On the road with London’s gig economy workers

The UK’s often overlooked and underpaid couriers and drivers share their stories of working during the pandemic.

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A red phone box stands in an empty street in Westminster, in London on March 29, 2020 [AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali]

London, United Kingdom – When 35-year-old medical courier Alex Marshall picked up seven coronavirus samples from a cancer clinic in London, one thought lingered in his mind as he cycled to The Doctors Laboratory (TDL), which provides pathology services to the United Kingdom’s state-funded National Health Service (NHS).

“They were high-risk patients who are likely to die,” he says. “It was overwhelmingly upsetting. You see all these reports on social media of people being infected with the virus, but I feel very affected when I’m actually able to look at their names, and see specimens that have been taken from their bodies.”

He describes his job as “a bit like being a bomb disposal person”.

“You have to desensitise yourself, or you wouldn’t be able to do your job,” he adds.

Alex started working as a bicycle courier eight years ago. He had just finished a degree in graphic art and design but did not like the idea of an office job. “[I] had a friend who loved being a courier, and thought I could give that a go,” he says.

He was enchanted by the unconventional nature of the job and enjoys being part of a close-knit community of couriers who get to see the sights of London. 

“But it’s not easy,” he confesses. “When you go out and meet your friends who you went to school with, they’re all in different walks of life. To have an unskilled job … that’s always at the back of your mind.”

Still, at the moment, he says, “I feel very proud that what I do is helping society.”

In February, Home Secretary Priti Patel proclaimed that the UK will no longer offer an immigration route for “lower-skilled workers”, including those in positions like Alex’s. While Alex is British and therefore not affected by these new laws, he is bothered by the message they send out: that unskilled work is unimportant.

But there has recently been a shift in the government’s attitude towards medical couriers. They are now considered key workers, like doctors, nurses and other staff on the front line of the coronavirus response.

On March 24, 66 million people across the UK were told to stay at home where possible, to limit the spread of the virus. Alex and others like him, however, kept working outside.

At 8.30am each morning, he says goodbye to his wife and two young children, and leaves his home in east London.

“The worry for them is always there,” he says of his family. “It’s amplified at the moment, but they know I am competent and that I take care of myself and others.”

He shuttles between doctors’ surgeries and hospitals, picking up medical samples of all kinds and taking them to TDL. After the tests are carried out in the lab, Alex is responsible for sending them back.

Cycling around London during the lockdown has been an emotional experience. “I well up inside at times,” he reflects. “It’s beautiful to see London empty, but it’s empty for all the wrong reasons.”

He noticed that there appeared to be two main groups of people on the streets of the city while the lockdown was in effect.

“I see London through a filter,” he explains. “It’s mostly homeless people or delivery drivers. Most people who are designated key workers are probably indoors, like NHS staff. This isn’t normal.”

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The empty streets around Waterloo station are seen on April 01, 2020 in London, United Kingdom [Leon Neal/Getty Images]

‘I don’t want to rely on anybody’s help’

Approximately two hours after Alex begins his day, 34-year-old Robbie* is just climbing out of bed in the verdant south London suburb of Sydenham. For the next 12 to 13 hours, he rides around the city on his scooter, collecting takeaway meals from restaurants and sending them to customers of the online food ordering apps Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

He works until the early hours of the morning, trudging up and down apartment blocks with no lifts, with two short breaks in between. A persistent ache has developed in his lower back from constantly being on the road.

Robbie usually earns just below five pounds ($6.20) for one “drop-off”, and is delighted when a customer chooses to tip him.

“It really makes all the difference when you’re already so fatigued,” he explains, bleary-eyed as he settles back onto a stack of pillows. He is paid weekly, and has a personal target of 500 pounds ($620) per week. If he does not meet this target, he pushes himself to work seven days in a row – occasionally up to 80 hours a week.

Contrary to expectation, the pandemic has not led to a significant increase in his income. Despite the increased volume of online purchases when the lockdown first came into effect, Robbie says he has experienced fluctuating levels of work.

“Last week was really bad. Lots of restaurants where I live are now closed because of the lockdown. They’re not able to survive on doing just deliveries to customers, so I have to keep driving further out to other areas, hoping that those places are still open.”

Robbie is aware that he is more likely to be exposed to the virus because of the nature of his job – he could catch it from touching a door handle or some other contaminated surface – but he is not unduly concerned. Both Deliveroo and Uber Eats have introduced contact-free deliveries, which means Robbie does not typically speak to most of his customers.

“It wouldn’t be smart not to worry at all, but I take all the necessary precautions,” he says.

“I find it therapeutic to be able to work. It’s kind of like bringing comfort to people in a way. Some of them are really happy to see me when they open their doors, probably because my face is the first they’ve seen in a week. It’s not great for me to be chatting with them for too long, but I stand at a distance from them with my mask on. It is a bit weird, but the world has been turned on its head anyway.”

The path towards becoming a food delivery driver was an unruly one for Robbie. Until 2017, he was renting a room in “cramped shared accommodation”, receiving housing benefit, and juggling a series of odd jobs, including a phone operator position with a French company selling mobile handsets.

“I had been working until late the night before doing deliveries for an online retailer, and overslept. I rushed to the office and apologised to my manager … I was an hour late. When I finished my shift, the agency [through which I had found the job] called me to say I had been fired,” Robbie recounts ruefully.

But becoming a full-time delivery driver, he says, was his ticket to setting his life on track, at a pace and routine of his liking.

The pandemic, Robbie says, has made him think about his future. He is concerned that if work remains unpredictable, he will not be able to stay on top of his mortgage and bills. They come to nearly 1,500 pounds (about $1,860) per month for the home he shares with his 56-year-old mother, who works for the NHS, and a younger cousin. He is perturbed that his mother might be exposed to the virus, and has tried to persuade her to take time off work.

The strenuousness of his work is beginning to wear him down. “When this is over,” he muses, “I have to think about other types of business I could go into.”

He is contemplating opening a takeaway restaurant of his own and has also realised that he wants to settle down and start a family with his girlfriend, who he has not seen since the lockdown began.

He ends the conversation on a contemplative note. “I’ve lived off aid from the government before,” he says, “and I felt very bad about myself.

“I don’t want to have to rely on anybody’s help again. It took me a long time to get here, and I am grateful to be able to work … but it’s also scary to imagine what might happen if I fall behind on my payments.”

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Near empty streets of the Hyde Park area of Leeds during the pandemic lockdown [Christopher Furlong/Getty Images] 

‘Why is it still so hard?’

According to a Guardian article from 2019, there are approximately 4.7 million gig economy workers in the UK, who enter agreements with on-demand companies to provide services to customers. Although the concept had existed for decades, rampant unemployment rates during the 2007-09 financial crisis saw the gig economy – based on flexible, temporary or freelance jobs – come to the fore.

A 2018 report published by the Office of National Statistics revealed that gig economy workers are likely to be male, young and earn an average hourly income of below 7.50 pounds ($9.30) per hour – below the national living wage of 8.72 pounds ($10.80). They are not guaranteed regular remuneration.

During the coronavirus crisis, many gig economy workers are being thrust into financially vulnerable positions while serving the rest of the country.

The UK government is attempting to prevent mass unemployment by making sure that all non-essential employees who have been furloughed are paid their monthly salaries up to a certain threshold, but gig economy workers are classified as self-employed and so do not qualify for this type of support. Instead, they are entitled to a direct cash grant of up to 80 percent of their average monthly profit over the last three years, up to 2,500 pounds ($3,100) per month.

However, there are a number of loopholes in the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme that mean gig economy workers may not be able to access the help they require – especially if the money is needed urgently. The most problematic aspect of the scheme is that it may only be paid out in a single lump sum by early June. This may be too little, too late for many who are already struggling with their monthly expenses on a relatively low income.

Couriers, drivers, food production staff and care workers have been routinely praised during the crisis, but this does not translate into financial security.

Alice (who wanted to be known only by her first name), a 29-year-old food delivery cyclist in Edinburgh, Scotland, observed that her customers had been kinder in the first week of lockdown. “People would say ‘be careful out there’ and ‘take care’ … now, it’s stopped. They assume that if you’re still working, you must be fine.”

Alice had tabulated her earnings from March 30 to April 6. They amounted to 68.39 pounds ($84.90). She attributes her dwindling income to the fact that households are also trying to save money by cutting back on food orders.

“If you’re calling me important, an essential worker, and you’re going to allow me to work … why is it still so hard, even when I’m trying?” she asks.

‘I feel totally useless’

Rodrigo* is a soft-spoken 47-year-old Uber driver who came to the UK from Colombia 20 years ago and now lives in Barking, east London. He has severe asthma and chose to stop working at the end of March due to fears that he “might not survive” if he caught the virus.

He used to drive from 6am to 7pm. Now, he says, “I don’t have any income … and I don’t know what to do.”

His anxiety is stopping him from sleeping.

“Yesterday I was supposed to pay the rent and I couldn’t,” he explains. “My landlord said he understood my circumstances, but also told me right after that I should have some savings. I asked him to give me time, and he said I must pay him as soon as possible because he also has a mortgage.”

Rodrigo shares a flat with his partner, Anna, a domestic cleaner from Poland who also lost her income when her clients were unable to hire her to work in their homes during the lockdown. Their rent is 1,350 pounds ($1,675) per month, and all their other living expenses amount to just more than 300 pounds ($372). In addition, Rodrigo is expected to keep paying the private hire insurance on his car, which he says is 225 pounds ($279) per month. Before the coronavirus hit, he was also helping to support his sister, a single mother with two young daughters.

He does not qualify for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme because he only signed up with Uber last year. As such, he is unable to fulfil one of the conditions which dictates that applicants have to demonstrate their primary income over the last three years came from self-employment. They also need to file a tax return for their earnings from self-employment for the tax year from 2018 to 2019, which Rodrigo does not have as he was directly employed by a taxi company prior to joining Uber.

In conjunction with the insurer AXA, Uber has placed some financial assistance at its drivers’ disposal. This is available to those who are able to prove, with a doctor’s note that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Drivers belonging to a high-risk group like Rodrigo must be issued an order from “a licensed medical provider or public authority” requiring them to self-isolate if they wish to benefit from this policy. Rodrigo says he has not been sent any such letter, despite requesting one from his GP.

Rodrigo is visibly forlorn when contemplating what he will do next. Without formal qualifications, it is difficult for him to secure another job at short notice, especially with an impending recession on the horizon. “I applied for a few jobs,” he says, “but I am not hoping to hear back.”

He wants to apply for universal credit, a means-tested benefit available to households with less than 16,000 pounds ($19,854) in savings, but admits to being “very confused” by the complex paperwork involved. The forms are widely considered to be notoriously difficult to understand, and that can be especially so for people whose first language is not English.

In desperation, Rodrigo is beginning to toy with the idea of participating in a multi-level marketing scheme for nutritional supplements. When asked if this is financially prudent given his current situation, Rodrigo says his main worry is that “you need a lot of friends and contacts [for this], and I don’t”. After a pause, he adds, “I can’t even feed myself and my family at the moment. I feel totally useless.”

‘The common denominator – vulnerability’

At the forefront of the battle to secure more rights and improved working conditions for gig economy workers is Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB).

While studying economics at the University of London, he befriended numerous migrant cleaners – many of whom were Latin American and spoke only Spanish – and was appalled by their lack of access to what most would consider fundamental employment rights.

For the last eight years, he and the IWGB have been championing social justice issues. Most of the IWGB’s 4,000 or so members are low-paid workers such as cleaners, security guards, bicycle couriers and drivers with ridesharing apps. Aside from executing public pressure campaigns and representing workers on employment matters ranging from disciplinary hearings to tribunals, the IWGB has been involved in several high-profile cases.

“The common denominator for most of our members,” says Jason, “is that they’re vulnerable in terms of their employment rights.”

The IWGB is now taking legal action against the government, arguing that the wage subsidies and other economic measures put forth so far are discriminatory towards gig economy and self-employed workers.

The union has submitted a list of 13 demands to the prime minister, centred on challenging the statutory sick pay regime and the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme. “Right now, statutory sick pay is only 95.25 pounds [$118.20] per week, and only those classified as employees are entitled to it. In the best of times, this is already inadequate.”

Jason says the media often depicts self-employed people as a homogeneous group, but this is not the case.

“So there are independent contractors, who are what we would normally call freelancers. But there is also a middle category that we refer to as ‘limb (b) workers’. They’re registered as self-employed, but they provide a service on behalf of another business. These people are often your couriers, drivers, cleaners and so on. They have the right to minimum wage and paid holidays, but not to statutory sick pay. They’re also not protected against unfair dismissal,” he explains.

These issues surrounding the job security of “limb (b)” or gig economy workers are repeatedly highlighted in the IWGB’s list of demands to the government. 

Alex, the medical courier, also works with the IWGB, and is a chair for its couriers and logistics branch. He emphasises that one of the main hazards to couriers at his firm, TDL, is the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We’ve practically had to wrestle it out of their [TDL’s] hands,” he says. “We’ve asked for regular testing, given that the chances of us getting the virus are higher. We are literally picking up the thing that the entire world is trying to avoid. They denied us that, despite the fact that they are sending testing kits to employees from the lab who are self-isolating. Couriers haven’t been afforded the same treatment.”

Another subject that he has raised repeatedly with his employers, he says, is the possibility of being afforded full sick pay if the couriers fall ill.

When contacted, TDL stated that the offer of full employment to all TDL couriers had been present for 15 months, with full sick pay available from day one. However, Alex says that choosing this salary package, as opposed to remaining a “limb (b) worker”, entails taking a pay cut and being taxed 20 percent at the source. “It’s not really viable,” he explains.

On the issue of PPE, TDL issued the following statement: “It is inconceivable that we would deliberately expose any of our workforce, of whom our couriers are an important part, to undue risk at any time but especially in these exceptional circumstances. All our protocols are compliant with current regulations, are kept under constant review and should they change, our protocols will change with them.”

It also confirmed that it has continued to “provide hand sanitizers, gloves and masks, although it is left to the individual courier to decide [whether they want to use these]”.

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A man walks along the empty streets in the City of London, mid-morning on Monday March 30, 2020 [Tolga AKMEN/AFP]

‘Lots of them are scared’

Others are choosing to support gig economy workers from within the industry, rather than through a union.

Mourad Nady, 35, is a former secondary school teacher who has been a part-time driver for three years. He says he misses the relationship he had with his students, whom he taught French and Spanish, but ultimately left his job because he wanted “more flexibility” to spend time with his family and to be there for his children as they grew up.

Aside from driving, he runs a blog, Driver App London, which he says is a one-stop resource full of tips to help drivers maximise their earnings.

“I created the website because I realised there isn’t that much information out there for drivers who run into problems, and have no idea what to do,” he explains.

Mourad says the aim of the blog is to give gig economy drivers a voice. “Sometimes I feel like we’re not very listened to,” he adds.

For now, Mourad writes all the posts himself, like an ethnographer of the driving community in the UK. He assiduously trawls the internet for interesting content to cover, offering tips on the best travel routes for drivers and rating apps across various metrics. Recently, he has also started a series called Driver Stories, which features interviews with “interesting drivers who may be underrepresented”.

Mourad himself stopped driving after experiencing symptoms of the coronavirus, and has been self-isolating with his family. His wife, who is a teacher, continues to work, and the family has been “spending less because we don’t go out anyway”.

He is not averse to returning to the industry once he has recovered, but notes that other drivers might not feel the same.

“Lots of them are scared … and have had a thorough reflection about the private hire trade and its lack of stability and financial security.”

‘Suddenly things make sense’

These days, when Alex cycles around the city, he tries to take videos and photographs. It is his way of documenting his journey during the pandemic, and also of capturing vignettes of the city in unprecedented times.

In one video, he is cycling down Tottenham Court Road, in the heart of central London. It is midday, and he comments on the lack of pedestrian traffic. “Usually, there’ll be loads of people out,” he says, as the wind whistles past him. “They’re eating their lunches, [there are] street markets. Today, you can hear people cough from miles off.”

He spends most of his free time helping other couriers win the rights they deserve from the companies that employ their services. “I don’t really switch off now,” he explains. “I try to be contactable all the time, so that they [the couriers] can reach me.”

When asked what his favourite part of the job is, he does not hesitate. “I’m happy to be able to keep on working, especially when there’s always been a lot of animosity towards jobs [like mine]. The silver lining for us is that this virus has thrown the spotlight on how precarious it is, and we hope we emerge from this with some positive change in the long run.”

But it is time outside of work that brings Alex respite. In my last phone conversation with him, Alex mentions that he is looking forward to celebrating his son’s birthday the following day. “He is three,” he says, breaking into a huge smile. “He’s getting a dinosaur cake, a balloon arch, and curry, which is his favourite food … When I’m playing with my kids, everything else sort of goes a bit quiet, and suddenly things make sense.”

For a few hours, Alex is not just a man on a bicycle, but a doting father with family life to tend to – just like the thousands of other people whose medical samples he has transported.

* Names changed to protect the individuals’ identity.

Source: Al Jazeera