The moped glides along a road lined with palm trees. If you touch the screen, the moped jumps, looping through the air. Points are scored by vaulting over upcoming palm trees and clipping their fronds as you land. If you avoid the trees completely, you survive but score no points; if you take off too early, you land on top of the tree, and a grimacing emoji signals game over.
You can only play the game if you are on the home screen of the Deliveroo Rider app: it’s there to provide entertainment for couriers while they – we – wait between orders. I never play it, mainly because it’s tainted by Deliveroo’s tacit acknowledgment that these periods of unpaid waiting exist. Instead, I bring a book thin enough to slide into the pocket of my turquoise rain jacket, but I’m rarely able to concentrate on what I read. I keep looking at my phone, which is stupid because I’ll hear an alert the moment I get a new order.
No one likes waiting, but Deliveroo waiting – as opposed to waiting for a Deliveroo – is hellish. I am acutely aware that I’m not earning any money. I’m just a girl sitting listlessly on a graffitied bench next to an unwieldy backpack, willing someone within a mile radius to decide they can’t be bothered to cook. It’s getting darker. The breeze feels colder, and I notice the smell of piss wafting up from beside the bench. Then, just as I’m about to give up and go offline, I get an order. I’m earning money.
I talk about Deliveroo a lot because people ask about it a lot. The most interested are those who use its services, and want to know what it’s like to work for: how much I get paid, how far ‘they’ make me cycle. I’ve wondered if the interest is to do with the impersonal nature of the ordering process – you can order from almost any restaurant without talking to anyone – and the associated mystique of a decentralised, floating workforce. This would explain why people often tell me that they’re going to order food when I’m working, so that I’ll be the one to deliver it (this is of course vanishingly unlikely). Part of the reason people’s interest surprises me is that this is a job almost anyone could do, or at least one anyone could get. There’s no assessment or interview: after completing an online application, I simply turned up at a storage facility with my passport for an ‘onboarding session’. I was given – actually, had to purchase on credit – the backpack and the rain jacket, and left with the job.
Deliveroo divides London into zones. Some – usually in central locations – are ‘free login zones’, where you can work at any time. Or rather, you can go online at any time, but there might not be any work. Other areas, usually in more residential districts, are ‘booking zones’. To work there, you have to book hour-long shifts in advance. It’s a way of controlling the number of riders on the road. I experimented when I first started in a few local zones – Vauxhall, Peckham, Brixton, London Bridge, Westminster. Brixton on a Friday night, with its huge density of busy restaurants, was exhilarating. I sometimes worked lunchtimes in Westminster, but it was too corporate, and I got tired of lugging massive orders of Leon wraps into office blocks.
Peckham was an interesting case: it’s the second-closest zone to where I live and the work was reliably constant. This was because all my orders were coming from the same place: the Valmar Road trading estate. I would get an order from Crust Bros, say, but instead of being directed to a real restaurant, I was sent to a disused car park, where there were a couple of windowless, box-like temporary buildings, inexplicably painted black. Inside, chefs were making food supposedly from a variety of restaurants. There’s a significant difference between having a sit-down in a real, people-filled restaurant while waiting to collect someone’s food and returning again and again to a black box in an empty car park, and I felt a vague worry that I was conspiring in deception – customers didn’t know where their food was coming from. But what really put me off working in Peckham was the feeling that I was seeing the future, a future in which people sit alone in tall apartment blocks, eating homogenous food prepared by workers in black boxes scattered through public spaces made ghostly by disuse.
Now I stick to one zone, the zone I live in, partly through laziness – I can go online from my sofa – partly as a strategy. I know the area well now, which means I have to do less peering at my map as I cycle one-handed through dark, potholed side streets. When accepting orders, I can avoid slow restaurants, maze-like residential complexes, the places where there is nowhere to lock my bike. I know how fast or slow the lifts are in different buildings. I’ve become newly acquainted with the place I’ve lived all my life by seeing the insides of buildings I never had a reason to visit: different council or, more likely, ex-council estates; the expensive, soulless tower blocks that have shot up in the last few years (concierge, elaborate entry process); multimillion-pound town houses in ill-lit squares (a better bet for tips), student accommodation (no tips). Occasionally, on a warm, hazy Sunday afternoon, I find myself drifting dreamily around residential South London, handing over bizarre meals at odd hours to hangover-sufferers. I never know what to do with Sundays anyway. At those rare moments, earning money feels almost incidental.
My relationship with Deliveroo is mutually exploitative and entirely mercenary. Unlike most normal employers, Deliveroo can’t order you to do anything, so they offer rewards for working at peak hours (you get priority booking for the next week’s shifts or increased fees). Once there was a £500 lottery, and for a couple of hours, every order you completed entered you into a jackpot. On the app you see your fees adding up in the ‘earnings’ section and how many minutes you have left on your shift. During the fee surges in busy periods, you find yourself racing between destinations. There’s a football match you want to watch at the pub with your friends, but Deliveroo is offering an extra pound per delivery during those hours. Can you resist?
There are also the patronising e-newsletters enumerating ‘perks’: free insurance in case we’re injured on the job; hot tips for maximising ‘fees’; discount codes for gym membership; weirdest of all, an opportunity for a lucky 15 riders to have lunch with the company founder, Will Shu. Most of these ‘perks’ strike me as creepy and deceptive. Their apparent generosity derives from the fact that Deliveroo’s business model, in common with so many other ‘gig’ economy giants, relies on those who deliver the services being legally classified as self-employed ‘independent contractors’ rather than ‘employees’, and thus not sharing the fundamental rights and job security afforded to other workers. A six-page manual underscores this. It prescribes, and proscribes, certain words: rather than ‘wages’, riders get ‘fees’; rather than working ‘for’ Deliveroo, riders work ‘with’ them; rather than ‘payslips’, riders get ‘invoices’. The company likes to address its riders as if we were customers, and as if it were our service-provider – which is, of course, exactly the way it wants to see itself. The company newsletters (‘Roosletters’) frequently begin: ‘We’re always looking for ways to improve the delivery experience’; ‘You are the heart of all we do and we want to keep providing more support to you’; ‘Here at Deliveroo, you – the riders – are at the heart of what we do.’
I haven’t ridden for Deliveroo since starting to write about the company. I’ve found other work, and I now feel as if I’ve been writing my Deliveroo obituary. But of course I haven’t quit exactly: I’m only ever the touch of a finger away from going back to work.