On Thursday 24 September, Sheffield Deliveroo drivers stepped up their campaign of action on low pay and unfair sackings. They hit one of Deliveroo’s biggest exclusive national partner restaurants, Wagamama, with a 24-hour boycott. Meanwhile, Deliveroo are preparing to further immiserate their workforce with a mass hiring drive.
Deliveroo workers face sackings with no hearing, no chance to see the evidence against them, and no right of appeal — as recently befell a Sheffield union activist, Khalid, and seven others in the city. Whereas 18 months ago couriers would make no less than £4.25 per delivery, now it is rare to make more than £4 on any job — even for deliveries that involve driving many miles.
In the second half of 2019 Wagamama’s delivery sales — exclusively through Deliveroo — represented 12% of its takings (up on 9% in the back half of 2018). That is tens of millions of pounds every year generated for Wagamama from the in-work poverty and callous mistreatment of couriers by Deliveroo.
The strike, once again, was solid. Despite disruption and self-isolation of some supporters caused by the renewed Covid-19 surge, an all-day picket was mounted by both volunteers and couriers. The Sheffield Workers’ Liberty group worked hard to bring Labour Party supporters out to the picket, with good results.
At the same time, supporters of the IWGB and friends of Workers’ Liberty visited Wagamama restaurants in half a dozen other cities to leaflet customers and tell them about the strike and the exploitative actions of Wagamama and Deliveroo.
The action in Sheffield coincides with a series of boycotts called by the mostly-cyclist York branch of the IWGB, against another major Deliveroo partner, Five Guys. This Thursday’s action saw the burger business turn off their app — effectively shutting down their delivery sales — in record time.
What’s more, the strike is bringing Sheffield workers into contact with drivers in nearby Rotherham. Drawn to the strike-hit restaurant by the persistent pings of uncollected orders, Rotherham drivers are surprised to encounter a picket line of Sheffield drivers, and union links are built.
The renewed life of the Sheffield branch is drawing interest from drivers in Manchester, with hopes of expanding union organisation there. And in far-off Wolverhampton, couriers have recently organised a meeting in a car park to discuss action. They have found the example of Sheffield instructive, and their appearance on the scene has heartened Sheffield drivers.
Deliveroo meanwhile are following a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, a charm offensive. Deliveroo are on social media loudly beating their chest about having joined Marcus Rashford’s anti-child-food-poverty “task force”. A rich boast from a company responsible for putting young parents into in-work poverty, paying what a Sheffield rider on our local WhatsApp has called “child labour wages”. The company is also running a scheme to donate a limited number of free meals to NHS staff and “vulnerable people”; and offering £20 discount vouchers to NHS staff (how self-sacrificing: a loyalty scheme).
On the other hand, Deliveroo are aiming a dreadful blow at their workforce with the recruitment of 15,000 additional riders. This is not so much a job creation scheme as an income-destroying scheme. Deliveroo couriers are paid per job. Meeting a modest uptick in demand with a vast oversupply of labour means reducing drivers’ takings to below a sustainable level. The model that Deliveroo wants is one of an entirely casual, fully part-time workforce made up of people doing a little bit of delivery here and there — between lectures, say, or as a second job. That gig-economy vision is dystopian enough — I have met schoolteachers working as Uber drivers on weekends, for example — but as a model for running an efficient distribution network it is fantasy.
A reliable, round-the-clock delivery service requires full-time drivers. Without them, it falls apart. But Deliveroo wants to avoid giving its workers the power that comes with stable employment, and so it prefers endless war with drivers. And judging from the determination of Sheffield couriers, that’s what they’ll get.