behind the scenes of rapid grocery delivery in London

The hidden story of a rapid delivery grocery rider

First hand, I experienced the safety risks, scams and human cost in the darker corners of the gig economy

On paper, my potential new employers looked good. They paid above minimum wage, provided bikes and uniforms, plus great bonuses were on offer if you hit targets. Like all these rapid grocery delivery companies, they were expanding rapidly, with lots of opportunities to move ahead. But to me it was obvious, even at the interview stage, that things were remiss.

All prospective employees – except the one whose Indian accent was so thick he was told to go home – got the job. In fact, we were told that as soon as we walked in, we were being paid for our time. Sweet – what a gig!

Eight of us were given a bike each and walked them out onto the street for a training ride. Our instructor was in a hurry. Bear in mind that this company has conflicting odds; it prioritises speed but preaches safety. He immediately barked at one of us, a poor dude who had left the warehouse without a charged battery for his bike, despite having not been told that his was faulty. The trainer shouted at him to run back to the warehouse, as he was “slowing everything down”. An interviewer/trainer shouting at his new staff, many of whom couldn’t speak English that well, even before we’ve started to train on our dangerous equipment?

We then took off down the road, following the trainer. These bikes are mad fast. You actually have to expend strength to slow them down. My helmet had a broken strap and as we were travelling at speeds of 25km, it was falling down and obscuring my eyes. I was annoyed. This wasn’t safe. The trainer took us to a private street and taught us to brake at speed, and that was it. That was our training: how to go bloody fast, and how to stop going bloody fast (assuming your brakes are working, of course).

Back at the warehouse, the interviewers were similarly blasé. They attempted to show us a training video, but strangely the sound didn’t work, and we weren’t allowed to ask questions afterwards – I tried but was shut down. It was justified with the rational that “this isn’t even part of the interview, just something we have to show for health and safety.” We signed the contract on a digital device, which we weren’t shown how to scroll through to read any of the terms. One might say we were walked into signing our contract, without being given the option to dive into devils that dovetail between the details. 

On my very first shift, one of my colleagues introduced himself by telling me he’d “shot dead twenty-five people” during his time in the army, and my line manager confided in me that they were regularly drinking on the job. Perhaps it was the alcohol that gave them a loose tongue, soon sharing personal information about colleagues that would be a sackable offence to discuss in any reputable firm. But ethics aren’t the priority here, speed is. Riders are expendable, worked to the bone until they inevitably quit. That’s life in the world of rapid grocery delivery.

Soon enough I realised I was being hustled. Everything relied on good quality, well-maintained equipment, but many bikes were faulty and battery life was very bad, meaning sometimes no working bikes were available. I’d already seen too much; the cracks in the infrastructure, and what riders did to survive. Their ploy seemed to be to keep a low profile, hoping other keener, newer riders would take the heavy loads. Many pretended to be on phone calls; others hung out smoking fat joints of that particularly potent London skunk just outside the warehouse doors, so when the call “rider needed” came, they’d be furthest away from rising to the call.

Everyone seemed knackered. Delegation of tasks came from assistant managers, who worked hard to keep their teams happy, but it did seem as though the nicer, more honest riders were taken advantage of, whilst those that had learned to game their job, as the job surely gamed them, got more of a chill ride.

My temper started to flare. Tired and aggrieved, I lost my shit when someone was cheeky to me after I called them out for slacking off (I had not yet realised that slacking off was the name of the game for most employees). It was clear to me that nobody wanted to be there, and everyone was sick of hiding the cracks. Lots of people were getting sacked, very quickly. I learnt that my 20-something warehouse manager was the fourth person in the role this year.

I lasted two weeks before I was physically broken. I just didn’t go back. This is a company that sees its staff as expendable. You’re good when you’re new; they break you, and then you’re gone. It’s impossible to last more than a few months in that kind of work environment. It chews kids up, they are as disposable bikes the company is based on.

With speed of rapid grocery delivery the focus, I honestly think there will be a number of big court cases coming down the line within a matter of years. Councils will be flooded with complaints; wised-up employees will organise themselves quickly. Whistle-blower articles like this will be shared as a warning bell; but will anyone listen? Will anyone care? After all, we need to feed our kids, so we can’t all bite the hand that feeds us.

But this kind of approach to the gig economy, with its convenience and low costs only possible with masses of funding, huge economies of scale and outsourcing as standard, will not be truly sustainable until robots are on the factory lines, and stacking the shelves, and delivering the goods in super-fast time. Make no doubt, this time will soon come; but in the meantime, we have humans to dispense with.

Note: In this recent Guardian article, Bubble bursts for rapid grocery delivery as UK firms shed workers, are delivery companies feeling the pinch? If you enjoyed this article, follow Camdenist for more.

Do you have experience of working in the rapid delivery sector that you’d like to share? As part of our ongoing Journeys series, we’re looking at the future of urban movement in all its many forms and outcomes. We’d love you to add your voice. Email us today.

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