Confessions of a food courier

Photo: The Times

By Miko Lepistö

I once forgot to hand over a brown paper bag filled with rucola to a client. It came with the pizza I was delivering, but we both forgot about the herbs. I had no moral qualms with taking it home and using it for my next salad. Although I didn’t usually steal the food destined for hungry consumers, the job did have other perks. The company gave all bike couriers a beanie, a jacket, and even a shirt. In the early days, they even gave the couriers free access to a fridge full of beverages. I got to pedal around Helsinki for four months with the expectation of a cold coke after my shift, until they put a stop to the nonsense. Apparently, some colleagues of mine had been abusing the privilege; talk about a tragedy of the commons.


I understood the logic of the game early on: the company provided you with accessories, and as a worker you did your best to stash them away and ask for new ones. My inner socialist rejoiced at the opportunity to drain a company from the inside, but my nature as a goody two-shoes stopped me from pillaging the small warehouse every time I went there to get a heat-retaining delivery bag for my shift.


The real side benefits were fragrant cups of tea offered by sympathetic waiters or shift managers on stormy days to what I had become: an exhausted and drenched sack of wet rags wearing a helmet. I often ran out of fast-food joints with a burned tongue to make it in time to my next delivery. For the hundreds of deliveries I made, I was only tipped for four of them. The fact that two of these tippers were American exchange students tips you off that it was merely a question of Finnish tipping culture. Best of all, the company paid couriers to exercise in fresh air.


The author on the job as a food courier. Photo: Miko Lepistö//The Sundial Press

I was the epitome of an ideal short-term auto-entrepreneur using my own capital – a bike – and labour to pay for my consumption during a gap year. The liberty of being in complete control of my work schedule was paid for by not having a normal work contract. Modern food courier services – Fetch, Uber Eats, Deliveroo, you name it – are based on the Uber model of production. Their only employees are code monkeys, marketers and managers: the wheels on the ground are all independent contractors.


Due to the fact that I earned less than 10 000 € per year, it was unnecessary for me to enlist as a company, like Deliveroo drivers must do in France. I worked under an alternative form of contract. Legally, I didn’t get a salary, but work compensation. The conditions were that the employer had no qualitative control over my work: they could only reject or accept it. I could freely choose my shifts and I could freely engage in other simultaneous work contracts. The last condition is the most important: I was personally responsible for all insurance costs and social security costs – including pension contributions. To put it bluntly: had I been hit by car during a shift, the company would have legally borne zero responsibility.


This also meant that the work compensation was free from all normal wage legislation: mainly from an obligation to pay higher salaries on weekends. Indeed, the irregular work contract had no defined vacation period either. This would be all be normal if most of the employees were indeed students freelancing during their time out of class to earn some extra cash. However, in a tight job market, that was not at all the case. Many of the colleagues I met were immigrants over the age of 35, working as couriers nearly eight hours every day, because it was an easy job to get. It required practically no qualifications, and neither knowledge nor understanding of the Finnish language were necessary. Who would have thought that those living on the margins of society end up working low-skilled jobs with precariously irregular contracts? Working long hours performing a repetitive task has nothing to do with part-time work or freelancing. To me, it sounds like traditional work, and traditional work entails being granted certain rights. Rights repressed by the dynamics of the workplace.


The company created a feeling of competition among workers, and promoted an image of a hard-working self-made courier, by sending us bi-weekly courier newsletters that always included a list of top-10 earners – and their brut earnings. This made each courier stare at their own situation instead of considering collective forms of action to gain better rights. The application form emphasized that one is about to become a partner, and the advertising repeated that couriers could plan work around their own life. For me there existed a discrepancy between the marketed image of independent contractor and its reality as such.


Independent contractors negotiate their own wages. This is not at all the case at these companies: they offer a fixed commission or an hourly wage, with no leeway, and no possibility of advancement or raise. The cool bros at the non-conformist – no shoes allowed! – office full of bean bags changed our terms of employment every two months or so, without negotiation. Sure, they heard our voice via walk-in hours and email chains, but never was there a negotiation. At a point, all the couriers and managers in Helsinki had a common group chat for general matters, questions, and discussion, but as reforms were around the corner, and couriers called certain practices unfair, the company decided to delete it. After this, all further communication between employers and employees, managers and couriers, was to be one-on-one.


This seemingly inconsequential event was the most shocking occurrence during my time of employment. The company blatantly tried to shut down any kind of collective labour organization. This was hidden under motives of avoiding spam. The existence of a rapidly growing auto-entrepreneurial economy kills collective action. Through this new organization of work the human body is transformed into capital assets, and income earned through very physical work is assimilated to capital profits. The atmosphere caused me to feel as though the company tried to replace their lack of traditional compensation, for what was traditional work for many, with freebies and arbitrary benefits.


I’m not urging hungover students to abstain from ordering Deliveroo on Saturday mornings. But, the discourse surrounding the working conditions and the image of uber-like companies should be scrutinized. Letting it influence your actions is a personal decision. Maybe next year, refrain from ordering on May Day.

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