Seventy metres of glass and steel stretch skyward from the tangle of A roads and housing blocks around Whitechapel in east London. Meranti House, where two-bed flats sell for nearly £1m, was built in 2017 – a symbol of the new east end rising up equidistant between the Jack the Ripper Museum and East London Mosque.
Outside Meranti House at 10.30pm on Thursday 23 February a Deliveroo rider called Mohamed, cycling over with a meal from Rosa’s Thai, collapsed.
Security guards wouldn’t let bystanders helping Mohamed move him inside the building into the warm. They let him in much later when he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Witnesses said he seemed overheated then freezing cold.
Another Deliveroo rider who had come to help signalled on Mohamed’s Deliveroo app that he had arrived, to stop his phone pinging with demands to complete the delivery. After that his phone alerted him to new orders to pick up.
The customers came out and noticed food was missing from their order. They wanted to know how to resolve this issue while their rider was incapacitated – even trying to ask him if the rest was in his courier bag. In the end they stepped over him and went back inside. “They were probably missing their prawn crackers or something,” said a witness.
An ambulance took over an hour to arrive. The Royal London Hospital is a five-minute drive away. Mohamed had been rushing to deliver food from a restaurant a 13-minute walk from its customers’ home. He is still seriously ill in hospital; his family want the details kept private.
James Farrar, who was an Uber driver for two years and now fights for better rights for app drivers, happened to be near by to help Mohamed. “There’s a weird juxtaposition where it takes a life-saving service an hour to arrive, and yet we can have fast food delivery and mini cabs in minutes,” he said. “Something’s not working.”
While social media posts and news reports reflect outrage at the perceived callousness of the customers and concierge, Mohamed’s experience exposes how we all view gig workers in the app economy. They risk injury and even their lives racing to deliver restaurant meals to us in the time it would take to settle in at a table and browse the menu. We are given their names, but only invoke them when tracking them on the in-app map, tutting as they get lost or run late.
“I don’t think the security guards at the Meranti were bad people, I don’t think those people who ordered the food were bad people either,” said Farrar, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union. “I think we’ve become desensitised, and that’s part of the technology experience. We’re all victims. We pull out an app, we’re led to believe we can have a car in 90 seconds or food in ten minutes, but we don’t think how that’s possible. We’re duped into thinking it’s technology that’s made that possible, but of course it isn’t, it’s the labour that’s made it possible.”
You can only have the necessary surplus of workers on call, weaving through the city or hanging around outside popular spots on the circuit, when “people are not being properly paid”, Farrar argued. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be economically viable.”
While Deliveroo cites an average wage of £10 an hour for its riders, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism found in 2021 that one in six were earning less than £6.45 per hour, and one cyclist logged in for 180 hours over a year was paid what worked out at just £2 per hour. The UK minimum wage is £9.50 an hour for those aged 23 and over.
A Deliveroo spokesperson said: “We are all deeply concerned the rider who was taken ill and have spoken to his family to offer our support. Riders are at the very heart of our business and their safety and well-being is our absolute priority.”
A London Ambulance Service spokesperson confirmed the delay in reaching Mohamed. “We are very sorry that some patients have waited longer than they should for an ambulance and on the night of this incident we were experiencing particularly high demand across London,” they said. “Our teams are working incredibly hard to make sure people get the care they need, and we are doing everything we can to reduce our response times.”
Berkeley Group, the property developer running Meranti House, had not responded to questions about what happened at the time of publication.
Somewhere between ghosts and butlers, Deliveroo riders are invisible to us until something goes wrong – our prawn crackers are missing, for example, or they cut us up in the cycle lane. Then they become customer service foot soldiers and targets for road rage. Between 2020 and 2021 the number of muggings, threats and sexual assaults of Deliveroo riders doubled.
Like post boxes and the yelp of sirens, they are now part of a city’s scenery, faceless turquoise blurs. Deliveroo, meanwhile, likes to portray its riders as mini entrepreneurs. They are self-employed, keeping the operation lean.
Many riders I’ve spoken to welcome the flexibility this brings, but the lack of protections are all too stark when only pedestrians are left to help you. One Deliveroo rider who fell off his motorbike and broke his hip – while rushing to complete 15 orders in the rain – told me a few years ago that the company neither provided sick pay nor revised safety measures: “They don’t care if it’s raining, if it’s snowing, or if ice is coming from the sky… They don’t have an agreement with any restaurants saying you can stay inside when it’s cold or raining.”
Since then Deliveroo has extended the insurance it gives riders to cover earnings support for illness. It also offers a free account on the third-party road safety app Flare, through which riders can report incidents and contact emergency services.
Riders don’t have the employment rights that, say, a Deliveroo HQ staffer does. And the company doesn’t pay national insurance for the bulk of its workforce to fund the public services they might need, such as the NHS. “We’re not even an asset or staff. We’re like an administrative cost,” is how one courier for various apps put it to me.
When Farrar contacted Deliveroo about Mohamed’s situation, he received an automated response (“For any order-related queries, please reply to this email with a photo of your order”). Fifteen hours later he received an apology for the automated response “given such serious circumstances”.
Life could become even harder for Mohamed and his peers. Since Brexit, Britain has needed its own law to replace European data protection legislation, the GDPR. The government plans to water down restrictions on management by algorithm and the use of artificial intelligence, which could eat into riders’ already limited rights.
“When tech is introduced, there is a disturbance, then it is integrated, normalised and disappears because it becomes wallpaper for us,” said Farrar. “That’s why when your delivery person collapses outside, you still collect your food. You’re thinking about the technology output and shutting yourself off from the person who’s delivered it. I don’t believe people are that callous. We’ve been desensitised and commoditised. It’s really sad, but it’s also dangerous.”