UK food delivery giant Deliveroo has been called on to do more to protect riders' incomes and safety during the coronavirus crisis. The 'meals-on-wheels' service couriers provide makes them key workers in a pandemic characterized by social distancing and 'shelter in place' lockdowns, is the key argument.
More than forty MPs from across the political spectrum -- including the former leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn and veteran Conservative MP, Sir Peter Bottomley -- have co-signed a letter urging the company to provide all riders with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), given the risks faced to those who keep working doing deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter also calls for riders who contract the disease or need to self isolate because of exposure risk to be given "full pay" -- rather than the £100 per week Deliveroo has sets aside for riders via a coronavirus emergency fund.
The MPs argue the fund "is simply not enough to compensate a courier for having to self-isolate and forces many to work through potentially early symptoms in the hope of it not being COVID-19".
"The fund has also proven to be inaccessible for many riders as they are not able to meet the eligibility criteria, as they have not completed the numbers of orders required. The fund should be there to assist everyone during this testing time; self isolation should not be a privilege," they add.
The letter also calls for a "minimum standards guarantee" -- given couriers' key worker role delivery food during the crisis -- arguing they should be provided with "a real living wage plus costs, holiday pay and sick pay".
Another demand is for Deliveroo to allow "high risk" couriers -- such as those who have pre-existing health conditions that may make them more vulnerable to the virus -- to self isolate for 12 weeks with "full pay".
Regular testing for riders is another demand.
The MPs also call for a halt to terminations until the end of the crisis, arguing: "It is clear that Deliveroo headquarters staff is stretched and does not have adequate time and resources to investigate customer and restaurant complaints which could lead to riders being unfairly terminated."
Contacted for a response to the MPs' demands, Deliveroo aggressively rejected accusations it has been lax in providing riders with adequate PPE.
The MPs argue the company's current opt-in system for PPE provisions is "inadequate and ineffective" -- urging it to take a proactive approach instead by providing "necessary safety equipment to all".
The letter also claims some riders that have opted in the system have not been provided with the promised PPE. "The riders ordered this PPE from Deliveroo on the 26th of March and have not yet received any provisions (14th of April)," they write. "Your negligence is putting your riders and your customers at risk, especially now that you are encouraging hospital staff to order from your platform."
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain’s (IWGB), which has been campaigning for Deliveroo couriers to gain workers rights -- and has today launched a petition in support of the MPs' demands to Deliveroo -- told us that many riders still haven't received any PPE after requesting it on March 26, querying how much PPE has been despatched by the company to its '30,000'-strong workforce to date.
The union also said it's heard from riders who have received PPE who told it the amount provided -- four masks and four small bottles of hand sanitizer -- would only last them for around a week.
Asked about this, Deliveroo told us it has ordered 135,000 masks and 145,00 hand sanitizers for UK riders to date -- though it did not provide a figure on how many items have actually been delivered to riders, saying only that it has delivered "tens of thousands" of masks and hand sanitizers.
Additionally, it said it has reimbursed all riders "up to £20" to cover any PPE and hand sanitiser they procure and pay for themselves -- as an interim policy.
On pay, Deliveroo claimed the £100 per week emergency provision it offers for COVID-19 sick (or isolating) riders, via its emergency fund, is higher than the rate of Statutory Sick Pay available to employees.
On the call for a minimum standards guarantee, Deliveroo reiterated its long-standing argument that riders value the flexibility afforded by its business model which involves them working as independent contractors, not contracted workers.
It also disputes that the IWGB's campaign for riders to gain workers' rights has widespread support among Deliveroo riders. But it noted that it has continued to call for updates to UK employment law which would enable it to provide more support for riders without jeopardizing flexibility.
It also told us it was involved in providing input to the government when it was working on support measures for self employed people during COVID-19. This support can cover riders, per Deliveroo, which notes that anyone who has been self employed for more than a year will receive three months of their average earnings based on previous years under this national government scheme.
Even if riders continue to ride and earn during the crisis the support still applies, it added. On vulnerable people, its line is therefore that it would never suggest such people ride during this time.
Rather it suggests they seek support under the government's Self Employment Income Support Scheme, as well as the wider UK social security system.
On rider terminations, Deliveroo disputed that it is unable to properly focus on this area during the pandemic, arguing that contract terminations are an important safety tool at this time -- such as in instances where riders have ignored public health requirements to be socially distant when making deliveries.
The company added an option for customers to request so-called 'contactless' deliveries early on in the crisis in Europe, removing the requirement that couriers hand food packages direct to customers. Though it was only optional at that point.
On testing, Deliveroo said it has worked closely with the government to ensure riders are entitled to claim free COVID-19 tests -- noting that riders were in the first group of people outside of the National Health Service and care home staff able to be able to access these tests.
However the company is not itself sourcing and making tests available to riders. Rather it's indicating they do the leg work of ordering them via the government's online self-service portal.
The UK government, meanwhile, has faced weeks of sustained criticism for failing to provide enough tests for people who need them, with accusations of inadequate provision and inaccessible test centre locations which require people to have a car to access a test continuing to trouble Boris Johnson's government.
So Deliveroo's message that riders essentially 'fall back' on government testing provision may offer little comfort for workers at a front line of exposure to the virus.
In a statement responding to the MP's letter Deliveroo added:
At Deliveroo, riders are at the heart of everything we do and we are working hard to support them during this unprecedented time. This includes distributing PPE kit to riders across the UK, supporting riders financially if they are unwell and keeping riders safe through contact-free delivery.
We are incredibly grateful and proud of the vital role riders are playing in their communities, helping the public, including the vulnerable and isolated, receive the food they need and want. We have dedicated teams on hand to support riders every step of the way through this crisis.