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‘Love the job, hate the way we’re treated’: life on the frontline of UK’s delivery army

When London bicycle courier Andrew Boxer rides over Blackfriars Bridge, the panoramic view of the capital makes his heart beat faster. But he feels less elated when he opens his weekly pay packet.

Boxer is one of four couriers involved in a legal case that could come to symbolise the fight against low pay and the lack of employment rights among the army of the self-employed powering Britain’s fast-growing “gig economy”.

“Most of us just love riding around London,” he says of his job with courier firm Excel, which can involve 60 to 70 miles a day in the saddle. “Even in appalling weather, riding along the river is an exciting experience. Most low-paid jobs aren’t this much fun.”

From parcel carriers delivering packages to online shoppers, to app-driven services such as Uber and Deliveroo, the gig economy, which has transformed delivery services, relies on large networks of self-employed contractors like Boxer. Their status means they are not entitled to earn the national living wage or receive benefits such as sickness and holiday pay.

Supporters of the gig economy claim it offers an easy way to be your own boss and earn extra cash by delivering parcels or takeaways, but a recent investigation by the Guardian exposed the dark side of this flexible labour market, with some self-employed couriers working for the parcel giant Hermes earning less than £7.20 an hour – the new minimum hourly rate for over-25s.

Boxer, 59, returned to being a courier five years ago and, with payments ranging from £2.90 up to £5.80 per hour depending on the service, says he finds it harder to make a living now than in the 1980s. His most recent weekly invoices show earnings of £337.29 and £336.20 for what he estimates were 44-hour working weeks. Taking into account weekly maintenance of £20 on his vintage Raleigh bicycle and other costs, Boxer says it is borderline whether he earns the minimum wage for his efforts.

“I always strive to do at least 20 dockets,” he explains of his daily routine. “Sometimes I can do 25, and other riders can manage a bit more, but I’m not cavalier fast.”

Self-employment in the UK is growing rapidly, up by 300,000 year-on-year to 4.79 million, according to official figures released this month. But calls are growing for these workers, many being paid for piecemeal tasks, to have employment rights. Another high-profile case involves the app-based taxi service Uber, which is fighting legal action from drivers who argue they are employees, not independent operators.

The cycle couriers are taking Excel, as well as City Sprint, Addison Lee and eCourier, to an employment tribunal with the support of their union, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB). They want to be classified as workers, which would entitle them to rights such as the minimum wage and holiday pay.

Business owners argue that the gig economy offers workers flexibility, but Boxer says it is one-sided: “I don’t have different clients or decide how much to charge. I carry a company ID at all times. I don’t have any independence as such. The most important thing for me would be to receive some paid holiday.”

The courier companies say the tribunal claims are unfounded. Excel did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously said its London couriers “operate as independent sub-contractors” and that it is confident the tribunal would uphold this view.

The preliminary tribunal hearings have taken place and IWGB general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee says the four cases will be heard by the same judge starting in the autumn.

“Our legal advice is that we are likely to win,” he says, adding: “Although whoever loses is likely to appeal. The higher it gets [in the appeal process], the wider the implications.

“The problem is that the cycle couriers are fulfilling all the conditions required of a worker but not receiving any of the benefits. There is absolutely no reason why being flexible has to be incompatible with workers’ rights such as holiday pay and the minimum wage.”

The IWGB is trying to unionise riders working for Deliveroo, the app which sends cyclists to restaurants to pick up orders for customers.

It emerged last week that the contracts of Deliveroo’s self-employed workers, who earn an hourly rate as well as drop fees, have a clause which warns they cannot go to court to try to be recognised as staff members.

“The job itself I like,” one Deliveroo rider said. “The pay is all right too, but I hate the way they treat us as if you are just two legs and they can toss you away whenever they want. If you got hit by a car you wouldn’t be entitled to a single penny.”

Labour MP Frank Field is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into the working practices at Hermes, including what he terms “bogus self employment”.

“From what the [Hermes] couriers have told me, it seems as though they enjoy none of the benefits that are supposed to come from flexible self-employment,” he said. “But they do shoulder almost all of the risks and insecurity.”

Field says cracks are emerging in a system that has placed too much emphasis on having a flexible workforce: “The government wants stable, happy families, but you have got to have jobs paying family wages. For many people these jobs are not top-up money; it’s their wage packet.”

A DAY IN THE SADDLE

London bike courier Andrew Boxer is fighting for better pay and employment rights. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Observer

Left home in Kentish Town, north London, at 9am and headed towards Camden Town. Over the radio I could hear other couriers picking up work – that is one of the pressures, hearing others are busy. I was ‘empty’ until 9.45am, when I got my first job in Paddington. The route involved Marylebone Road, which was congested with buses, lorries and taxis. I’m very experienced at dealing with traffic and can skim through busy streets.

“After that things started to pick up. I had a run of five jobs and was buzzing around the West End. Riding up Regent Street, I came across an injured motorbike courier. Seeing that is always a reminder of the dangers of the job.

“By midday I was zigzagging across the City for legal and accountancy firms. Because we use trade entrances, we see the dirty side of corporate life: the waste and recycling – breeze blocks, not glass, steel and plush leather seats.

“One trip took me over Southwark Bridge, which was beautiful, with the sunlight skimming the river. The afternoon involved runs between the City and lawyers’ offices in Temple, before heading back into the West End. I finished around 6pm, having covered 50 to 60 miles, made 19 deliveries and earned £65 to £70. Andrew Boxer

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