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Government and delivery platforms join hands to throw migrant workers under the bus

By Sidra Zabit-Foster

In recent weeks, Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eat announced they will introduce tighter security measures for substitute delivery riders, including checking right-to-work documents, and the UK government claimed this as a success in their efforts to “crack down on illegal working”. The announcement followed recent press attention on the use of rented courier accounts by undocumented workers, stoking the flames of anti-migrant rhetoric by framing it within a wider narrative of stronger border controls, and concerns for public safety, particularly women’s safety. Since then, we have seen endless self-aggrandizing tweets from MPs, efforts to push through the UK-Rwanda Treaty despite strong opposition and concerns over its legality, and exaggerated displays of force by the police taking people from their communities to await deportation.  

At Worker Info Exchange, we are unsurprised by this cynical alliance, the opportunistic timing of this announcement by a dying government, or the bare-faced racism at its heart. Global gig economy platforms will speak with forked tongues to whichever authority suits them best and in the UK they have shown themselves willing to get into bed with an authoritarian, extreme right-wing government. 

Delivery platforms rely on underpaid migrant labour and turn a blind eye to exploitation

Regarding the use of substitution, a Deliveroo spokesperson said: 

We take our responsibilities extremely seriously and are committed to strengthening our controls to prevent misuse of our platform. 

An Uber Eats spokesperson said: 

At Uber Eats we are going to roll out identity verification checks to help ensure only those who legitimately use someone else’s account to earn with us are able to, and we are pleased to be working with government to find a solution. 

A Just Eat spokesperson said: 

We take our responsibilities on this issue seriously and have high expectations for couriers delivering on our behalf which is why we’re continuing our work together with industry and policymakers to develop a solution which will ensure couriers substituting their work do so in accordance with the law. 

Such statements would give the impression these companies were previously unaware of the issues around substitution. While they feign to take action now, the substitute feature has been promoted for years to delivery workers; they are encouraged to make use of it in order to boost the platforms’ assertion that couriers are independent contractors and not employed workers with rights.

A worker can ‘loan’ the use of their account to another person by informal, unwritten (and unsupervised!) agreement between them. The original worker will receive the earnings and should transfer it to the substitute. Couriers are told they can use a substitute whenever they like. With Uber Eats, they are not even required to inform anyone in advance. To maintain the illusion of the independent contractor, the onus of checking the substitute’s documents has been placed on the worker who is renting their account to another. This includes checking the validity of an identity document, motor insurance, and relevant right to work documents. That a worker is supposed to be able to detect fraudulent documents by eye is frankly laughable.  

Despite their disingenuous statements, all the major delivery platforms are fully aware that undocumented people could be acting as substitutes. Their entire business model relies on readily available, low paid, under-protected, migrant labour - of any citizenship status. In some countries, the only document needed to register as a delivery worker is a passport. In the UK, additional documents are required such as driving license and right-to-work papers. However, in a country that restricts, almost to the point of impossibility, how much migrant workers and those waiting for papers can work and earn, it is a shock to precisely no-one that people have utilised the substitute feature and found ways to survive.

Part of the announcement on stricter checks on substitution use implied that it is undocumented workers who drive down wages, as they are believed to accept low rates for deliveries. However, all workers on delivery platforms have been forced to accept lower and lower pay. A registered courier with Uber Eats, Deliveroo or Just Eat, may be making as little as £3 for an order. Delivery workers who participated in the recent, historic wildcat strikes reported that pay has been cut drastically in the last year. Workers say it is these inhuman levels of pay that keep them and the wider community in poverty, put their health and safety at risk every day, pushing them to make unsafe decisions on the roads in order to complete more trips per hour, to work through exhaustion, and driving them to anxiety, depression, and isolation.  

A substitute courier will earn even less than this. Many are paying a fee to the main worker for the rent. Even in agreed upon arrangements, this has a significant impact on earnings and contributes to conditions of in-work poverty and deprivation. In the extreme cases, the fees are extortionate and designed to keep the substitute in a position of debt and dependency. In response to a data request by Worker Info Exchange, Just Eat admitted that the bank account details recorded for one worker’s account were also linked to 49 separate other courier details. Rather than investigate the circumstances of how this came to be or enquire into the welfare of the workers involved, Just Eat dismissed this worker and the 49 others which they had previously approved. Just Eat is complicit in fostering modern day slavery conditions, precisely through the substitute feature, and is turning a blind eye to the problem.  

The in-built feature of substitution has knowingly put workers at risk of overwork, danger, and exploitation. This is true of all workers, be they documented, undocumented or citizens. While an undocumented person might make use of the substitute feature in the absense of other means to earn, so might also a person with all the right papers. A person may only want to use an account one day a week and not want the hassle of registering themselves. They might make a casual arrangement with a friend. They might have right to work papers, but no driving license. All of which has nothing to do with the so-called threat of undocumented workers, or any worker making use of any method to earn and survive, but the intentional design of an extractive, profit-driven business model. 

While a small minority of people may take advantage of this feature to exploit others, it is the gig economy platforms themselves that drive down prices and facilitate exploitation. Real, livable wages and worker rights are the only protection against illicit economies. 

Public safety is not under threat by undocumented delivery workers. Underpaid, underprotected workers fear for their safety on the job.

The UK government have insidiously suggested that public safety is threatened by undocumented workers. This has focused on the idea that an undocumented courier may turn up at one’s door, not matching the picture of the person shown on the Uber Eats or Deliveroo app. Without demonstrating any facts or figures, the implication has been that this person is a threat. In today’s extreme right wing rhetoric against migration altogether, the government hasn’t needed to do much more than imply.

More egregiously, without any evidence beyond anecdote, in media attention on substitution multiple womens groups have been quoted regarding safety concerns to paint undocumented migrant men as an explicit threat to women. The vast majority of couriers, of all status, are simply trying to make ends meet and get on with the job. There is no evidence to demonstrate that couriers, as a group of workers - regardless of citizenship status - represent a bigger, more prevalent threat to women’s safety than any other group. Invoking women's safety to justify immigration controls is a racist tactic as old as time; to portray foreign men as a threat to the nation's women.

Completely absent from the current discussion has been the voice of women couriers. Representatives of workers have long raised their concerns about the precarious and unprotected nature of courier work and their hyper visibility and exposure while working, which leaves all couriers, and particularly women couriers, vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse, robbery, harassment, and attack. In a survey of food delivery workers, 81% reported feeling fundamentally unsafe in their work, and all women workers surveyed reported having experienced sexual harassment while working. Women couriers have reported dealing with sexual advances from customers and restaurant workers, with coercive customers attempting to get them inside their property. As a job that is predominantly working alone and often at night, women couriers, largely migrant women, have felt unprotected by the police - and worse, targeted by them - and ignored by the platforms, who offer no support or protection, and ‘consistently side with customers’.  

The citing of womens’ safety by the government, while they shake hands with employers who evade responsibility for the safety of their women workers, is insulting.

Attacks on delivery workers are becoming more and more frequent and many workers believe they are targeted as migrants. By aligning with the idea that undocumented people are using their apps, Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Just Eat are encouraging the British public to view all delivery workers with suspicion and as a possible danger to the customer. In the context of anti-migrant discourse and rising attacks on undocumented people , these platforms are guilty of putting their already hyper-exposed workers at increased risk.

This scapegoating of their workforce and knowingly fostering a dangerous work environment is all the more contemptuous when delivery platforms could end the use of substitutes altogether requiring all workers to contract directly with them. This would remove the so-called threat of unidentified substitutes and the risk of wage exploitation in an instant. Of course, platforms would be less able to maintain the misclassification that workers are independent contractors, not employed workers with rights and protections. Thus far, the announcement of a new system of right-to-work checks has amounted to little more than PR. Very little information has been given as to how the new system will work, if it is even workable, what specifically each platform will do and when. As usual, workers have not been consulted and remain at the whim of CEOs who hold their livelihoods in the balance.

It is not undocumented workers trying to make ends meet that are the threat to safety. Nor is it those making less than other workers who are the threat to better working conditions. Gig economy platforms, that reap millions in profit, are the ones stealing wages from all workers and putting people at risk of exploitation and deprivation.  


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