TRCH - Flawless

A Food Courier in Notts

9 December 17 illustrations: Alex McDougall

"This business defines its courier workforce as freelance contractors, which essentially means you’re on your own"

There are times as a food courier when you ask yourself if you made the right career choice: wading through torn bags of rubbish in Lenton to deliver yet another half-ton of fried chicken to hungover students; hunting around St Ann’s to find an elusive maisonnette in the rain at 11.30pm; having an entire load of food drop through the bottom of a restaurant’s paper bag onto a customer’s doorstep; fearing for your life when aggressive, impatient drivers speed past with inches to spare.

But, in general, the hits you take with Deliveroo or UberEATS are balanced by the positives: the fitness, the occasional admiration of passersby, the thanks of customers, and the pay, which is better than many people probably imagine it to be. It isn’t the no-hope “McJob” that it’s often portrayed as by its detractors. You can work full-time and earn a living at it, and many do. But, as with many zero-hours contract jobs – which courier work is – there is a downside. I’ll get to that later.

The job attracts all sorts. Full-timers, part-timers, teenagers still living with parents, undergraduates, graduates still looking for that perfect career opening, men and women in their thirties, forties, fifties and older who’ve lost a career, are between jobs, or who’ve decided that this is just right for them.

You can do it on a bike, electric bike, moped or motorbike. Once, when my mountain bike was out for repairs, I even “borrowed” one of those heavy, City Council rent-a-bike things. Not recommended. Uber even lets you deliver in a car. But it was Deliveroo who was in Nottingham first, saturating the streetscape with so many liveried riders that the company seemed bent on turning “Deliveroo” into a verb: “Should we go out tonight or get two vegan pizzas Deliveroo-ed to us?”

UberEATS arrived as rivals this year, and came armed with the holy grail of delivery contracts: McDonald’s. For a few weeks, a kind of courier anarchy reigned in Nottingham as Deliveroo drivers, wooed by the new competitor’s attractive introductory fees, signed up with Uber. Some drivers hedged their bets by wearing bits of both company’s uniforms at the same time. The situation has since settled down somewhat. Riders can, and do, work for both companies. It’s allowed.

But Nottingham is still a competitive arena and both companies need lots of riders at peak delivery times in order to get food out to customers quickly. So both offer incentives at peak times in the form of increased fees, which means more money in your bank account. This is an area where old fashioned capitalist competition benefits couriers, who work hard, and customers, who get their food on time. The downside? One night, coming out of Barburrito in King Street with my nth Loaded Burrito bound for Lenton, I heard a young woman (I’ve always assumed she was an economics student) refer to Deliveroo riders as “the gods of the new economy,” by which she meant the gig economy, which courier work has almost come to define. It means you get paid per job, just like piecework employees in sweatshop textile workshops, and there are no statutory benefits. No pension, no sick pay, no holiday pay, no paid breaks at work. Knackered after cycling against the wind for four hours? You can switch off for fifteen minutes if you want, but you won’t be paid for it. Puncture? No pay while you fix it. Knocked off your bike and injured? Your problem. Bike wrecked? Your problem. Bike stolen? Ditto.

This business defines its courier workforce as freelance contractors, which essentially means you’re on your own. Hopes that Deliveroo would be forced to offer some form of statutory support to its couriers were dashed this year when the long-awaited Matthew Taylor report on Britain’s gig economy proved to be toothless fluff. The Tories have since ignored it anyway. But neither do couriers necessarily welcome Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed ban on zero-hour contracts, which could, after all, endanger their jobs.

Comments and questions commonly heard by couriers include: “Ooh, I bet that keeps you fit, doesn't it?” Yes, very, although that’s hardly surprising since I repeatedly ride up and down hills such as Derby Road carrying heavy bags of food. “So how many miles do you do?” I don’t know; I’ve never measured my daily distances, but it’s interesting that down in Southport, retiree Rory Turner has taken a job with Deliveroo to get him in shape for a Land’s End to John o’ Groat’s bike ride on the basis that he’ll be cycling “thirty to fifty miles a day.”

“So how much do you get paid for doing that?” Not telling you, but it depends on how many hours you work and how many deliveries you do. “Is it hard work?” Often yes, and the cold and rain – particularly rain – make it even harder. By its nature, the job is physically demanding. One Financial Times reporter who worked for Deliveroo for just one night in London to research an article said the job was so relentless that she felt like a hamster spinning in a wheel.

“Is it dangerous?” Well, yes it is. But how can it not be? Some stretches of Nottingham’s road system are so potholed and crumbling that riding over them feels as if you’re riding on a jungle track. There are few safe, segregated cycle lanes and some main on-road cycle lanes – such as those along Gregory Boulevard, St Ann’s Wells Road and Woodborough Road – are often blocked by parked cars. Broken glass is ubiquitous. Being “car-doored” is another potential risk. And while bus and taxi drivers tend to be respectful to you, especially if you are respectful to them, there is the constant risk of collision with drivers in cars and lorries who pass too close or just don’t see you. Or who just hate all cyclists.

While these are the same hazards faced by anyone on two wheels in Nottingham, the problems are arguably exacerbated by the speed and urgency of the job. And too many couriers don’t help themselves or their colleagues by the way they ride. One Twitter user told me that, in his opinion, most Uber and Deliveroo riders in Nottingham were “arseholes” for ignoring red lights, riding on pavements and riding at night without bike lights.

All said, I think you have to be a bit of a masochist to be a courier, or rather, to really enjoy being a courier. There are many physically safer and easier jobs, but I can’t think of another job at this level (i.e degree not required) that rewards physical fitness, mental alertness and the kind of street-savvy nous and local knowledge that’s required to get hot food from one side of the city to the other, quickly and safely.

The job gives you a front-row view of Nottingham’s restaurant scene and street life; you see the moods of the city change from morning until night. Personally, I get a thrill out of locking horns with the traffic at afternoon rush hour and still making a quick delivery. Weekend evenings are the worst times; not for deliveries, since these are peak times, but for rowdy crowds and drinkers spilling out of the pubs. You need a thick skin for this job. And anyway, if you can’t ride a bike uphill and down dale with a giant box on your back, in the rain, for several hours a day, what can you do? It’s training for life.

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