The risks of the gig economy
“This is not worth it. My life is more valuable than this,” Deborah says.
Still, Deborah, a single mother in her mid-forties, finds herself going out again in the wind.
There are days when a gust could just blow her over. The bag is like a sail – it makes it worse.
But Deborah knows her safety is her own responsibility.
It is her choice whether or not she goes out on the windy streets of Edinburgh – but each such choice determines whether or not she will get paid.
Deborah is one of the food couriers interviewed by Karen Gregory, a digital sociologist who studied the risks of app-based delivery platform workers. These 25 young people – most are men and no older than 45 – ride their bikes across the busy and potholed Scottish streets, going where the algorithm tells them to.
How do gig economy food couriers navigate the risky landscape of platform labor?
Riding a bike for a living makes you acutely aware of your mortality. It triggers anxiety. It’s the voice inside your head that asks “Is this the day I’m going to die?” It’s your own personal horror movie.
“Having an accident does play on my mind quite a bit, especially when I’m cycling . . .” says Tye, a university student and part-time rider. “I just play through possible accident scenarios in my head! It isn’t very great or healthy.”
You might be the director, writer, and star of that horror film, but it is life that inspires the script.
Bad things happen.
You hear things.
“Here, how cyclists are dying is, like, when you see a dead squirrel or a cat or a dog on a road – this is how the cyclist died next to Princes Street,” says Mike, a full-time rider.
“You hit or you just fall off, car goes over you and the car squash your organs, you become haggis and you die, not because you bang your head, most of the time.”
People pose other dangers, too.
“About a month ago, eight people jumped Deliveroo guy,” recalls Jorge. “Obviously, he had full uniform. They grab his food, I think they grab his bag, even his jacket. Well, there was a profit in terms of taking his scooter or bike, but they were just beating him because they were bored.”
Couriers working for app-based platforms like Deliveroo or Uber are technically not employees. They are self-employed contractors – cogs in the machine of gig economy.
Where there’s no employment contract, there’s no employee safety and there’s no employer to be held accountable. A self-employed contractor does not qualify for benefits or compensation.
“Again, make yourself a target,” says Jorge. “Deliveroo don’t give a fuck.”
Apart from anxiety related to the risk of physical harm, food couriers experience the stress of being governed by an algorithm that nobody cares to explain.
How exactly the orders are distributed? If a rider rejects an order, will that impede their performance metrics? Does the speed of delivery count?
The couriers aren’t sure.
“A few times I’ve gone into the wrong building, knocked on the wrong door,” recalls Tye. “That can be stressful mainly because of the perceived time pressure, which I’ve still not yet actually – there’s no basis for believing there is a time pressure!”
With no employer to talk to, food couriers turn towards one another for advice. But without the company’s input, it’s all speculation.
Lack of transparency is frustrating. It makes the couriers feel confused and devoid of agency.
“Most of the time, you just do what you’re told,” Sandra says. “They give you an order and you accept it, then you go there.”
The algorithm has no feelings, but its users do.
Algorithm-induced anxiety makes people easily forget about why they chose that job in the first place. They forget about the good sides.
“I love cycling,” admits a young rider named Iain. “I enjoy being physically active. I mean, yes, getting paid to cycle is my dream job, like dream, dream job definitely.”
But even a dream job can turn into a nightmare when the company doesn’t give a fuck.
Adrianna Zabrzewska wrote this based on Karen Gregory’s article “’My Life is More Valuable Than This’: Understanding Risk among On-Demand Food Couriers in Edinburgh,” Work Employment and Society 35(2), 2020.
Dr. Gregory conducted the research and wrote the article before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr. Gregory offered the interviewees a £20 voucher for a local bike repair shop as an incentive for sharing their experiences. The food couriers’ jackets and bags are company-branded, but their bikes are private. The riders are expected to cover all equipment costs.
The first section is a third-person rendering of Deborah’s quote cited on p. 7.
Quotes from Tye – p. 6 (“Having and accident”) and p. 11 (“A few times”)
Mike’s quote – p. 6
Jorge’s quote – p. 7
Sandra’s quote – p. 11
Iain – p. 10
Copyright Adrianna Zabrzewska 2022