rumour.