Slave to the Algorithm? What it's really like to be a Deliveroo rider

Slave to the Algorithm? What it's really like to be a Deliveroo rider

Tech companies like Deliveroo and Just Eat have made it easier than ever to order take-aways, but what kind of life is it for the riders? Ellie O’Byrne saddles up to deliver your dinner and find out

Everyone loves the treat of ordering a take-away meal. But what about the people who deliver your food?

The international rise of platforms like Deliveroo, Foodora and Just Eat have revolutionised the take-away. In Ireland, Deliveroo has cornered the market and cyclists with their branded delivery bag are a familiar sight: there are now more than 1,000 Irish people working for Deliveroo, according to the company.

Reporter Ellie O’Byrne decided there was only one way to get an understanding of working in the ‘gig economy’ so she signed up to work as a rider for Deliveroo in Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane
Reporter Ellie O’Byrne decided there was only one way to get an understanding of working in the ‘gig economy’ so she signed up to work as a rider for Deliveroo in Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

For customers, food delivery platforms offer unprecedented convenience and choice. Deliveroo has even recently created a new “Health Unit” — working with restaurants to ensure there are healthy options with clear nutritional information on the menu.

But concerns have been raised about these booming tech multinationals.

Their drivers (or bike riders) are considered self-employed contractors, with none of the rights and protections of employees. In the UK, riders lost a test case against Deliveroo in 2016 for the right to be considered employees.

In Ireland, an aggrieved rider, “Alan”, took to RTÉ’s Liveline in 2017 after Deliveroo changed their payment system from an hourly rate to a per-kilometre rate that’s anything but transparent, offering a varied amount per delivery via a swipe-to-accept function on their smartphone app: Deliveroo say riders can earn more on the new system, but earnings fluctuate hugely.

There have also been complaints about the cycling of the frequently youthful delivery riders. As a cyclist in Cork city, I’ve seen my fair share of this: Deliveroo and Just Eat riders cycling the wrong way up cycle lanes, breaking lights and kerb-hopping with scant regard for cyclists and pedestrians.

At the same time, Deliveroo touts itself as a flexible, commitment-free way to earn cash, part of a trendy “gig economy” that lets self-employed people control when and how they work.

So what’s it actually like to do this job? There was only one way to find out: sign up as a bike delivery-person and do some deliveries.

Going online to sign up, the first thing you encounter is a selection of cycling safety videos to view on their website before arranging an “onboarding” session with their Cork rep.

I click that I have watched them without viewing them and get directed to the next stage, meeting Cork’s sole representative for Deliveroo. We’ll call him Mike. We meet in a café. He tells me he will probably never meet me again; all future contact will be online.

We go through registration: I present ID, proof of address and PPS number to download the Deliveroo app.

I read Deliveroo’s contract. It has a human trafficking sub-clause, which is baffling until you consider that, for delivery people to fit the criteria of self-employment, they must be allowed to sub-contract. The person who signs up needs to present work permit papers, but they’re responsible for compliance if they let someone else use the app.

Mike explains that you sign in to the app on Mondays to book hour-long delivery slots for that week.

Top-ranked riders access the app from 11am, mid-ranked riders can log in at 3pm, while algorithmically demoted riders, who have done things like cancel sessions, can only access the app from 5pm, meaning the most lucrative sessions will be taken.

Later, in response to questions, Deliveroo assure me that the speed you deliver at is not a factor.

Mike is vague on how the offered payment per delivery is calculated. There’s a €2 fee for collecting from the restaurant and €1 for reaching your destination, but the only thing he can tell me about the fee for the route is that it’s a minimum of €4.30.

“So how is it calculated?” I ask. “The algorithms do that, so to be honest I’m not sure.”

Slave to the Algorithm? What it's really like to be a Deliveroo rider

I presume I’ll have to pass a safety test or accompany another driver on a run, but following a few bits of advice, like to start my sessions close to city centre restaurants, we’re done.

A delivery kit is sent to my house: the familiar foil-lined back-pack, a high-vis jacket complete with logo, a helmet and a bike fitting for a mobile phone to permit you to access the app on the go.

Here goes: I book a one-hour evening session, bedeck myself with the Deliveroo gear — plus a helmet-mounted GoPro borrowed for the occasion — and cycle into town.

The first order I get is from a kebab place. I’ll earn €4.30, the app tells me, but the delivery location won’t be revealed until after I collect the order.

I pick up the food and swipe the app: I’m delivering to Dennehy’s Cross. That’s 2.4km, on the flat. I’m there in a jiffy.

Mike had assured me that if you accept an order on the outskirts of the city, the algorithms would adjust your fee accordingly and you’d get paid more for the distance to the restaurant from your starting point, so I swipe “Order complete” as soon as I deliver before turning my bike back towards the city centre. I’m expecting a notification, but none arrive until I hit the city centre, when my phone pings instantly.

I’m conscious of time ticking by. I accept a second order, also for €4.30, to the Friar’s Walk area. I know I can just about make it and be back in time to accept another order before my hour is up.

I ignore the suggested route offered by the app and immediately take a short-cut up a pedestrianised street to save time; so THIS is why those kids are kerb-hopping. They’re shaving precious minutes off their delivery time.

With minutes to go, I accept my third delivery, which I’m collecting from Nando’s. I’m earning €4.31, so that’ll have to be pretty close to the city centre, right? I swipe for the customer’s address at five to eight.

You HAVE to be kidding. The third delivery is in the back end of Knocknaheeny; for non-Corkonians not familiar with the northside, the clue is in the Irish of the name: Cnoc na hAoine, Cnoc, of course, meaning hill. It’s a series of very steep climbs. As I step outside to my bike, the intermittent drizzle has turned to pelting rain.

Panting up Cathedral Road and beyond, I cheer myself up by singing my adaptation of Grace Jones’ ‘Slave To The Rhythm’. “Slaaaave to the algorithm, slaaaave to the algorithm,” I belt out, before the hills and stinging rain get too much and I’m reduced to an unquotable level of swearing.

I might have accepted the order within my session, but it’s almost 8.30pm before my third delivery is complete and I turn my bike towards home.

I’ve earned €12.31, averaging at €8.69 per hour by ride time. Minimum wage is €9.80 per hour.

In response to my subsequent queries, Deliveroo tell me that riders earn “an average of €10.20 per hour”. Another Deliveroo rider, a student who doesn’t want to be named, says the best he’s ever earned in an hour is probably €16 plus tips, while the worst is €4.50.

He started delivering by bike two years ago, and says the flexibility is a major advantage compared to a traditional job.

Slave to the Algorithm? What it's really like to be a Deliveroo rider

“This pay structure is probably not something I’d want to see spread to the rest of the economy, but for a student it’s fine,” he says.

It’s not highly skilled, and you don’t have to think too much. And if you need to study or write an essay, you can just stop for a bit.

I ask him if he ever registered as self-employed for tax. He laughs.

Contacting Deliveroo for comment, they constantly fall back on the responsibility of riders to ensure they’re working legally, have registered for tax and ensure any sub-contractors they use are legal and fairly paid; they’re just a platform, after all: they’re not employers, right?

After three sessions, I stop using the app. I earned a total of €32.95, but on each occasion, the app offered a delivery within minutes of the end of my hour, meaning I was never finished my last run within my hour.

I felt like a scurrying automaton after just three hours, at the beck and call of an artificial intelligence that could send me anywhere it wanted.

Is this the future of employment? By the time I stopped, I felt I had lifted the lid on a vast tangle of the repercussions of multi-national delivery platforms working within Ireland, not least tax compliance, worker’s rights and the legal status of workers.

And, of course, whether or not your pizza arrives warm.

Slave to the Algorithm? What it's really like to be a Deliveroo rider

The take-out delivery company started off paying an hourly rate of €9 plus an additional €1 per delivery to Irish couriers. It then switched to a flat €4.25 per delivery, regardless of distance. In November 2017, the company switched again, to a per-kilometre system.

Now riders are paid “a variable overall delivery fee, at a minimum of €4.30, calculated algorithmically based on a distance and time calculation”. Riders don’t have access to any other information than this on why they are offered a certain fee for a delivery and can’t see where they’ll deliver to until after they accept the order.

Sometimes the app offers a ‘fee boost’ of 50c to €1.50 to encourage couriers to book delivery sessions where not enough delivery people are available. This is advertised via a notification on their phone.

Customers are permitted to e-tip via the app. Some riders reported receiving up to €5 in tips.

Deliveroo says couriers earn “over €10.20 per hour”, but this is an average. Couriers can complete “several orders” per hour. The minimum a rider can earn per hour, if they only complete one short-distance order, is €4.30.

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