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My evening following a Deliveroo rider

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Society

In this age of smartphones, and with winter approaching, it feels good to order a takeaway meal from the comfort of your home. In more than 150 cities and 12 countries, Deliveroo is making its riders pedal faster and faster. Its motto is flexibility. However, like in many countries in Europe, protests expressing discontent are increasing in Belgium. I joined a Deliveroo rider to find out more.

The street lights have just come on when Martin unlocks his bike ready for the night ahead. Complete with helmet, neck warmer, gloves and long-sleeved thermal layer underneath his Deliveroo jacket, he’s about to spend several hours on the road. Every Sunday evening, he starts his shift from outside his house, which is where we’re going to meet. For the occasion, and specifically the 5ºC temperature, I’ve donned my coat and windproof trousers. Armed with a sports watch, camera and a small notebook, I’m going to follow him during his deliveries. Will I be able to keep up? I don’t hide from Martin* that fact that I’m a little bit nervous.

We’ve barely had time to chat, when Martin’s smartphone rings for our first order. Without warming up, we quickly head to the first restaurant of the night a few minutes away. My feet slip on the pedals, but I manage to catch up with Martin a few meters later.

Long distance race

To be able to do his shift from 6 P.M. until 10 P.M. this evening, Martin had to reserve his time slot two weeks in advance on the riders’ app, through which they also receive orders to deliver from restaurant to home. At 28 years old, he’s just becmome self-employed and, to make ends meet whilst his business takes off, he works 4 hour shifts for Deliveroo on Sunday evenings.

We waste no time on the road, and sometimes take shortcuts through the pavements for to gain a couple of seconds, but we always respect the red lights. We cross paths with other riders as the company calls them, easily recognizable with their characteristic square backpack. In Belgium, 2600 riders work for Deliveroo, of which 900 are based in Brussels. According to their situation, they have the choice of three statuses: independents, who have to pay various contributions to ride; student “freelancers”, who benefit from an exemption from social security contributions up to €6,648 of income per year; and the “de Croo” status, created in Belgium in 2017 as part of the collaborative economy, thanks to which riders earning less than €5,00 per year are entitled to a reduced level of tax.

"If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to pay my social security contributions"

Erwin, former Deliveroo rider

Previously, riders were employed through the intermediary of cooperatives, who took care of their social security contributions. The biggest in Belgium, La Smart, employed over 900 riders for Deliveroo each month with employee status. In January 2018, lauding flexibility, Deliveroo decided that all their riders would become "collaborators", and therefore independent workers, who are self-employed. At this point, a large number of riders decided to quit the setup.

"Personally, it didn’t interest me at all. If something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to pay my social security contributions. What’s more, I know that if I were to lose two weeks or a month then it’s game over,” Erwin, former Deliveroo rider, told me – a bike tattooed on his hand a reminder of his passion for cycling.

For Vincent, who also quit Deliveroo in January, it’s the same story. “We realized that this move by Deliveroo meant that they had complete control over everything – and so they could reduce the pay whenever they liked. Since we are independent, they only have to say, 'We’re stopping our collaboration with you.' Being so much at their mercy was out of the question.”

Along with other disgruntled riders, he is part of the Delivery People Collective (Collectif des Coursiers). In Brussels, they have already tried through several campaigns to put pressure on the company, going as far as occupying the Deliveroo offices. On the 25th and 26th October 2019, riders from 12 countries united for a gathering of riders from across Europe. For two days, they took part in brainstorming workshops and drew up a charter of demands. First and foremost – the requirement of a guaranteed hourly wage.

From time to time, there have been victories for the riders. In Spain, a Deliveroo rider had his contract reclassified as a salaried employment contract by the Court of Valencia, which viewed his relationship with the platform as that of a false micro-entrepreneur. A victory for the time being. In France for example, no delivery-person has ever managed to condemn a platform. The Paris prosecutor's office nevertheless opened a preliminary investigation against Deliveroo France in the spring for undeclared work, taking the view that the riders are in fact not self-employed.

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Martin continued to work with Deliveroo after the status change. He signed a ‘de Croo’ agreement in January and has even received a €150 bonus from Deliveroo for being one of the first to do so.

Benchmark – the restaurants

For our first order, we arrive at a little Indian restaurant, where they ask us to wait for 10 minutes. “I hope it won’t be much longer,” says Martin. “The Indian restaurants are good, they pack the dishes really well, but the pizzas are the worst. The tomato sauce sometimes spills out. Afterwards, it’s me who has to clean the backpack.” While Martin collects the order, another Deliveroo rider arrives. He’s about 35 years old. I ask him how long he’s been delivering. In a very suspicious tone and with a foreign accent, he replies: "One or two years, like everyone else."

With the meal in the bag, we cross Ixelles (municipality of southeast Brussels) at full speed. In Rue de la Brasserie, which is very steep, we go over 35 km/h (10 km/h over the limit for cycling in town). Martin knows all the tricks for going fast whilst staying cautious: “Don’t ride too close to the cars parked along the road, someone could open their door without warning. Pay attention to the tram rails, you can get your wheels stuck in them and fall,” he tells me several times.

After ten minutes at high speed, we have arrived at our destination. Martin rings the bell once, twice, but no one answers. We wait five minutes and he calls the customer from his personal mobile: “Good evening, Deliveroo here.” The customer comes down straight-away. It was worth the wait: he gets a €2 tip. “On a Sunday evening like this, we get a few more tips. Those ordering are mostly young families and couples. When it’s cold or rainy, people ordering feel more guilty and tip more.”

Less than a minute after clicking “delivered”, another order comes through. We have to collect it from Poki Poké, not too far, but it needs to be delivered to Anderlecht, over 3km away. For Martin, it’s too far and he declines. He must indicate the reason for his refusal on the app: 'I don’t like the delivery area'. “Personally, I want to stay in Ixelles. It’s crazy that they make us take an order in another area and then send us to the other side of the city. Then, at the end of the night, you find yourself 15km away from home and you have to get back.” Not even 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s for pick-up and delivery in Ixelles. We can already see on the app that we’ll get around €7.50 for this delivery. Martin hits confirm. The restaurant is less than five minutes downhill. I’m beginning to feel a little bit more comfortable following Martin.

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When we reach our next destination, we head straight for a small back door. Martin is used to picking up orders here. We have to wait between 5 and 10 minutes. Recently, Deliveroo has encouraged not only their riders to pick up the pace, but also the restaurant owners. The app now allows riders to rate restaurants and evaluate their punctuality. Another tool designed to optimize delivery times. We hit the road again to head back up Rue de la Brasserie. Despite the steep slope, it takes only seven minutes to travel 1.7 km, including the traffic lights. I have trouble keeping up. "Are there two of you tonight?" asks a customer of about 30 at the door of a building. "It's me who delivers. He's just watching," says Martin, in good spirits.

We head back down the same street to pick up a single burger from Super Filles du Tram, a well-known restaurant in the city. Each customer spends between 15 and 20 euros for dinner, to which a delivery charge of €2.50 is added. Burger in the bag, we climb once again the Rue de la Brasserie, and I’m finding it even more difficult to keep up. Arriving at the top of the slope, Martin stops for the first time to look at the GPS app on his phone; he’s not sure of the street. In a couple of seconds, it’s sorted: “Right, then left”. He knows all the streets by name, which helps him go much faster.

For the next order, we arrive at Poule Poulette, where we are told the order is not ready. “It often happens: restaurants accept all the orders they receive, without taking into account the time it takes to prepare them,” he explains. Martin reports on the app 'too long a wait', refuses to deliver and we move on to another restaurant. “Are you going to be paid for this trip and waiting for the dish?” The answer is no. He has just lost ten minutes of working time, for which he won’t be paid. As Professor Jeremais Prassl, a professor of law at Oxford University, recalls in his book Humans as a Service: "the cost of time not worked is attributed to the workers, who must already provide the tools and pay for their maintenance and running costs." A model that workers accept more and more as something normal, so much so that they do not see it as an inconvenience but rather as the freedom to choose their own equipment and work schedules.

On the other hand, collectives and unions, often made up of former delivery-people, completely denounce the dehumanized management and deplorable working conditions. For Jérôme Pimot, from the Collective of the Independent Delivery-People of Paris (CLAP), “it used to be the miners and the dockers, now it’s the delivery-people who are the ones in insecure jobs.” On the 16th November, CLAP is inviting riders to gather together in front of the all-new Deliveroo Editions, the kitchens that Deliveroo created after probing the tastes and culinary trends of its customers. The collective will protest against pay cuts and contract changes without collective agreements, and aim and for recognition of the harsh conditions faced by delivery-people.

“It was my first student job, I liked it and it was really convenient for me because I was a foreigner and hardly spoke French.”

Nicolas, Mexican student in Brussels

When talking with those concerned, one argument often resurfaces: the ease of access to these jobs. Digital platforms like Deliveroo often attract groups that have trouble finding work, such as people who do not speak the local language, or students. For Nicolas*, a student who came to Brussels from Mexico in 2017, it was a golden opportunity. "It was my first student job, I liked it and it was really convenient for me because I was a foreigner, I hardly spoke French, and I could work just like that. I only needed a bike.” According to Deliveroo Belgium's press officer, more than 200 people register online each week to join the community of riders. In front of the restaurant, we find a delivery-man from Uber Eats who asks us for directions in a mix of Spanish, Italian and French. His smartphone has given up in the cold. With gestures, we tell him that he is in the right place.

Grease the wheels

For me it’s time to call it a night. We have completed three orders and another one is in the backpack ready to be delivered. With the first three deliveries, which took us in total one hour and ten minutes, Martin earned €23.70. Riders can check their balance on the app at any time. That works out to be about €20 gross per hour, VAT and taxes not deducted, and is in line with the €18.50 per hour that couriers earn according to Mathieu de Lophem, General Manager Benelux at Deliveroo.

It wouldn't be so bad if riders could keep up with the pace. Like Martin, it's often young men in tiptop condition. Furthermore, it’s the details which can make the shift unpleasant: the unpredictable wait at the restaurants or customers’ addresses, the weather or incidents on the road. Without taking into account that the demand is lower outside peak times. At the end of the day, the earnings vary enormously according to a whole series of factors, which are often out of the hands of the riders. Calculating an average hourly wage therefore would not be representative. Yet, the company can count on examples of lucrative shifts for their advertising. Just take the rider who earned €30 in one hour by having delivered four meals, with tips on top.

Ma soirée en danseuse dans Bruxelles

When I ask Martin if he often sees riders working full-time, he replies: “Yes, they stand out because they wear cycling shoes with straps, anti-pollution masks and ride racing bikes. They look down at you a bit,” he says, gently teasing. Finally, I ask him how he finds this setup. “To make a living, the model is not fair," he admits, "but it’s no different from a regular self-employed person, who has no paid holiday and isn’t sure they’ll have work the next day.”

For Martin, it’s a way of supplementing his income that suits him. For the riders who want to work full-time, it’s a different story. The pleasure of practicing your favorite sport doesn’t compensate for the accident risk, the working conditions and the expenses they have to pay for. If Deliveroo has recently boasted of the Personal Accident Insurance service offered to its riders, just take a look at the pay-out limits and you soon realize that the coverage is ridiculous. "If you find yourself paraplegic, for example, you only get €100,000, which is nothing! The insurance doesn’t even cover back and torso injuries," exclaims Jean-Bernard Robillard, former rider and spokesperson for the collective of delivery-people in Belgium.

With fatigue in my calves – which continued to ache over the following days – and a Sunday evening when the nights are drawing in, I call it a day and leave Martin to it after an hour and a half. I think of the moment I’ll finally be able to take off my helmet and layers and crash out on the sofa. Will I have the strength to cook something to eat? A nice meal delivered to me would be real treat. What is certain is that I will surely think of the tip.

  • The first names have been changed.

Cover photo : (cc)joncrel/Flickr)

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Translated from Ma soirée avec un coursier Deliveroo