Author Jamie Woodcock (The Fight Against Platform Capitalism, UWP 2021) guest blogs offering his view of recent developments in workers’ struggle in the food delivery sector in the wake of Deliveroo’s IPO last month.
On the 7th of April, Deliveroo riders took strike action across the UK as part of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB). In London, riders in green and silver jackets assembled outside Shoreditch High Street station, a local hub of restaurants. Workers, mopeds, bicycles, a mobile sound system, and press quickly filled the street. Then, as fits with their working day, the strikers set off for a ride around the city, ending with a protest outside Deliveroo’s headquarters in Cannon Street.
It has been almost five years since the first strike of Deliveroo workers in the summer of 2016. When I visited the picket line on the first day of the strike, we were not sure what to expect. The IWGB had come to support the strike, but it had been organised my workers on WhatsApp. What we found was a connected workforce of riders who were organising for basic rights and fair pay. As Callum Cant has demonstrated, the strike in London triggered a wave of worker resistance in European food platforms.
Much has changed with Deliveroo since 2016. It has grown rapidly, both across the UK and in an increasing number of countries. There are now an estimated 50,000 Deliveroo riders in the UK. However, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Deliveroo warned it faced an imminent financial crash. Although it has previously blocked the move, Competition and Markets Authority gave Amazon the greenlight to invest in Deliveroo, spurring investment in so-called “Dark Kitchens.” As the lockdown shut restaurants, these separate facilities for churning out takeaway food helped to create massive growth for the platform.
Throughout the pandemic, essential workers like those at Deliveroo have continued to work. For many isolating, takeaway food – and increasingly other offerings like groceries – have allowed those working from home to shield from the risks of the virus. Due to the bogus self-employment status used by Deliveroo, many riders fell between either furlough or the self-employed support scheme. The IWGB launched the #ClappedAndScrapped campaign to highlight how little support workers have received during the lockdown.
Buoyed by the surge in business during the lockdown, Deliveroo went from almost failing to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in March of 2021. The coordination of the strike of riders makes this a good moment to stake stock of what has changed since the first open sign of workers struggle on the platform. The strikes in 2016 were against a change in payment scheme from an hourly rate with payment to drop, to only being paid for deliveries made. During the strike, a manager from Deliveroo came out to address the crowd – although he was quickly ushered away after strikers rejected his argument that the they “need to understand how the payment scheme was better for them.”
In my recent book, I have argued that there are three dynamics we can see unfolding with platform work – and each of these can be seen with Deliveroo. First, there is an increasing connection between platform workers, both on WhatsApp and social media, as well as in the streets. Second, despite that early attempt at interaction from a Deliveroo manager, there is a lack of communication from platforms, which leads to escalating worker action. Third, due to the growth of these platforms internationally, there is a new basis for transnational solidarity emerging.
Fast forward to 2021 and pay for deliveries is now the standard model, with hourly rates a distant memory. As part of a worker-led study of their own invoice data, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that some riders today are paid as little as £2 per hour. Workers have formed networks and joined unions, with WhatsApp chats remaining a key organising tool. Deliveroo refuse to recognise or negotiate with unions.
Over the past five years, Deliveroo has now achieved status as the most protested platform in the world. The recent IWGB strike was over familiar issues: fair pay, safety protections, and basic worker rights. It received support from unions internationally, including in Australia, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Spain. In the UK, the action around the IPO led to 12 institutional investors pulling out, with over £3 billion wiped off Deliveroo’s valuation. The Financial Times called it the ‘worst IPO in London’s history.’
With the recent Uber case in London, as well as the recent workers’ rights claim at the delivery company Stuart, the use of self-employment to deny rights is starting to crumble. There is still a lot that Deliveroo workers are fighting to change, but the recent strike felt like a taste of what workers power could look like with food platform deliveries.
JAMIE WOODCOCK is a senior lecturer at the Open University and a researcher based in London. He is the author of The Gig Economy (2019), Marx at the Arcade (2019) and Working the Phones (2017), also serving on the editorial boards of Notes from Below and Historical Materialism.
The Fight Against Platform Capitalism: An Inquiry in the Global Struggles of the Gig Economy (2021) is published in the Critical Digital and Social Media Studies series edited by Christian Fuchs. The book is available open access from the University of Westminster Press.