Deliveroo dismissed over 100 riders in Leicester, Glasgow and Sheffield on the 20th of December 2018 via a bulk automated email with an unevidenced accusation of ‘fraud’.
These workers are entitled to no legal recourse, no official union representation and no further explanation of what has happened owing to the Wild West-esque deregulated environment that Deliveroo operate in and profit from.
Every rider who saw their contract terminated was a cyclist, implying that this was an attempt to bulk-dismiss cyclists and replace them with faster drivers and moped-riders, though this contradicts their stated reason for dismissal that:
‘recent orders on [the dismissed rider’s]account were incorrectly marked “delivered” in the app, even though they were never dropped off at the customer’.
Most of the riders I spoke to could not even think of an incident this accusation refers to. Some mentioned older incidents that were resolved with rider support; none considered this an ongoing case with Deliveroo that might result in action before they received the email. Attempts to access further documents on each case via GDPR claims have not yet been answered by the company. The CEO, William Shu, emailed one gutted worker to say he was travelling and would get back to him later – he has not yet got back to him.
WhatApp groups and rider forums have become struggle sessions. One Masters student named Adam from Leicester said he relied on the job to pay his rent and was gobsmacked at this hitting him out of the blue. He goes into the holidays and new year with no income whatsoever and bills racking up. Another has worked for Deliveroo (his wording, though Deliveroo are quick to clarify that they don’t employ any of their riders) for almost 3 years. When he contacted rider support he was led to believe that there was a backlog of 6,000 job applications in Leicester, and this move simply represents a comprehensive staff turnover to combat complacency.
Despite their evident flimsiness, these paper-thin ‘gigs’ still count towards government employment figures. 2.8 million, or 4.4% of the UK, work in the gig economy each year, representing an easy way to fudge poor employment statistics and make them appear impressive. It is therefore no wonder companies like Deliveroo have seen minimal legislative hurdles block their path in spite of their demonstrably sociopathic tendencies.
This shift has effectively rendered the minimum wage completely redundant: according to the government’s own figures 45% of gig economy workers through apps and websites earn less than £7.50 – most of these are from London, where the living wage is calculated at £10.55.
More important than wage is the psychological affect that the gig-economy lifestyle provokes. As Mark Fisher put it in Capitalist Realism, ‘as production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems’. Confidence and self-worth come from a structured economic life, or at least the ability plan beyond what to have for breakfast tomorrow, and without these it’s difficult to find meaning or motivation to improve the immediate situation around you. From a political standpoint this is extremely convenient to the incumbent government, whom thrive to see a workforce wrapped in the foetal position; from a public health perspective, it’s disastrous. The NHS prescribed 64 million items of antidepressants in 2016, according to forecasts it’s likely that it will exceed 70 million this year.
A Spanish alternative.
The very same company operate in Spain, but have had a different experience. Deliveroo were forced to pay out €1.3 million in social security contributions after the court ruled that their riders were treated unfavourably for rejecting deliveries and therefore are employees and not freelancers (poor statistics in the app mean that you are pushed down the waiting list for new shifts and can have your contract terminated).
One Spanish rider was even paid €700 for unfair dismissal in November after the court intervened, massively undermining the ‘freelancer’ model that Deliveroo defend resolutely.
The company still do business in Spain, even after the Spanish state called their bluff and decided to implement concrete workers’ protections. The abstractions and nebulous values of ‘flexibility’ that they lean-on are exposed as empty attempts at maximising profit when the state desires to actually uphold laws against them. Deliveroo are no less ‘flexible’ in Spain, their profit margins are just smaller because have to pay social security contributions like everyone else.
Spain wisely recognised that a new school of tech giants obfuscate their true nature under a cloak of sophistry and a stylish progressive ethos that is purely cosmetic. In reality, they merely wish to exploit from the dilution of people’s dignity that has occurred in the past 30 years of neoliberalism. Workers with a 4G data plan still have rent to pay, they still get sick, and they still need to know how much they will be earning next month. They deserve rights too.