As Deliveroo Workers Push for Better Work Conditions, There's Debate About How to Organise

Sub-letting a Deliveroo account can take a chunk out of a delivery rider’s weekly earnings.

How much you pay depends on how fast your bike is, says Eddine Maddouri, who became a rider a year ago after the pub he was working at shuttered due to Covid-19.

It’s about €20 to €25 a week to rent an account for a regular bike, says Maddouri. “Electric bike, €50 to €60, then motorbike accounts can be €100 or €150 a week.”

It’s hard to make money on the pedal-bike accounts, he says – because of that payment and because the Deliveroo algorithm seems to prioritise faster vehicles for gigs.

“I know someone who made €6 in a day on a normal bike. He started at 2pm and went home at 6 and only made €6,” says Maddouri.

One reason that students or recent graduates sub-let or rent their Deliveroo delivery accounts is because of the immigration permission they have.

Those from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) on either a Stamp 2 or a Stamp 1G can work as employees, but they can’t be self-employed or freelance so they rent from those who can be.

Being an unofficial rider means facing the job’s risks such as bike theft or physical assaults with no insurance as a security cushion, says Maddouri.

“It’s hard to say this, but you’re no one if you’re not registered. A cat on the street has more rights than you,” he says, with a laugh.

Changing that is just one of the things that some Deliveroo riders want to do to improve their working conditions, but there’s debate about the best way to organise and advocate for that.

Joining Unions

The English Language Students’ Union (ELSU), a group officially formed in May 2020 to campaign for the rights of language students in Ireland – which later branched into working with riders, some of whom are students – has been encouraging riders to join the trade union SIPTU.

Union membership is a good idea, says Victor Flores, an activist at the Association of Bolivian Residents in Ireland. “I like to see more colours and backgrounds in unions.”

But Flores, whose group includes Bolivian riders, he says, is also wary.

When ELSU was formed, it raised students’ expectations that it would claim refunds for cancelled in-person classes from English-language schools, which was unrealistic, he says.

(Minutes of meetings between ELSU, representatives from language schools and the Department of Education show that it has called for refunds for students.)

Flores says that he is suspicious that calls to join a union are more about growing membership numbers than anything else, he says. “This shouldn’t be just for propaganda reasons.”

There’s only a “modest” wage premium for immigrants in Ireland from outside the EU who are union members, compared to those who are not, according to a study based on 2008 data carried out by researchers at the University of Limerick.

And there’s a gap between what unionised immigrants make, and what unionised Irish nationals make, according to the study. “For unions, it raises questions as to how one section of their membership (immigrants) appears not to benefit in the same extent as unionised Irish-nationals,” the study says.

Brendan Ogle, a senior officer at the trade union UNITE, said: “I’m not surprised about its findings.”

Rigid immigration laws and existing legal loopholes that undermine workers’ rights make helping non-EEA workers even more difficult, Ogle says.

“Even if you get all the Deliveroo riders to join UNITE today, that won’t change the law,” he says.

Unions should work toward reforming some laws if they want to offer meaningful support to vulnerable workers, says Ogle.

Like the Unfair Dismissal Acts, for example, which fail to safeguard all workers against wrongful contract terminations, Ogle says.

Dismissed staff must have worked for at least 12 months before their unions could take a case to the Workplace Relations Commission on their behalf.

A spokesperson for another union, SIPTU, said that it can help freelance Deliveroo workers in different ways to fight for better conditions and pay.

The union could help them with legal aid and represent them at the Workplace Relations Commission and Labour Court, they said.

“We do not have a breakdown of the number of non-Irish born members in SIPTU, but they would number in their thousands,” said the spokesperson.

Union membership is helpful for the riders even if they are unofficial freelancers, says Fiachra Ó Luain, the founder of ELSU.

And “instead of defining people by their nationalities or any other demographic criteria, the universal rule in terms of union-building is to instead identify and support those who want to build, to communicate and unite,” he says.

Not being able to register with Deliveroo as an official rider to benefit from the security that it affords is Maddouri’s main problem, he says.

If a union promised to solve that, he’d join it, says Maddouri. “Why do people who eat food from Deliveroo can be non-European but the people who want to work with Deliveroo can’t?”

The SIPTU spokesperson said it has already raised issues that riders on student stamps face in a recent meeting between the union, ELSU, the Migrant Rights Centre, and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, who is also minister for trade and employment.

Uniting Riders

Complicating efforts to organise have been misunderstandings and disagreements between different groups, riders and organisers about what’s been proposed and how to go about it.

There was online backlash from some Deliveroo riders when they thought that ELSU had asked for a fixed hourly wage of €12.50, based on a set of demands printed on a leaflet by the group. Some riders misunderstood the demand, thinking they would not then be able to earn above the suggested rate.

What ELSU had sought, though, was base pay of €12.50 per hour, with riders able to earn more than that if they do deliveries that take them above that, said Ó Luain. “It was about a bottom floor, not a top roof on earning.”

There have also been schisms around the issue of whether ELSU is pushing for riders to be employees or not.

Some riders want to stay freelance as they’re worried they’d lose work if Deliveroo were to start hiring full-time employees.

Others, like Maddouri, see being a delivery rider as a temporary job and think that becoming employees would mean they had to commit to making deliveries for a long time.

Even if riders get employee status, most driver jobs – “with the exception of heavy goods vehicle drivers” – are in the list of professions ineligible for a work permit issued by the Department of Trade and Employment.

That means that international students who graduate would not be able to stay in the country on the basis of that job.

Maddouri wants to work as a freelance rider for now, he says, but to be able to have his own account.

As a business student, being a rider is a temporary gig until he graduates and finds work in his own field, he said. And “I can work whenever I want”.

Ó Luain says that a March article on RTÉ’s website saying he had called on the government to “be proactive in allowing Deliveroo workers to be described as employees rather than sub-contractors” was not entirely accurate.

In the meeting with Varadkar, a union rep and Ó Luain criticised Deliveroo’s contract model as “bogus self-employment” and asked the Tánaiste to help change it.

Ó Luain, who had organised the meeting with Varadkar, says it’s not true “that ELSU has said that people should not be self-employed”.

“Basically, people want meaningful employment whether it’s self-employment or as employees, they basically want to see a model that works, so people can work, have the flexibility they want, have the insurance that they need,” says Ó Luain.

Some of this debate is overlaid by a discussion of who should represent and lead organising Deliveroo workers.

Flores, the activist with the Association of Bolivian Residents in Ireland, says non-EEA riders shouldn’t rely on one Irish organiser at ELSU to organise on their behalf.

They should focus on building rapport and solidarity among themselves and find common demands, he says. “And unions can accompany that.”

Flores says he doesn’t believe ELSU speaks for all riders. Ó Luain agrees.

ELSU meetings are attended by “over 50” members “on a regular basis”, he says.

But not all Deliveroo riders are English language students. Some unofficial student riders are enrolled in third-level courses while some are recent graduates on Stamp 1G, making an income on the bike while searching for a permanent job to avoid having to leave.

Furthermore, Ó Luain says “We never for a second said that ELSU represents riders, we were just saying we’re facilitating riders’ voices being heard.”

“That can happen through translation, it can happen through using our contact, our ability, and the truth is Ireland’s a very small place,” he says. “And when you’re active for over 20 years, you get to know an awful lot of people.”

When RTÉ has had coverage, he has put forward Deliveroo riders to speak, he says – and then sometimes, they have asked him to say a few words on behalf of ELSU too.

Ó Luain says he is now going to step back from ELSU, which he says has a committee and a constitution. He’s doing this partly, he says, “to illustrate that ELSU will continue without me”.

Further complicating the debate are language barriers among the riders.

Ngury Pinho, a city rider who has been making deliveries for Deliveroo and Just Eat since 2018, says meetings to do with demands should be advertised in all riders’ groups and be inclusive of all workers.

He says Portugese-speaking riders mostly confide in each other, and that can keep other riders out of the loop about meetings and demands.

“I speak Portugese a bit, but still like, they would only open up to other Brazilians,” says Pinho.

It’s understandable, he says, but riders should “talk to each other more” to forge unity.

Pinho is also not an English language student, but he’d heard about calls to join SIPTU and might do that, he says.

“I’ve considered it, but I don’t know too much about it, I think I’m kind of left behind cause a lot of the information is in Portugese,” he said.

Ogle says that riders coming together to organise as one strong entity with uniform demands is the first and most important step toward achieving change.

“I would say to delivery workers or any undocumented worker, first of all, talk to your colleagues, build a network with them, it is always better for workers to talk to each other,” he says.

What’s Next?

At that meeting with Varadkar, ELSU, SIPTU and others, a few riders talked about the need to lift the 20-hours-a-week working cap for students, and about being the target of inner-city assaults while cycling to do deliveries in the city.

Varadkar told those present that the working-hours limit was to make sure students have time to study.

He said Deliveroo is a good service but he doesn’t like the idea that people are mistreated – and that while platform work is here to stay it shouldn’t mean people are exploited.

Varadkar promised to talk to Justice Minister Helen McEntee about increasing students’ working hours.

But they didn’t talk about how that still doesn’t allow official freelance work for those pedalling for Deliveroo on student and graduate visas.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said they didn’t have the autonomy to apply employment-related changes to student permissions.

“Any changes to the policy attaching to student permissions would be a matter for consultation with the wider stakeholder group,” they said.

Maddouri, who is not a union member, says he doesn’t believe the state will allow freelance work on student visas anytime soon.

“I would love if they could make it equal for European and non-Europeans to register with Deliveroo,” he says.

Meanwhile, Labour Senator Marie Sherlock had a meeting with Deliveroo earlier this month.

They told her that they would like to give workers more benefits but they’d open themselves up then to workers being employees rather than self-employed, she said.

They are hiding behind a lack of sick-pay legislation “to not offer their workers decent conditions”, she says.

“They did say in the course at the meeting that they have some sort of sick pay cover, and they have something if somebody is injured in the course of their work, but they had no detail,” she said. “And they said they would follow up with that detail.”

She talked to them too about a safety button that workers had told her Deliveroo said it would be trialling.

Workers understood that to be to alert other Deliveroo riders in the vicinity of an incident that it had happened, she says.

“We very clearly said that, that, you know, the panic alert button needs to, you know, go straight to An Garda Síochána,” she said. “And indeed alert Deliveroo as well.”

She asked about it and Deliveroo said they were trialling it.

Pay was the third issue they talked about, she said – and how Deliveroo’s rates are lower than other delivery companies’.

“At the meeting, they made it very clear that you know their experience in the UK was that they didn’t believe the unions when they said they represented the workers, that there was a huge trust issue,” she said.

But they’ve agreed to meet SIPTU, which she welcomes, she says.

And with any campaign, you start with no members and build up membership, she said, and while she doesn’t know the exact numbers, “there are quite a few riders that have signed up to SIPTU”.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

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