Many industries have suffocated under the grasp of the Covid-19 pandemic. Others, like the delivery sector of the gig economy, have boomed. 

The CEO of Deliveroo Will Shu proudly declared that this “extraordinary and crazy period” had accelerated the adoption of online food delivery by “two or three years,” hastening the timeline for Deliveroo’s impending listing on the stock market. Yet, the couriers who are fundamental to this upsurge have seen pay and conditions go from bad to worse.

The courier industry is notoriously fragmented and the existence of a courier is nomadic, with little time spent with others as they work incredibly hard for unethically low pay.

Food delivery couriers already worked under incredibly precarious conditions before the pandemic struck. The employment model of courier companies strips their workforce of employment rights under the bogus guise of self-employment. Workers are over-recruited against an unknown customer demand. The result is now a common sight: workers standing around on the street, unpaid for hours while they desperately watch their phones hoping for the ping of a job. Fees have plummeted as couriers are forced to accept any job they are sent. Under the constant threat of unfounded automated dismissals with no chance to appeal, the companies they work for do almost nothing to protect workers’ health and safety - not least the genuine risk to life every time they hit the road for a day’s work.

The courier industry is notoriously fragmented and the existence of a courier is nomadic, with little time spent with others as they work incredibly hard for unethically low pay. With no defined workplace, workers have been hard to organise to challenge the falling cost of labour.

Back in 2015, couriers working for the more traditional package delivery companies (before the rapid rise of app based companies) decided they could no longer tolerate the continual depletion of pay and conditions. Sixty couriers from various companies came together and put forward a set of demands centred around improved pay and conditions. We then voted to form the Couriers and Logistics Branch of the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain). A long overdue collective voice was formed demanding drastic reform.

Almost overnight isolation was replaced with networking and campaigning to push back. Whatsapp groups became the virtual workplaces in which couriers organised and recruited. Those who had been sold the bogus claims of flexibility and freedom are now becoming staunch advocates of direct action and strategic litigation. We have seen strikes of Deliveroo riders in Sheffield and targeted restaurant boycotts in York, Nottingham and Wolverhampton. IWGB has recently forced the government through judicial review to extend health and safety protections to the gig economy and frontline workers. Just Eats’ announcement that it will introduce hourly pay, pension contributions, holiday pay, sick pay and maternity or paternity pay is another example of how the tide is turning.

But the arrival of the pandemic exacerbated the perilous existence of the food delivery courier. The deadly virus was a new addition to the list of hazards they already locked horns with on a daily basis. Couriers did not have the option of furlough pay and many will come out the other side of the pandemic financially worse off.

Many who purchased PPE themselves have not been fully recompensed or have been refused reimbursements. The IWGB made public which companies were failing.

At the beginning of March, while I was still chair of the Courier and Logistics Branch, I met with couriers as the impact of the pandemic was becoming clear. We decided on a set of demands to guarantee the physical and financial safety of couriers, including: full pay for self-isolation, regular testing, income protection, provision of PPE and other safety measures. The letters I sent to all the companies for whom our members worked were published on social media to increase the pressure on the various companies.

While the amount was insufficient, a few companies offered workers some income support when they were forced to self-isolate. But many big companies did the bare minimum to guarantee the safety of their workers - both physically and financially. Too many couriers are still waiting for PPE that they applied for in March. Many who purchased PPE themselves have not been fully recompensed or have been refused reimbursements. The IWGB made public which companies were failing. As this gained traction online, slowly we have seen companies do more to protect their workforces.

One positive to come from the pandemic is the rebranding of couriers as “key workers”. Too often stigmatised as low skilled, overnight they were transformed from disposable to essential.

Some companies offered pay for couriers who had to self-isolate, but this was little more than statutory sick pay (only £95.85 per week) and many workers did not qualify. This left many couriers in a situation where they had to choose to continue working through potential early symptoms or face financial destitution by taking the responsible decision to isolate. Self-isolation became a privilege reserved for those who could afford it.

One positive to come from the pandemic is the rebranding of couriers as “key workers”. Too often stigmatised as low skilled, overnight they were transformed from disposable to essential. Another positive has been the acceleration of membership of the Couriers and Logistics Branch of the IWGB.

The IWGB is capitalising on this new found status of “key workers” to provide a spotlight on the experience of couriers. The branch launched the “Clapped and Scrapped” campaign at the beginning of November to focus on the lack of process around terminations. We are demanding a process that would give workers the right to appeal and the right to trade union representation at a hearing. An Early Day Motion laid down by Ian Byrne MP launched the campaign and a virtual rally will take place on the 16th December at which terminated couriers will speak alongside MPs about the life-changing ramifications of these unjust decisions. This is the latest development in the collective struggle to improve conditions and win all the rights couriers are being denied.

One lasting lesson of the pandemic is that workers need more say over their work conditions. If food delivery work is now essential, then why are couriers still denied employment rights? If the model they choose is one that profits from the exploitation of a workforce they deny they even employ, then there is something deeply wrong with the model. Workers are finding their voice in an industry where they have little or no say over how their work is organised. Now is the time to humanise the gig economy!

This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.

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Alex Marshall is the recently elected president of the IWGB. Before being elected he was a courier for 8 years and the chair of the courier and logistics branch of the IWGB for 2.5 years. In that time he was involved in recruiting and organising hundreds of couriers, lead multiple campaigns and helped the IWGB to become the first union to be recognised in the gig economy at his previous company The Doctors Laboratory (TDL) and also secured limb b worker status for over 70 couriers.