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The Crying of Lot 49

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Riding a bicycle round London for ten hours a day is grindingly difficult. A bike courier is paid £2-£3 per job (with a 10 per cent bonus for working a full week if you’re lucky), income can be fickle, and a slow week spent standing in the rain is no fun at all. Though it varies dramatically, couriers cover distances averaging around 300 miles a week. Couriers are obliged to deliver whatever a client wants delivered as quickly as the client requires; if you can’t get from pick-up to destination within 40 minutes, you don’t get paid. Covering London from (roughly) Wapping to Knightsbridge and Camden to Elephant and Castle, you see a lot of the city, a lot of weather, and a great many post-rooms.

Bicycle couriers are generally taxed as self-employed subcontractors. Theoretically, couriers work for themselves, on a job by job basis, and are subsequently afforded no contractual protection. If you fall ill or get knocked off (a depressingly regular occurrence; studies have shown that cycle couriering is significantly more dangerous than most other trades), then you’re on your own. No job security, no sick pay, maybe a sympathetic word from your controllers but that’s about it. Though there have been attempts at unionisation, they seem doomed to fail in an industry that relies so much on a transient labour force.

The most a courier can hope for when injured is the assistance of the London Courier Emergency Fund, a grassroots organisation which pays out small amounts to riders injured on the job. The LCEF is funded entirely by couriers and their friends. Like whaling, the job generates a strong communal network, but this network is completely informal, structured around races, drinking and comradeship rather than institutional legal protection. Because of this, any attempt to overturn the state of the industry through direct action is doomed to failure: striking is met with swift dismissal, whole fleets are sacked and replaced overnight. Average rates of pay have remained much the same for the last ten years, and it is difficult to see how they could be increased, even merely in line with inflation.

I’m not unsympathetic to Roy Mayall et al, but can’t help rejoicing in postal strikes as sending more work the way of the courier. A guaranteed income (at least for the time being), sick pay (albeit restricted) and, most important, the right to strike are privileges denied to the thousands of London bicycle couriers who ensure that while postmen strike, letters still get delivered.

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