Courier Insights Series: Health and Safety
In the second instalment of our Courier Insights Series, in May we asked UK based app-couriers, both online and in person, about the risks and health impacts of their work.
Here is what we found…
Low pay and the pressure to work through fatigue
78% of survey respondents reported having continued to make deliveries despite being so tired that they felt it was no longer safe to continue working. 27% reported doing this often or always.
The emotional burden of customer ratings
A key feature of all the major gig platforms is customer rating systems, which allows customers to rate the services provided by each gig worker.
Over 73% of survey respondents reported that they feel worried about receiving negative customer ratings.
Ratings systems create a power imbalance between customers and couriers. One Uber Eats courier said of dealing with unreasonable, abusive or violent customers:
“couriers face account suspension or termination if such a customer was to submit a complaint (e.g., if a courier had refused to complete a delivery), while such a customer would be very unlikely to face consequences. As a result, we are pressured to endure dehumanisation and even risk of physical harm, while customers face no deterrence from engaging in such behaviours.”
Road traffic accidents and the physical risks of courier work
A quarter of survey respondents reported that they had been involved in a road traffic accident whilst conducting their deliveries for their work platform.
Of those who had been in an accident whilst working as app-couriers, more than half sustained some kind of injury, and a third reported that they had to take time off work as a result.
83% of those who were in an accident received no support from their work platform afterwards. This includes individuals who sustained injuries which meant they had to take time off work. These couriers reported that they are primarily working for Deliveroo and Uber Eats.
It is worth noting that we do not have data on individuals who have exited the industry due to injury or vehicle damage, and in fact this group would be difficult to contact.
Physical and mental health – what are the impacts of courier work?
In regard to general physical health, 49% of those surveyed reported that the job had a positive or very positive impact on them. Almost 30% felt that the work did not affect their health, whilst just over 20% felt the job had a negative or very negative effect on their physical health.
The fact that 49% of survey respondents are delivering on bikes or e-bikes is likely a large contributing factor in this result, though it is worth noting that we conducted this survey during May, when the weather conditions for courier work are fair compared with the brutal winter months.
The picture with mental health was similar - 45% felt the job had a positive or very positive impact on them, 30% felt no effect on their mental health, and 25% felt that their work had a negative or very negative impact on them.
Taken at face value, these results may appear to suggest there is not too much cause for concern regarding the impact of app-based courier work on worker health, however, we argue the story is not as straight forward as that.
It is important to consider these answers in relation to the wider experiences of those in the sector.
The barriers to courier work are very low, meaning the sector is open to those who are marginalised and discriminated against in other lines of work. If survey respondents would be likely to experience discrimination or marginalisation in other jobs, work as an app-courier may appear in comparison more favourable, while in reality workers are chronically underpaid and subjected to in-human, algorithmic management practices which leave them without true autonomy and without workplace support.
It is also worth noting the contradiction between the largely positive picture shown here regarding mental health, and the other results we have found through this survey. Can a line of work where 78% of workers feel a pressure to continue working through fatigue to earn sufficient income really be supportive of worker mental health?
Isolation – how informal networks may protect couriers from this workplace stressor
Isolation at work is a risk factor for work-place stress and has been proven to have a negative impact on some platform workers. Despite this, 70% of the app couriers we surveyed reported that they do not feel isolated while they work.
Based on our conversations with delivery couriers in Tower Hamlets (where Worker Info Exchange is based), we believe that informal networks amongst couriers likely play a big part in combatting isolation amongst the work force.
Whilst this finding is somewhat positive, it must be noted that it is couriers’ own initiatives and behaviour here which are acting as a protector against isolation, not measures taken by platforms. And, as almost a third of the work force do feel isolated whilst working, it is clear that better support mechanisms do need to be implemented.
Enter the gig economy for work-place autonomy…does gig work really deliver?
One of the positives of gig work touted by labour platforms is the concept that workers can conduct their work with complete autonomy. This is key to platforms assertions that their workers are self-employed, through which they dodge their labour rights obligations.
Of those surveyed, 78% felt at least somewhat limited by the platform they worked for in how they completed their work, with over a third of respondents (34%) reporting that they feel greatly limited by their work platforms.
This exertion of control over their workforce points to the existence of an employment relationship between platforms and couriers. With this relationship, characterised by platforms expectations that couriers perform their work in a certain way, comes parallel labour rights obligations.
Similarly, platforms promote gig work as providing an optimal work life balance.
We did see this reflected in survey responses, with almost 49% rating work life balance as either good or very good.
A further 25% reported that their work life balance was neutral, and just over 25% reported that their work-life balance was either bad or very bad.
However, academic work on the gig economy proposes that there is in fact an “autonomy paradox” at play. Whilst workers may have autonomy over when to work, they are simultaneously subjected to intensive forms of surveillance and control. We see this reflected in our finding that 78% of couriers feel at least somewhat limited in how they conduct their work. As a result, workers perceive that they have independence from managerial control, but in fact do not have more autonomy.
Where do we go from here?
We also asked couriers for their input on what improvements could be made by their work platforms to improve their physical or mental health at work.
Improvements to pay were mentioned in 53% of answers, with 13% of answers specifically citing current difficulties in earning the minimum wage. Answers regarding pay also cited issues such as not being paid for waiting time or time travelling to the restaurant, inconsistency in work from day to day leading to financial insecurity, and lack of holiday pay. These ideas reflect a desire to stabilise income, suggesting that couriers may feel a need for a more traditional employment relationship.
Our previous survey into app-courier working conditions covered the issue of pay, with more than half of those surveyed reporting that their take home pay was not enough to cover their basic needs. Whilst some of the results reported here regarding mental and physical health, isolation at work and work life balance are positive in part, it’s clear that the financial precarity of the sector is impacting well-being. Reported pressure to continue working whilst in a state of fatigue, in order to earn sufficient income, demonstrates this particularly starkly.
In addition to pay, ending unfair account termination and suspension by platforms, provision of kit and bike maintenance support, better treatment by restaurant staff, and the need for support following interactions with abusive or unreasonable customers were all raised by survey respondents as potential ways to improve working conditions. If platforms are willing to listen to their workforce, there are plenty of ideas as to how they can provide them with better support to navigate a precarious and physically dangerous line of work.
Through our next survey we will explore courier’s experiences of deactivations by their work platforms.  Bérastégui, P. (2021). Exposure to Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Gig Economy: A Systematic Review. SSRN Electronic Journal, p.13-14. doi:https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3770016.