Ex-courier and ex-world-record-holder for cycling around the world Julian Sayarer offers an articulate analysis of couriers’ predicament and what it’ll take to change it:
Between the hoardings of a building site and the offices of the capital’s largest courier employer, CitySprint, there was an irony to London’s cycle couriers having to squeeze past manoeuvring lorries whilst protesting the poverty wages they earn for, amongst other things, squeezing past manoeuvring lorries.
This April saw the publication of Cyclogeography, an account of former bicycle messenger, Jon Day, and his years pedalling the London streets. 2016 will yield two further books on the subject, also written by former-couriers; Emily Chappell’s with Faber, and my own with Arcadia. Every so often, a newspaper or magazine seems to get in touch with one of us, asking for articulate comment to flesh-out a feature on life as a London bicycle courier — it is with some embarrassment that I now have to think a moment to recall a courier without a book deal.
After fifteen years without a payrise, the disparity between this romantic vision and the reality of life as a courier has led to the scenario — once unthinkable — of London’s bicycle couriers organising to form a union. CitySprint, also the UK’s largest courier firm, are to be the primary target of industrial action; the company are sizable and profitable enough to afford the London Living Wage of £9.15 an hour, and also occupy a market-leading position from which it is hoped they might set a positive example to the rest of the trade. London couriers earn typically, perhaps, around £6 an hour for ten-hour days. On quiet days, they risk earning less.
Despite an optimism that the campaign and its reasonable demands will win through, organisers will be aware of the scale of the challenge they have taken on. The geographical flexibility implicit in a messenger’s job is reflected similarly in the courier’s position within the labour market. Needing only a bicycle, the will to work, and a knowledge of London developed largely on the job — couriers can be replaced as quickly as they are found. For every curious graduate who likes the idea of cycling for a living, the informal nature of employment leaves the profession open to many more who have been left — whether by immigration, crime or hard luck — on the margins of society.
Couriering is a stop-gap job most do not envisage — as many ultimately do — getting stuck in, and although messengers take from their work a pride seldom found in such low-paying jobs, protest requires a solidarity that is inherently undermined by mobility. Moreover, it will be hard to regulate a profession so unregulated to begin with; campaign organisers will be aware there is precious little to protect them from reprisals from their companies. “Listen to us — we are your employees” was written on one quite touching banner, drawn in felt-tip pen and held opposite the CitySprint offices, but the tender demand draws-out a tension at the heart of modern employment, particularly in low-wage sectors; are employees an asset companies ought be proud to heed, or a cost companies will strive to save on?
The prevalence of the latter opinion is what has forced the couriers to take up this protest. Success will rest on the hope that their employers will, of their own volition, recognise fair pay as a human right; or else that the protest will strike a chord with London’s office workers, leading them to question whether CitySprint remain a morally defensible option for a logistics contract. A third variable may yet present itself, if large banks and law firms — who, between them, courier by far the most deliveries — can also be made to accept the demands of the couriers as only basic rights. It is their own, ruthless approach to negotiating contracts that has kept wages at such long-standing low levels, with messengers continuing to pay the price.