The reality of working in the gig economy in Leeds during the COVID-19 pandemic

Deliveroo systems went down for several hours last night (December 11), leaving riders without orders and customers without food.

One of those riders was Chris from Leeds, and the day before I had sat down to talk to him about his experiences as a worker in the gig economy over the last nine months.

I joined Chris at his Hyde Park home in Leeds just after 2.30 pm for a typical Wednesday afternoon Deliveroo shift.

After answering the door with a Santa hat adorning his head we left to begin work.

He told me that he felt extremely let down by the way Deliveroo had acted this year when it came to protecting both the health and financial wellbeing of their riders.

“Deliveroo simply didn’t do enough,” he said.

As we journeyed around the Hyde Park area, he spoke to me about how cycling for Deliveroo was a completely different experience in 2020, in comparison when he first started delivering in 2016.

“They have slowly pushed cyclists like me to the side. The rider app now favours motorbikes and car drivers so jobs can be scarce at times,” he said.

Yorkshire Voice Deliveroo prioritises vehicles such as cars over cyclists.

In July 2019, Deliveroo added a vehicle priority system to its rider app which placed cyclists at a lower priority when it came to distributing ready to collect orders in comparison to cars and motorbikes.

Chris said there had been a recent rise in the numbers of car delivery drivers in Leeds, especially during the November 2020 Lockdown, which he thinks made things harder for cyclists in particular.

He said: “Deliveroo wants to advertise itself as a green company but it simply isn’t true. They just want to get orders delivered, no matter who or what is getting it there.”

Riders like Chris have called for Deliveroo to moderate the volume of riders they are inviting onto their platform, but he believes they aren’t taking any steps to do so.

“Deliveroo has taken on too many riders and drivers to the point that even the shifts that they themselves tell us are the best times to make money lead to cyclists sitting around earning less than minimum wage because the orders just don’t come through to us,” he told me.

By this point, Chris had managed to collect his first order, although this was after he had been ‘online’ for over 30 minutes.

After putting the order, in this case, two pizzas, into his Deliveroo bag and putting his mask into his pocket we began making our way to the customer’s address with the sun beginning to set in the distance.

Deliveroo has instructed all its riders to wear PPE upon collection and delivery of orders, but Chris told me that it took weeks for the company to start providing riders with vital PPE at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yorkshire Voice Deliveroo now provide a shop to buy PPE from. Photo courtesy: https://uk.deliveroo.news/news/deloveroo-air-mask.html

He said: “I had to wait seven weeks to receive my PPE. I had to go out and buy my own because I didn’t want to put myself, and others at risk.”

Deliveroo were heavily criticised at the time for failure to protect riders, with a group of over 40 MPs calling on the company to do more for its riders.

Deliveroo does now offer a shop from which to buy PPE and they also state that they will refund up to £20 spent on personal PPE as long as evidence of the purchase is provided.

A Deliveroo spokesperson on the company’s website said: “At Deliveroo, riders are at the heart of everything we do and we are working hard to support them during this unprecedented time. This includes distributing PPE kit to riders across the UK, supporting riders financially if they are unwell and keeping riders safe through contact-free delivery.”

By this time Chris had arrived at the address of the customer and delivered the food.

“Now we wait,” he told me.

Whilst waiting for the next buzz from the app we spoke about the reliability of courier work, especially in a time where people are struggling to make ends meet.

He said: “I do this because I am a student, so it works for me, I don’t understand how people can live on this because you’re not guaranteed anything.”

Deliveroo pays its riders on a ‘per-order basis’, essentially if you complete orders you get paid accordingly based on factors like distance, but if no orders come through, there is nothing in place to help you.

Thus Deliveroo, like other gig economy businesses like Uber Eats, offer riders complete freedom in when they can work and how much they work but you will only earn if orders are successfully delivered.

“There is no guarantee that money is coming in, even if you’re online for hours in the middle of Leeds,” he told me.

Yorkshire Voice The FAQ section on Deliveroo’s website outlines the help they say they offer their riders.

Deliveroo does provide financial aid in the form of their ‘Deliveroo Rider Support Fund’, a fund which is aimed at helping out riders and drivers who are self-isolating or have tested positive for COVID-19.

Chris told me he was grateful that he had money saved and a student loan because he doesn’t believe he could have survived on Deliveroo alone this year despite doing so comfortably previously.

“Any help or support I received was all through the government schemes, Deliveroo was nowhere to be seen,” he said.

Chris told me he enjoys his job but just wants more transparency from Deliveroo and an explanation for why they have done little to help the same cyclists who allowed the company to reach the status it has today.

He said: “They’re trying to drop the pay until people who have been loyal to the job for years, like me, just go.”

As I left Chris, he headed deeper into Leeds searching for orders to deliver, the Deliveroo logo across his back disappearing from view.

Deliveroo has been contacted by Yorkshire Voice for a statement but has yet to respond.

What do you think?