By Peter Hogarth
On May 1, cyclists and drivers from the food delivery service Foodora announced the public launch of their union drive in Toronto. Spring’s Peter Hogarth sat down with Richard Lam, who’s been a Foodora bike courier for two years, to talk about the job, the union drive and organizing in the “gig economy.”
What is a typical day like on a shift?
It kind of depends on what time of day you’re working, and what time of year. Mostly you have a set shift that you are working. You switch yourself “on” right around when you’re supposed to start. You go into an app and press a button and say “I am working now” and wait for the app to beep and tell you where to go.
Sometimes you hit the road and cycle around waiting for one. Sometimes if it’s early in the morning, when things are pretty slow but they want people to be available, you turn yourself on while you’re sitting at home and drink some coffee until you get your first one. Then, on a good day, you will go from order to order, from ping to ping, biking around the city, picking stuff up and dropping it off, getting your next order right away. If it’s a little bit slower, then you’ll have waiting time in between orders which is always a big bummer. And when that happens, everyone treats it a bit differently: some people circle around, others bike to hot spots and wait there, some just take it slowly. You’re kind of a free agent at that point. You’re at the mercy of the algorithm. Whatever it throws at you is what you have to do.
And are you penalized for turning down orders?
You are. In theory, because we are technically “independent contractors,” you are allowed to decline an order. Which you can only do when you’re first given the order and you have to go through several steps to see the details of the order, which is always a real headache. So, it doesn’t just say “hey, you’re going this far, to this place, you’re taking this much food, it’s this large, it weighs this much.” In order to see that stuff, you have to click through a couple menus. And you are allowed to decline it, but if you decline an order you are automatically put on a 5 minute break and if you decline more than 10% of your orders in a week, you are automatically moved into the lowest priority shift group. That means that you get the last access to shifts each week, which means fewer hours. Especially in the summer, when shifts are really, really competitive and hard to come by right now, that could cut your working hours overnight and you’d be making very, very little.
Unlike Uber, we work specified shifts. So you can’t just turn yourself off whenever you feel like. Every Wednesday morning, all of the couriers in Toronto hover waiting for the shifts to be released to us, and they are released in three different groups depending on priority. And priority only factors in your performance over the last two weeks, so there is no seniority. It only factors in how fast you go, how many orders you deliver, how many hours you worked, how many times you logged in late; it has these kind of metrics that it rates you on, but if your metrics dip below for one rating period then you are down into the lower group. No questions asked. No sympathy.
How did the union drive start?
I’ve been talking to union organizers and had a foot in the union drive for about as long as the union drive has existed. I was maybe at the second ever meeting of it and that was over a year ago.
It’s been a really difficult slog for us because we don’t have a shared workplace, we don’t have any way of knowing who our fellow workers are, other than the pink backpack. So, really what we have been doing for over a year now, is that any time you see someone you just slide up next to them and start a conversation. When we were under the radar, it was a conversation about grievances, about how things were tough, what was frustrating, did people feel safe, did they have to dealt with the office.
Then to help facilitate getting people into more structured environments, the union organizers began to organizing informational sessions, like “bike repair for couriers,” “taxes for couriers,” more social hangouts as well and formal meetings where we would talk about grievances. But now that we are public we can just be like, “hey have you heard about the union?” and chat about it, and that’s a lot easier.
What are the most common grievances that folks have?
Access to shifts is a big one. They all come out in a blob and if you don’t get them, you don’t get them. We do actually have a sort of informal solidarity network, like a bunch of people that are in the first priority group will pick up shifts and then redistribute them to people who are in lower priority groups who don’t get enough hours. But of course that’s also at the mercy of who gets what. And that’s all run informally through Facebook and group chats.
Another big one is tips. The way our wage structure works is pretty nuts. So if you order food from the Foodora, and you’re the customer, you are charged a $4.50 delivery fee on your order. So that is my flat rate, I get a flat rate of $4.50 per order and you pay it. Then, you will also tip me hopefully and that tip is obviously paid 100% by you as well. The only part of my wage structure that Foodora pays me is distance. And they pay $1 per kilometre, only from the restaurant to the drop-off point. So, on a typical order, let’s say I get the $4.50 delivery fee, I get a $3 tip, I’ve made $7.50 from the customer. The average drop-off distance is like 1 kilometre, so Foodora pays me a dollar. But Foodora takes 30% of the full restaurant bill. So there are literally times where people have delivered $100 worth of food to somebody, they don’t tip, that person paid the courier $4.50, Foodora made $30 and paid the courier $1.
Because of the flat rate system, tips end up being about 20 – 30% of your income. So, we are so so reliant on tips to make a living wage. If we don’t make any tips, we have to do three deliveries an hour to make $14 an hour. And three deliveries an hour is like peak hours business. You either have to be incredibly fast, and there are people like that, that are just inhumanly fast. But for most people, three deliveries an hour is an incredibly busy night. And to maintain three deliveries an hour over your five hour shift is rare. It’s much more common to do like two or 2.5 deliveries an hour, and at that point the actual wage you’re making is below minimum wage, you are relying on tips to put you over. And across all delivery apps, everyone I talk to is saying that tips have been noticeably declining in recent months. That’s a pretty big effective pay cut for us.
So tips and tipping is a big one for us: the unfairness of tipping, the insecurity of tipping, the fears about tipping. And then there is basic stuff too: our app doesn’t prompt the customer to tip after an order like Uber does. So that is a basic change that we know could exist in the app that we have asked for but hasn’t materialized. So that is another reason why we feel that we need to organize to advocate for these things that are sort of no-brainers.
Now, I don’t feel like tips should be the thing that pays us a living wage, I think we should definitely make a living wage, but at the very least if this is a tipped profession, it should prompt for a tip after delivery. Right now if I do something extraordinary in the act of delivering something, like when the elevator was out and I had to go up 35 flights of stairs, the customer can’t tip me at that point unless they have cash lying around, which fewer and fewer people have all the time. So that is pretty rough for us and definitely increases the bitterness and difficulty of the job. It can be a bit bleak sometimes if you feel like the extra work you are putting in isn’t for anything.
Considering the “independent contractor,” what challenges does that pose for the unionizing effort?
To be honest, we are pretty lucky, in that from what we understand it is a pretty cut and dry case for us. What we are going to fight for is dependent contractor status, which is like a category between independent contractor and employee—and dependent contractors have a right to unionize. So we are not anticipating any problems because Foodora controls our hours, penalizes us for not making certain targets, measures our progress, they negotiate 100% of our business. I can’t create my own business contacts. I can’t go to Freshii and say, “if you need somebody to deliver for you guys just call me on my phone and we’ll figure it out.” Even the most reactionary, anti-labour talk radio stations, when we first dropped our campaign and went public, all had their labour experts on and they were all like, “oh, they definitely have the right to unionize.” So we aren’t worried about winning that battle. Obviously the company is going to do everything they can to prolong that battle and make it difficult for us, but the evidence is very cut and dry for our side.
What is it going to take to win?
It’s just a grind. We just have to get more people signing up all the time. It’s a pretty clear process, in order to form the union we need to get 40% of the workforce to sign a card and once they’ve signed you can go to the labour board with that, trigger a vote and if the vote passes by a majority the union is formed and has the right to collectively bargain with the employer. So the biggest obstacle we have is that we don’t actually know the number of people. We’re pretty sure we have a good ballpark target, so for us it is just about getting more couriers on board all the time.
And we’ve seen an explosion in interest; people are finding us now. We’ve been pretty open about who we are and how can you reach us. We’ve got new tactics too, like partnering with restaurants that are pro-labour to have people posted there, waiting for couriers to come in to talk to them. It’s very cool. Because the biggest challenge is just finding the networks. Afterall, it is a very isolated job, which can be part of its appeal.
You know, couriers are kind of funny people. There’s a kind of cowboy, person of the road swagger to them. And it’s also a natural side effect of doing something really physical, on the road, headphones on for most of the day. It’s a very meditative thing that you get into and you can kind of become a strange animal. At the same time, I meet people who are hungry to talk about the job, they’re very eager to meet other couriers. So for us right now is all about meeting and signing up more couriers and it has been going well.
And you’re confident that when you get that 40%, that Foodora couriers will vote to join the union?
Yes, I’m very confident that they will. And that’s sort of why I want to talk to people. There’s a few people who are really happy with the way the system is set up; they’re making lots of money, working a lot of hours, they’re doing well and they are worried that they might lose that. Now obviously, we’re not going to negotiate worse conditions. But the most important thing for me, whether you are having a great time with Foodora or a crappy time with Foodora, is that we don’t have any security. It’s actually written into our—heavy air quotes— “employment contract” that Foodora can one-sidedly alter the terms of our employment contract at any time. And we know that in Montreal they used that to totally change the way wages were paid out. They made it so there was a hard cap on how much people could earn, to reign in how much they had to pay out to some of the people who were really really fast. And the threat of stuff like that is the bottom line. So, even if you are having a great time with Foodora now, there is no guarantee that that will continue.
In fact, the only way that we can make sure that that doesn’t happen is to unionize. We are kind of vulnerable in that way. It is going to be a long battle, but one of the other things that’s really tricky or shitty about our job is that we don’t have raises for inflation. I started the job two years ago, I’m making exactly the same dollar amount. So in effect, I’ve taken a pay cut over time. With inflation, we lose buying power every year. So, I think people are feeling that squeeze and that will have an effect when it comes time to vote for the union.
So for folks in the public, in the labour movement, how should they show support to the Foodora couriers union drive?
We have social media and stuff, so for now just following that and giving us support in that way is really great. Our focus is on just getting couriers out and, honestly, it would help if you could order Foodora and leave a message in the comment section of your order something like “I support the Foodsters United” and talk to your delivery guy about the union when it comes.
Those messages will be seen by the driver and the office. Part of the reason we launched our union drive is we know that Toronto is a profitable market and the strength of the Toronto market has allowed them to open up in about six other cities. We want them to do business and we want them to know that Toronto supports the union drive. So just that, and keep an eye out for marches or rallies.
Thanks so much for talking to me, Richard.
Yeah, no problem. It’s been really cool to be involved in something like this. It’s just been sort of my day job for the past few years, so I was really excited when people started talking union. Its been cool and I think a lot of people are excited about it as well. So it’s been a nice focal point for a lot of energy. One of the nicest points about it too is the union drive itself has made doing the job a lot more human. I see people I know now when I’m out on the road and I’m happy to see them. I look forward to talking to other couriers about it. The job has become a lot less lonely since we started working on this together.
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