Cover: Riding for Deliveroo by Callum Cant

Riding for Deliveroo

Resistance in the New Economy

Callum Cant



I received invaluable support whilst writing this book, for which I am very grateful, particularly from my Ph.D. supervisors, Helen Hester and Jamie Woodcock. I am indebted to the workers, in Brighton and elsewhere, whose creativity and bravery are the source of everything worth reading herein. And, finally, I owe huge thanks to Ev, my team mate.

Preface: London, August 2016

In the summer of 2016, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) was paying close attention to restaurants in London. By late July, they had homed in on twelve branches of Byron Burgers across London. Workers at these branches were told by their managers they had to attend a 10.30 a.m. meeting on the proper cooking of burgers before the lunch shift started – in fact, they were attending an immigration raid. Around twenty workers were detained and then deported.

News of the raid began to spread amongst a group of workers who knew the deported staff well and had similar experiences of their own: Deliveroo couriers. They were outraged at the collaboration between managers and UKBA. Just a few weeks before, Deliveroo had also worked with the UKBA to ‘assist in a documentation check’ at their own Islington HQ, which resulted in three workers being detained. If companies were happy to profit off the work of migrants, the argument went, then they should not sell them down the river as soon as the Border Agency called. An idea for action spread rapidly amongst the couriers – they would all refuse to deliver Byron Burger orders. For the first time, they were taking collective action.

Two weeks later, Deliveroo announced that they were going to change the way workers in London were paid. The system would be changed from a flat hourly rate (£7) with a bonus per completed delivery (£1) plus an additional petrol bonus for moped riders, to a fee-per-delivery piece-wage (£3.75) with no hourly rate. If there were no orders, workers would earn no money. For many, this change amounted to a pay cut, but management predicted it would offer Deliveroo significant savings during down times. What they did not predict, however, was what would happen next.

Hundreds of workers across the city began a strike. They organized huge roving demonstrations of mopeds and cyclists that converged upon Deliveroo’s central London office. The service was in chaos, with orders going undelivered all over the city. The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), a London-based grassroots union, launched a crowd-funder to help support workers during the strike. Within days it had raised over £20,000. As a result, workers could now pay themselves a basic wage for the duration. The decision was made to stay out for another day, and then another. On the third day of the strike, Dan Warne, managing director of Deliveroo UK, decided to talk to the strikers. Every day, the crowd gathering on the steps opposite the head office seemed to be getting bigger. Now it was in the hundreds. A worker filmed what happened next.

It’s a hot, sunny day, and Dan walks out of the office, across the road and right up to the crowd, holding a straight face all the time. A few strikers heckle him, but they let him walk into the crowd. On the steps is a group of IWGB members who are there to support the strike. At the head of the group is Max Dewhurst, a CitySprint courier and experienced trade unionist. They start to smile. They can tell what is coming next.

Dan clears his throat. The workers close the circle around him and start to shout and laugh. Those standing at the top of the steps loom over him. He gestures for the workers to be quiet. He starts to speak: ‘Can I have some silence, ladies and gents …’ The company, he says, is willing to listen to every worker’s concerns, individually. The response is not positive. The workers want collective bargaining, and they tell him as much, at full volume. One worker steps forward: ‘Everyone wants the same thing: £8 per hour, plus £1 per drop. That’s it.’ Dan responds, ‘Listen guys, there needs to be an explanation around what the changes are, it’s a change in payment method, not lower wages …’ The workers cut him off. They tell him that’s not what they want. He tries again, ‘That is a dialogue we will have individually. So, where we have done this, first of all, this is a trial …’ Another roar. The workers show him their signs, on which their demands are clearly written down. ‘Look at it!’ Everyone wants the same thing: £8 per hour, plus £1 per drop. That’s it.

For the first time, Dan Warne, the managing director of Deliveroo UK, is face to face with organized couriers, who actually do the work for Deliveroo UK. The thousands of dots on the map, spread all over London, are showing that they are real people with real power. From the back of the crowd, a chant starts: ‘Out, out, out, out!’ Soon everyone is shouting together. Dan looks left and right. He steps back, turns, and walks away, back into the office. The crowd cheers as he goes.

The strike ended four days later. By that time, the workers’ demands had increased – they wanted the London living wage (£8.25) per hour, plus costs, plus a bonus per delivery. They settled for a compromise position of the status quo, with the existing workers keeping a £7 per hour plus £1 per drop payment structure. It was only a partial victory. All new workers would be put on the new per-drop-only payment structure. Despite a large proportion of the strikers joining the IWGB and demanding it lead negotiations, Deliveroo continued to refuse to participate in formal collective bargaining or to allow trade union representation. Deliveroo continued to maintain the legal fiction that its couriers were ‘independent contractors’. But that strike was the beginning of something. Deliveroo workers had shown they could take on their bosses – and, from London, the fight would spread, across the UK, Europe, and, finally, the world.