On Thursday 11 August, hundreds of Deliveroo drivers gathered outside the company’s London headquarters in protest at a new payment structure.
Earlier that day Deliveroo had sent some of the drivers a text announcing that they would now be paid £3.75 per drop, rather than the previous £1 per drop on top of £7 an hour. This represents a significant shift in risk – if there is no demand on the app the drivers won’t earn anything – and a pay cut in practice. It is also being introduced in the same month as the company raised £212m from investors, and gained competition from its new rival UberEATS.
‘Black box’ labour.
In addition to now being competitors, there are other important similarities with Uber. Deliveroo is a food delivery company that makes no food, like Uber is a taxi service with no cars, and Airbnb offers accommodation while owning no beds. The rise of these platforms involves obscuring the labour that is needed to run the business, meaning the platform (and often the app associated with it) operates like a ‘black box’ – while the input and output may be discernible its internal workings remain mysterious. Trebor Scholz has argued that the rise of ‘digital black box labour’ is a method for driving down wages (see, for example, the hyper-exploitation of micro-work on platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk) and increasing the value and attractiveness of companies to prospective investors.
In the case of Deliveroo this means workers being falsely categorised as self-employed on their contracts, despite having to wear corporate-branded clothes, be available for shifts at particular times, and not having the freedom to take on other clients. Deliveroo relies on a fleet of drivers, but through this contractual trick, the company can make itself look lightweight and flexible. The attempt to move drivers onto a solely piece-rate contract is therefore a further attempt to shift the balance of power between labour and capital.
Unlike Uber, the structure of Deliveroo means that workers come into contact with each other. Uber drivers can quite easily work without ever meeting each other, no longer having the minicab office to meet in-between jobs. For Deliveroo, the city is divided up into zones with assigned meeting points close to popular restaurants to minimise delivery times. In the quieter periods drivers wait and chat together, providing the opportunity to begin collectively organising. Earlier this week I visited one of these meeting points with a Deliveroo driver; almost everyone we spoke to was keen on organising for better pay and conditions.
The demonstration outside of the headquarters was called by workers in reaction to the new contract, the word spreading across messaging apps and meeting points in the city. At the start it was tense – drivers gathering with their faces covered, concerned about victimisation. Demands for better pay were chanted as more drivers arrived on mopeds. Each new convoy that arrived was met with beeping horns and cheering. The speeches were translated into Portuguese, catering for the large number of Brazilian workers in attendance. By the time Deliveroo managers came out to try to address the crowd, lines of mopeds stretched along both sides of the street and the pavement was filled with the green and black uniforms.
The previous tensions with the drivers began to melt away as the crowd grew. As managers from Deliveroo came out of the building to address the crowd, it became apparent that the tension had been transferred. One manager, surrounded by drivers, tried to control the situation. He was met with booing and jeering, before returning to the headquarters. A small group of managers gathered by the doors, looking at the growing crowd of drivers with a blend of contempt and barely-concealed fear. Here, in this moment, the business model of black-boxed labour was seeing the exploitation and resistance rise to the surface. These drivers, upon whose labour the platform is build and run, were no longer hidden. Instead they were visible outside, organising together, and angry.
Organising the ‘unorganisable’.
At the peak of the demonstration an impromptu mass meeting was called. By this point the crowd was buoyed with energy, particularly after the confrontations with Deliveroo management on the street. An activist from the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), a small but militant trade union that has organised with couriers in London, spoke about their previous campaigns. They explained that delivery drivers at eCouriers had won a 28% pay rise, 17% at CitySprint, and improved pay and conditions at Mach1. The meeting collectively voted on demands to take to management. Drivers rejected the new pay scheme, deciding on a new demand of the London living wage plus costs, which works out at £11.40 per hour, plus £1 per drop. Activists from the IWGB offered to go into the building to negotiate on behalf of the drivers, limiting the risk of victimisation – something that Deliveroo have pursued in the past.
While the negotiations were happening indoors, the drivers continued to organise and discuss. The latest round of investment showed that Deliveroo, like many companies, is sensitive to negative stories in the media. Wildcat action and the possibility of unionisation would not look attractive to potential investors. One driver suggested they go and pay the restaurants in the local area a visit, while others gave interviews to the media about pay and conditions. Outside of Deliveroo’s headquarters a section of precarious workers – who many have deemed unorganisable due to the fragmentation of their labour across a digital platform – were showing that collective organisation is not only possible, but that it can be confident and militant.
The negotiations ended with Deliveroo saying that it would be impossible to increase wages. This was met with anger by the drivers who promptly voted to go and visit some of the restaurants Deliveroo works with and return to the headquarters the next day. Over the megaphone someone shouted “it’s only impossible until we win!” And with that a convoy of hundreds of mopeds set off into central London.
Photos: Jamie Woodcock
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