Like thousands of workers, Faycal Ariouat was plunged into precarious employment by the coronavirus pandemic. “I was an assistant manager at Starbucks, but when the pandemic started I joined Deliveroo,” the 52-year-old tells me. “Delivery jobs were the only ones going.”
Faycal struggled to find work. Deliveroo doesn’t cap the number of riders on its platform, and laid-off hospitality workers were joining the company in droves, resulting in riders being paid as little as £2 an hour.
“I live in Angel, which is a very busy food area,” he explains. “I thought it would be easier for me to get jobs but it wasn’t. There were so many people on the app.”
Novara Media asked Deliveroo how it ensures riders receive enough work, given it pays them by delivery, but didn’t receive an answer.
‘You’re like a slave to these companies.’
Because Deliveroo classifies riders as independent contractors rather than as workers, it also externalises the costs of employment onto riders, explains Faycal. “They gave me a lot of things to do: get vehicle insurance, do criminal record checks. We had to pay for this ourselves. Starbucks did all that stuff for me and I didn’t pay for it. Deliveroo sends you left, right and centre—and you don’t even know if you’ve got the job!”
“The more I worked there,” Faycal reflects, “the more I realised you’re…like a slave to these companies”.
In response to this exploitation, Faycal is one of three gig economy workers who have banded together to form Wings, a rider-owned food courier co-operative which launched last month with the support of local MP Jeremy Corbyn.
Wings works like Deliveroo, but with a crucial difference. It pays riders a London Living Wage by regulating the number of riders on the platform (for now, there are just three) until more restaurants sign up, the aim being to have 80-100 riders within three years.
Rich Mason, 32, is a former Deliveroo rider and the founder of Wings. Like Faycal, working for Deliveroo put him in financial dire straits. “I began working for them a few years ago in Birmingham. It was a very bleak point in my life. You know when everything falls apart? I walked away from a career, had the worst break-up and moved into this property guardianship where I didn’t know anyone. With no job and no plan, I turned to Deliveroo.
“I would regularly sit in the free login zone for five or six hours not earning a penny. I wasn’t even making my rent, and I was living as cheaply as I could.”
Rich believes it should be up to platform companies to figure out how many riders are needed. “That’s how it’s always been,” he points out. “If you’re running a bar or a shop you always try to put the right amount of people on shift. No bar or shop owner ever says, ‘I’m going to overstaff when there isn’t enough demand’. Workers shouldn’t have to suck up the vagaries of the market. We’re simply relocating the responsibility to where it should lie—the company managers.”
Wings is a rider-owned co-op, meaning riders have a say on which restaurants are on and off the platform—a real contrast to Deliveroo, where some restaurants (Wagamama) remain online despite being roundly disliked by riders because of long wait times. Riders are also involved in recruitment decisions for hiring new riders and members of the coop.
‘I couldn’t physically pedal anymore.’
Wings also exclusively delivers within a local radius. Yunus Khan, 18, joined the company, having just finished sixth form. He previously worked as a Just Eat rider to have an income for when he starts university in September. He explains to me why delivering in Finsbury Park is so significant. “At Just Eat, I would constantly get long-distance deliveries. With Wings, I’ve never gone more than 10 minutes between restaurant and customer, whereas with Just Eat I’d go 20 minutes without any breaks.”
This exhausting work often put his life in danger, he says. “I remember cycling home after my shift once, and my legs actually froze! I couldn’t physically pedal anymore. If that had happened in the middle of the city I could’ve been in an accident. We’re the engine. If we’re tired we can’t accelerate—we can’t move out of the way.”
Delivering locally means Wings riders are familiar with the roads, as Yunus points out. “I might have an accident as a Just Eat rider because I don’t know the roads well. With Wings I know all of the roads, I know where I’m going.”
Guaranteeing well-paid jobs is all well and good, but Novara Media wanted to find out why these workers took the decision to start a platform co-op, as opposed to advocating for better regulation. “Fundamentally, I think regulation would solve the problem. But it’s not going to happen while we’re under a Conservative government,” says Rich.
No government—Tory or Labour—would ever pull the plug on Deliveroo, he says. “Regulation agitators miss that you need a viable alternative for all of that business to go to. If you regulate against the sector then the gig economy giants would pull out and everything would collapse. Riders wouldn’t have work, restaurants wouldn’t have orders and customers wouldn’t have anywhere to order from. Deliveroo’s already done this in Germany and Spain.”
In terms of Rich’s broader vision for Wings, his goal is to create a community infrastructure that can withstand the capital strikes that Deliveroo would likely launch when faced with the prospect of more stringent regulation. “Deliveroo is a great infrastructure. You have these highly mobile people delivering packages from A to B, responsive and on-demand. But the business model governing this infrastructure is extractive. It generates as much margin as possible to be skimmed off to shareholders. We’re simply getting rid of that little extractive bit and closing the loop!
“What would be exciting is to have a worker co-op that’s also owned by the restaurants. It would be totally owned within that community, creating an infrastructure to deliver whatever we need or want.”
‘I’m giving to those who need it.’
The project emerged out of the pandemic, when Rich took the delivery model and applied it to mutual aid, a model that exploded last year in response to a lack of government support in the face of successive nationwide lockdowns. That ethos continues today.
“With Wings I deliver for independent businesses, but I’m also delivering for community centres, food banks and charities,” Yunus says. “It’s more rewarding because I’m giving to those who need it. Just Eat, Deliveroo—I’ve never heard of them doing anything like that.”
A democratic gig economy is clearly possible. But can it survive? Venture capital creates monopolies by enabling startups like Deliveroo to grow feverishly, operate in markets everywhere at a loss and undercut the competition. This is why Deliveroo is the fastest-growing company, but operates at a loss. How will Wings be able to compete?
“Being buried is a big threat,” Rich admits. “If it comes to that it shows we’re doing something right.”
‘No one has got love in their hearts for Deliveroo or UberEats.’
Rich is nonetheless confident that the community will stand by Wings. “My plan is to tell our story, tell customers what Deliveroo is doing, and lean back on the community’s loyalty, which we’ve built. We’ll say these big companies are offering everyone in Finsbury Park £20 off their meals—that’s the form it will take, right?—because they’re trying to grind us into dust. The authenticity of what we’re doing will come through. No one has got love in their hearts for Deliveroo or UberEats.”
Wings is offering a bold new vision, fundamentally rethinking the position of organised labour in the gig economy, and transforming communities in the process. Only time will tell if Finsbury Park stands strong with the coop.
Alex King is a freelance journalist based in Manchester. He writes about climate change, employment and politics.