The Gig Economy: A Rider’s Tale

All we are given is a jacket and a black box. They had a look at my then death-trap of a bike, but weren’t too interested in my shoes or gloves. I was given a couple of training videos to watch, and that’s it. I’m my own boss. I have complete freedom.

It isn’t long before the reality of being on my own and the complete responsibility which goes with that, dawns on me.
A couple of nightmare shifts caused me to learn the job fast, delivering food to the right place is surprisingly difficult.

During my first cold spell when it rained, my hands and toes got so cold that I couldn’t feel them. My gloves and shoes were inadequate, which, we can say, was my fault. But most manual jobs ensure you have the right clothing, and continue to ensure it. They gave me a jacket, T-shirt and some lights in July 2016 when I started working for them, but since then no one has checked up on me. That’s just the nature of it: a real departure from traditional employment structures.

Then I got a puncture and lost 70 pounds while I fixed it. It occurred to me that I would be on my own as well if I had an accident and ended up paralysed hospital thinking ‘ok well that wasn’t worth it’. I decided not to think about that and instead tried to focus on my target of hitting 2-3 drops an hour. This would mean I’d get 10 pounds an hour – better than minimum wage.

The chances of maintaining this rate, however, were very unreliable. At times the system would go down, so I’d lose more money, although there was sometimes compensation. Very often I’d get delayed sitting in Nandos for 20 minutes, only to be sent to Moss Side to deliver a chicken sandwich to a shady looking fella. As I was cycling over there I couldn’t help thinking to myself ‘Thank god all I spend this money on is fresh herbs, plane tickets and alcohol.’

I can’t imagine doing this for a living or to support a family. I have no control over what I get paid. Deliveroo have now moved the system to a fixed fee per drop, (no more base rate) and in my experience, and those of fellow riders I’ve chatted to, the delivery distances are now around 2-3 times longer. We have to ride further and faster for the same money. We just had to suck this up. As a new mode of employment I can’t see this being more than a young buck thing for fairly trivial services. I wouldn’t want to have things like medical services delivered in this way.

While the instability and dangerousness of the job isn’t too great, I do like not being bossed around. Making my own decisions and not ‘surrendering to a private dictatorship on a daily basis’ does have some dignity. And many times I would thank the lord on high I wasn’t stuck in one restaurant. I was out on the road, with the fresh air and the sky, and the drivers who hated cyclists. I see a lot of Manchester with the job. I’ve had some great chats with the homeless and with my fellow riders and some great deals in the reduced sections of various supermarkets.
‘Saucy little tunes they got playing in there brother’, I once remarked to a manager having a fag outside a restaurant, once I’d picked up the order.
‘Try listening to them on a loop forty hours a week son, it’s a fxxking nightmare’. I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve outlined some personal impressions here, but how much is the gig economy likely to transform the jobs market?

According to research by the Mckinsey Global Institute, 20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the USA and EU are independent workers, a growing trend that can’t be ignored. Everyone uses mobile devices now. This gives digital platforms access to vast pools of workers and customers and the necessary real-time information to make more efficient matches.

An independent review by Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, was published in July this year. The report looks at how the gig economy is changing working practices in the UK and how this affects the status of employees and self-employment. Reactions to the report and its recommendations have been very mixed.

Business groups support the two-way flexibility that the gig economy offers both employers and individuals. They praise the use of data analytics as a way of offering greater efficiency to labour markets, which will, in theory, help self-employed people choose when to work to best suit their lifestyle.

Trade Unions are generally appalled by the report, and disagree with the assumption that greater flexibility will improve workers’ lifestyles. Especially when the trend of forced self-employment sees one in six workers without sick pay, holiday pay, their basic rights and a pension. GMB General Secretary, Tim Roache, says that the exploitation of insecure workers is a deliberate and core part of company business models. “This isn’t a quirk of the system, this is the system – and without regulation this system will inevitably continue. Even good employers will be forced to adopt these practices in order to remain competitive.”

A report by Harvard Business Review, claims that those most likely to benefit from the gig economy are entrepreneurs and workers with specialized skills, expertise, or in-demand experience. Apparently the gig economy “rewards hustle” so those with the creative abilities to market themselves, rise to challenges and take advantage of the exciting new opportunities the gig economy can offer will be the winners.

According to HBR the biggest losers will be workers whose skills are common, commoditized, or less in demand. Workers with a passive, complacent employee mindset will become less secure in their jobs. This includes midlevel and low-level managers, executive assistants, and bookkeepers – jobs which are most likely to be automated, eliminated, contracted out, or outsourced to cheaper labour.

As it stands I think it is just a job for young people like me who don’t really need the money. I personally think a good measure would be that if the person making deliveries can themselves afford to buy a deliveroo then it’s fine.

Fact is, this a very new, very real trend that we are seeing and it’s not working for everyone. Even if I got good at it and managed to avoid hospital, I can’t see myself deliverooing as a long-term career and I feel sorry for anyone who faces that as a reality.

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