How to Start a Gig Worker Rebellion
One of the first workers to organize a protest for better conditions at a delivery app shares his story — and it’s more relevant than ever now
When Callum Cant started working as a courier for Deliveroo in 2016, he was taken aback at how little human interaction was required in his job. Deliveroo is the UK’s answer to DoorDash or PostMates; it’s a fast-growing, app-based food delivery company that currently operates in 200 cities. Yet Cant only met one person who worked in the Deliveroo office on his first day: the staffer who handed him some paperwork and basic bike lights.
In the hilly town of Brighton, on the south coast of England, Deliveroo couriers would often gather in the zone center to make sure they were in the right range to pick up as many orders as possible, and some would briefly chat between deliveries. Over the next few months, more and more riders joined the courier network, even though the overall amount of orders stayed around the same. On average, the payment per drop-off started to decrease.
The conversations, as he puts it in his book Riding for Deliveroo, started to “become more and more militant: You could see the cogs whirring in people’s heads.”
Cant, who is pursuing a PhD researching trade unions in the UK, worked as a courier for Deliveroo for eight months. His experiences, analysis of the decline in trade union power in the UK, and a whistle-stop tour of neoliberalism make up the backbone of Riding for Deliveroo. Now, as the fallout from the coronavirus reorganizes the economic order, it’s an opportune time for gig workers to organize for better conditions.
Deliveroo is just one gig economy app among many, of course. Seamless has been available in the United States as a web-based food ordering service since 1999, and Instacart offers grocery deliveries in more than 5,500 cities. Uber has its food delivery service, UberEats, which is one of Deliveroo’s main competitors — it also operates in 45 countries. Some restaurant owners — and workers — are increasingly concerned that the growth of food delivery apps could put restaurants themselves out of business, as the commissions that apps take (which often don’t go to the riders) cut into already thin margins. For many years, the kind of food that you could get delivered to your front door was pizza and maybe local Chinese or Indian takeout, a limited number of choices. Now, food delivery services — whether that’s groceries or fully prepared meals — have become so ubiquitous around the world that they’ve become verbs themselves.
“This isn’t a book about Deliveroo, really,” Cant says in a phone interview. “It’s a book about capitalism, and Deliveroo is one way into talking about that.”
But why Deliveroo in the first place? Deliveroo is not the world’s first food delivery app, and it’s unlikely to be the last. When Deliveroo first started recruiting in 2013 in the UK, it seemed almost too good to be true — flexible working times, relatively good pay, and no worries of a manager breathing down your back. All you had to do was sign up, bring your bike, and pick up food. Since then, Deliveroo has become synonymous with a new working culture — one where algorithms manage your time, your physical limits are tested to the point of injury, and you’re constantly pushed to keep doing more work for less and less pay. As Deliveroo has continued to drive down wages and working conditions, Deliveroo couriers around the world — from the UK to India to Germany — have organized, gone on wildcat strikes and agitated for better working conditions.
“I’ve been writing about labor movements for about five years, and I’d never really written about it in personal terms,” says Cant. “I’d been writing articles about these collective vehicles — student movements, the Labour Party. Through those articles and Rebel Roo [an online forum where Deliveroo workers share information about organizing and strikes], there was this kind of continual process of reflection going on, trying to understand what the opportunities were for getting through this work as it was happening. But my story isn’t typical… I’m a highly educated university student, a socialist, a writer, and I was already talking about and reflecting on my experience with friends.”
Since the beginning of March, cities around the world have locked down their citizens in order to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, making delivery couriers for companies such as Deliveroo frontline workers, directly delivering food to more people than ever before, putting themselves at increasing risk. In the UK, couriers have been classified by the government as essential workers and are partnering with supermarkets to deliver food to houses. But companies like Deliveroo don’t even classify them as employees.
In the United States, gig economy workers are increasingly being asked to provide a range of vital services — such as taking people who may have Covid-19 to the hospital. In the last two weeks, both Amazon and Uber have suggested that gig economy workers should deliver coronavirus tests, despite taking minimal precautions to ensure their safety. After much public criticism, Uber, Deliveroo, and other companies set up hardship funds to compensate workers who may have to self-isolate or who may be ill — but the accounts of workers who are trying to access this help demonstrate that many are still slipping through the cracks.
Current events only throw Cant’s account of working for Deliveroo into sharp relief: Hourly wages are reduced to flat fees per delivery, and Deliveroo fails to provide support when riders get injured, for instance. Which is why Deliveroo couriers, many of whom have never met each other, started to band together against what they perceived as exploitation.
One of the first examples of this kind of organizing was an action taken by Deliveroo couriers against Byron Burger (a fast food chain in the UK) in 2016. An immigration sting, in the guise of a companywide meeting, took place in 12 branches, so Deliveroo couriers refused to pick up orders from Byron Burger branches, spreading word via WhatsApp and Facebook. As Cant puts it, just being able to organize the action demonstrated the ability of precarious workers to form alliances even without a fixed workplace, and it also provided a rulebook for how workers could use the structures they created themselves. WhatsApp groups where workers share advice on how to make bikes last longer or the location of potholes in common roads, for example, became places to spread the word of meetings or to suggest unions that couriers could join.
Cant’s book is split into sections, some of which examine the system of control that workers are subject to with Deliveroo, while others examine the social composition of workers for Deliveroo in the UK — often migrants who work for multiple apps at a time, alongside other full-time work. Cant ties these ideas — and these frameworks — to his firsthand accounts of the growing strike action in Brighton, as well as across the UK. And he posits several possible avenues for Deliveroo to attempt in the future: as a kind of collective workers platform or as a company with a drastically different focus. Other books about the changing world of work may take a more anthropological approach, such as Ghost Work by Mary Gray and Suddarth Suri, which consists of reporting, interviews, and analysis around the experience of precarious workers in the Amazon MTurk marketplace around the world, where workers often perform strange tasks for pennies.
But Cant’s first-person account is woven in with theory and history — such as the history of worker militancy in the UK in the mid 20th century, where Cant draws parallels between two overworked and underpaid workforces, even if they’re decades apart. Riding for Deliveroo fits into a tradition of writing about work from the first person, mixing the personal with the systemic.
“In the American Worker — a book from the 1940s — a guy called Paul Romano wrote about his daily experiences as an auto worker in the first section,” Cant tells OneZero. “Then a Marxist theoretician called Grace Lee Boggs, reflects on the first section and puts it into the terms of capitalism. So I was looking at these historical texts — there’s really similar work in Italy, France, Germany—and these books are inspiring because they show you can do this complex, systemic critique and also have it on a very concrete level.”
Major changes to the UK economy — stagnating wages and low employment among university graduates — are taking place amid a backdrop of declining interest in trade unions, of strikes and organized labor being consigned to certain specific industries. And yet, Deliveroo couriers started to share organizing tactics with each other. Cant points out that while figures are hard to collect, a huge part of Deliveroo’s workforce in the UK is comprised of migrant workers, many of whom brought experience and expertise from working with trade unions in other countries to organizing for strike action in the UK.
In Riding for Deliveroo, Cant recalls a nine-hour coach journey to France to attend a conference on organizing with two other Independent Workers Union of Great Britain members and Deliveroo couriers who lived in London. They had the chance to finally discuss what was working — the strike fund, the protests, and how they were organizing — and how they could bring that to Brighton. A group formed of couriers who wanted to write for Rebel Roo, from cities and towns across the UK, and they connected with workers in Germany, France, and Italy who lent their perspectives about the best way to get as many workers on board as possible. One suggestion, which became reality, was translations of an introduction to Rebel Roo into French, Polish, Arabic, Bengali, and more.
Cant also takes the term “gig economy” to task throughout the book, instead relying on the phrase “platform capitalism,” coined by theorist Nick Srnicek. Srnicek argues that rather than viewing companies like Deliveroo or Uber as special tech companies with the characteristics of startups, we should simply view them instead as capitalist companies, particularly in the case of Deliveroo (where workers provide the bikes, the bike lights, the mobile phones needed for the app, etc.). These companies — and how they are reshaping the economy — are just another way of rearranging the deck chairs of capitalism, not making any fundamental difference. In Riding for Deliveroo, Cant also draws links between previous developments on factory floors — such as the pressure to automate parts of the weapons manufacturing process in World War II to reduce human error — to the pressures facing workers today.
The difference, as he puts it, is around the context and composition of exploitation today. Arguably, the relations are the same — a boss is exploiting their workers, whether the boss is a person behind a desk or an app with no human face.
“Those historical examples demonstrate a certain kind of continuity; you have to understand these current forms of exploitation historically too,” says Cant. “You can see that workers during the dock strikes in East London were really struggling. Unions don’t begin when people are fine; they begin when people are screwed over, exploited, in bad conditions.”
But Deliveroo couriers are one part of a much wider global shift within the tech industry, something that Cant is keen to emphasize. “If you organize around a common interest and link up across different parts of the chain, the whole thing becomes much more powerful,” says Cant. “There’s a point in the history of the British labor movement called the Triple Alliance — transport workers, dockers, and miners formed this industrial alliance, saying that if one group strikes, the others would too. It was broken very quickly, but that kind of alliance is very powerful.”
In the last two years, workplace organizing has become a flash point within Silicon Valley, particularly among white-collar workers who may never have been part of a union before. (Tech companies like IBM are notoriously hard places to unionize, and there’s evidence to suggest that this is still the case.) The state of the tech industry requires organizers to try out new approaches to old workforces and take on workplaces that are difficult to organize.
“We know that Deliveroo workers in the head office are overworked, and the strongest possible connection is between workers on the street and workers in the office. We can reach over that black box,” says Cant. “So these stories and these examples are a way of reaching out and saying, ‘It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.’ You cannot kill off the capacity of workers to organize and fight for a better society.”