When Maggie Dewhurst calls the office, she doesn’t give her name. She is identified, instead, by a number. It’s a small thing, but still oddly dehumanising.
“I’m basically just a dot on a screen,” says the 30-year-old cycle courier. “It can be quite a culture shock when you move into a really insecure workplace, the way people are treated. You are processed like a robot, you work like a robot, and eventually we will be replaced by robots.”
Maggie’s job involves delivering medical supplies, but she isn’t employed by the NHS. She works for a private firm called eCourier and is classed as a self-employed contractor - so she isn’t entitled to conventional employment rights like paid holiday or pensions, and rides 50 miles a day through London traffic knowing she won’t get sick pay if she’s knocked off her bike and injured.
“Sometimes, particularly when you have a lot of near misses, that can cause quite extreme anxiety. I’ve had a fair number of tumbles and close shaves,” she says. “I know a lot of people cycling around with injuries of some kind. Some of my friends, young men under 30, are getting serious back problems because of the sheer weight of what they’re carrying.”
But the industry often attracts people with few other choices, according to Maggie, who campaigns for other so-called gig economy workers - people working freelance, casually and piecemeal, often for internet platforms and apps - in her sideline as vice-president of the new union Independent Workers of Great Britain. “It’s people that are vulnerable in some way. We have some people who don’t earn enough money in their current job so they’re doing this on the side, or people that are just for one reason or another ostracised from the normal labour market.”
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Maggie started couriering as a summer job while at university studying architecture, then as a stop-gap after graduating while she hunted for work in the field she’d trained for. Yet seven years later she’s still couriering, and says that isn’t uncommon. “You’re looking for a temporary job to tide you over while you apply for a ‘proper job’ and actually what happens is lots of people just end up in this trap, because it costs you so much money to work.
“You’re constantly having to invest in your equipment, and trying to save money because when you’re sick - which is quite often, particularly when you start and have a lot of injuries because your body is adapting to the workload - or your bike gets stolen, then your week’s wages are gone. For the first few years that I was working, I was constantly in debt.”
She knows middle-aged couriers still living with their parents because they can’t afford rent. “It’s more common that you’d expect, men in their 40s who’ve not reached that level of economic independence.”
Maggie currently works a 38-hour week for around £18,000 a year, which puts her on the London Living Wage (the voluntary minimum estimated to provide a reasonable standard of living). But she has no savings to fall back on: “It’s just constant anxiety, basically. What if I have a massive bill to pay? Or if I got evicted and had to get a deposit for a new flat?”
Last year, she successfully took her then employer CitySprint to tribunal, arguing that she was essentially a worker (a different status from full employees, but one which carries some rights) not an independent contractor, since she was effectively controlled by the company.
But Maggie, who moved to eCourier when CitySprint lost a client to them, claims little has changed across the industry apart from platforms rewriting contracts more carefully. Meanwhile workers are scared of losing work if they complain, she says, in a competitive industry where every delivery is electronically timed and tracked to ensure maximum efficiency.
“We’re being digitally performance-managed every second of our day, whereas the technology wasn’t around in the 70s to do that. A postie then could work at half speed probably and nobody would notice. Now you’ll get paid accordingly,” says Maggie. “I remember being on a CitySprint circuit which was extremely competitive, and you worry about going to the toilet between jobs - I’m going to delay this job by five minutes if I do, will that bring me down in the pecking order?”
A CitySprint spokesperson told HuffPost UK the company has a good relationship with couriers, “who enjoy the freedom and flexibility of their role”, although, it added, recent cases have shown that there is “widespread confusion in this area of the law”.
It all seems a far cry from the world Steven Todd entered 30 years ago, when he joined the Royal Mail as a postman. Now about to retire, it’s the human connections made on the job that he will miss.
“Everybody’s happy to see the postman. I don’t know why, in some instances, because some people just get rubbish. But we’re people you see every day,” says the 61-year-old from Broadstairs, Kent.
“There’s a very old lady I see, she’s always in the same chair. We do hand signals to each other; I’ll mime what the weather is, if it’s cold out. Her son told me she looks out for me every day. It’s a big deal for some people, especially people who are housebound.
“And it’s a great feeling when you bring something someone’s been looking forward to.”
Yet as Royal Mail struggles to compete with cut-price gig economy rivals, even he has begun to feel the winds of change. A quarter of Royal Mail Parcelforce drivers are now on self-employed contracts, in 2015 it bought up eCourier, Maggie’s current employer, and it too now uses technology to improve efficiency.
“Everything is timed. They use this thing called Pegasus which works out how many seconds you need to walk from the gate to the door of every single house you deliver to,” explains Steven.
“In the old days we used to do things for people - unload shopping, help them lift things, even fix people’s tellies if some little old lady couldn’t get reception. You’d hear all their stories. But not any more.”
Meanwhile the boom in parcel delivery linked to online shopping means Steven can handle up to 12 sacks of mail a day compared to one or two when he started out.
But if the pace has quickened for postal workers, he thinks the self-employed couriers he bumps into on his round are pushed to the extreme. “I’ve seen people running, tearing up and down steps - you can’t do that for more than a couple of months. It’s just crazy.” At least Steven can afford to retire, now that years of walking 13 miles a day are taking their toll physically. The long term prospects for burnt-out couriers without pensions are more bleak.
Yet interestingly, Maggie has no plans to get out. “Despite everything, I do love my job. When you’ve been working outdoors for years and years it’s quite hard to go back indoors. And the first couple of years are so tough that as soon as you get to a point of some kind of stability you don’t want to give it up.”
Anyway, the alternative could easily be another zero hours contract or gig economy job; she’d rather stay and fight for change. “It doesn’t need to be like this. Bosses that operate courier companies on the Continent, they’re still profitable but they share the wealth far more with the workforce and most people are fully employed. I think it’s really important not to quit your job, because when you quit you have less agency to change it and the industry will never get better.″
Couriers V Posties: What Do They Earn?
• While job ads for self-employed couriers regularly promise “up to” £1,000 or more a week, the average is likely to be significantly lower. In 2016 the government-backed National Careers Service estimated self-employed courier pay at between £30-£150 a day, and a report from the Labour MP Frank Field cited evidence from some couriers earning as little as £2.22 an hour.
• Following IWGB campaigns targeting supply chains and clients, several London courier firms including eCourier have committed to paying the voluntary London Living Wage. Courier company DPD announced in March it would offer all drivers sick pay and holiday pay.
• Royal Mail postmen or women starting work at 18 can expect to earn £11.98 an hour initially in London, rising to £12.54 after a year, or £359.40 rising to £376.20 for a 30-hour week (pay is lower outside the capital). They can also claim overtime, get 22 days’ paid holiday a year and have access to pension schemes and childcare vouchers.
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