'Driven to destitution': Delivery riders in Britain are struggling as takeout orders plummet


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    Food delivery riders are struggling to make enough money to live off due to a lack of orders being made on apps like Uber Eats and Deliveroo. 

    Riders across the U.K. told CNBC that demand for takeouts has plummeted as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

    “It’s not great,” said Alice, a 29-year-old student who delivers for Uber Eats in Edinburgh. Scotland. Alice, who did not wish to provide her surname, was logged onto Uber Eats for 6 hours and 45 minutes on Monday. She made a grand total of £4.00 ($4.92). 

    Last week, she made £76.31. And the week before, £86.67. She’s now worried that she’s not going to be able to pay the fees for her master’s degree. 

    “To get orders you have to be outside places that are open, which is quite an ask given the low numbers coming through,” said Alice. “I’ve definitely seen colleagues struggling mentally to just be outside waiting and waiting.” 

    Uber Eats and Deliveroo say they’re doing all they can to help riders through the pandemic, with riders earning more than the national minimum wage on average. 

    “Riders are at the heart of everything we do and we are working hard to support them during this difficult time,” a Deliveroo spokesperson told CNBC. 

    “We are so proud of the vital role they are playing, as they help the public receive the food they need and want. We are with them every step of the way.”

    Deliveroo is giving riders free hand sanitizer and face masks, but they need more than that. Riders say they are struggling to make anywhere near the national minimum wage, and nowhere near what they normally do. 

    Mark Aldridge, a 46-year-old Uber Eats courier in Huddersfield in the north of England, said nowhere is open so there’s no orders. “I’d normally make about £500 a week,” he said. “Now, it’s nothing. There’s still guys going out, but they’re making about £2 or £3 an hour. It’s pointless.” 

    Hanna Williams, a 24-year-old in Teeside, said food delivery work is basically “non-existent” now. “I managed to get 2.5 hours with (delivery firm) Stuart this week with a minimum guarantee of £8 an hour,” she said. “So I’ll have made about £20 from Stuart this week. My earnings used to be between £200 and £400 a week.” 

    The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) told CNBC that almost every rider has seen demand plummet since the lockdown began in the U.K. in March.

    “Food delivery couriers working for Deliveroo, Uber Eats, Just Eat and Stuart, who were already facing poverty wages before the pandemic, are now being driven to destitution, as demand has completely dried up across the U.K.,” said IWGB Couriers and Logistics Branch Chair Alex Marshall. 

    “Couriers get paid per delivery and since most restaurants have shut their doors, riders aren’t earning. Many riders are telling us that they are making less than a pound an hour and are logged on for as much twelve hours a day. This is a major social crisis that isn’t showing up in the unemployment figures. The companies and the government need to act now to ensure that these workers are given basic rights and are paid at least a living wage.”

    On March 27, the Financial Times reported that U.K. takeout orders fell sharply during the last week in March, citing anonymous industry sources.

    Some restaurants have also started banning delivery riders from using their toilets as they look to reduce the amount of people coming in and out. 

    “Not being able to use the toilet is both a health and care issue as well as one of dignity,” said Alice. “You either need to go home, which is time consuming. Or (there is) the real option of finding a quiet corner. That is bleak but real.” 

    Reality check

    One might assume that the lockdown means consumers are ordering more food through these takeout apps. But the truth is far from that. 

    Many of the big restaurant chains that use these apps for delivery have shut up shop: McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC have all been closed in the U.K, as are thousands of smaller restaurants. 

    Meanwhile, lunch deliveries to large corporate offices have also taken a hit, as have deliveries to students and people who have just had a big night out. 

    People also have more time on their hands to cook and many furloughed workers are reluctant to spend too much on deliveries given they don’t know how long the lockdown is going to last, or how secure their job is. 

    All of this means there are fewer deliveries to be distributed among couriers. To make matters worse for existing riders, other people who now find themselves without work are trying to sign up to complete deliveries.  

    “Private hire taxis and Uber drivers have jumped on the Uber Eats platform too because obviously their workload has dropped dramatically too,” said Alice. “I don’t blame them, but keeping in mind how the algorithm prioritizes motor vehicles, it makes the situation pretty desperate for cyclists.”

    Deliveroo and Uber Eats refused to disclose its order numbers. 

    “We are unable to discuss order volumes as it’s market sensitive,” a Deliveroo spokesperson said. 

    However, it’s no secret that Deliveroo has been struggling financially lately. The London-headquartered firm admitted it was quickly running out of money last week as it looked to convince the U.K. competition regulator to approve a $575 million investment from Amazon.  

    The Competition and Markets Authority has provisionally given the deal the green light. 

    In a bid to increase revenues, the food delivery apps are trying to onboard new restaurants. In March, some 3,000 restaurants were added to Deliveroo.

    The food delivery companies are also trying to find other things to transport from A to B beyond takeouts. That includes medical supplies and groceries. Deliveroo has partnered with supermarkets like Morrisons and Mark & Spencer, for example. 

    Deliveroo has set up a fund to support riders who are diagnosed with coronavirus or who are told to be in isolation. Those that meet these criteria are paid slightly more than the weekly payment they would get via U.K. Statutory Sick Pay, which stands at £92.45 per week.

    It refused to say how big the fund is or how much has been paid from it. 

    Uber Eats will also compensate active couriers with up to £100 per week for up to 14 days if they are diagnosed with Covid-19, placed in quarantine or asked to self-isolate. 

    Meanwhile, fit and healthy riders get what they earn. Right now, that might not be a lot.