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Sam Saunders

Deliveroo Riders Force Accident Cover but Gig Workers Still Exploited

Deliveroo is in the news after it handed out £10m in shares to staff but not the couriers who deliver food.

Arianna Tassinari, doctoral researcher in Industrial Relations at Warwick Business School, writes below that Deliveroo's new accident insurance scheme only came about because of pressure from riders.

Deliveroo continues to deny a role for collective bargaining and union representation, and the accident cover does not represent a major breakthrough in protections for gig economy workers.

Last week, food delivery start-up Deliveroo, a major player in the delivery segment of the gig economy, announced it would introduce a new free accidents insurance scheme for its riders. The new scheme is supposed to cover initially 35,000 riders in 12 countries worldwide where Deliveroo operates, including the UK, providing up to £7,500 coverage for medical expenses and 75% of gross pay as replacement income for up to 30 days of inactivity in case of injury at work.

The issue of sickness coverage and health and safety for gig workers has been high on the agenda of debate around employment rights in the gig economy. Indeed, the ‘self-employed’ category used by Deliveroo and similar firms to classify their workers means that couriers are not entitled to statutory sick pay in case of injury at work.

In a job that involves high exposure to physical risk – working in traffic in busy urban environments, with an incentive to ride at high speed to maximise deliveries regardless of weather – the lack of sick pay coverage in case of accidents is one of the most striking protection gaps. It is therefore not by chance that over the last year and a half, Deliveroo couriers in many countries, from the UK to Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and beyond, have started to organise collectively to put pressure on the company to provide its riders with better protection standards.

The announcement of the new free insurance scheme for Deliveroo riders might thus appear as a big step forward for the sector. It was certainly presented as such by Deliveroo’s CEO in its announcement last week, which praised this “first-of-its-kind” offer as generous perk from an ethical company concerned about guaranteeing both flexibility and security to its “collaborators”.

However, there are a number of problems both with the rhetoric surrounding the announcement and with its substance that deserve unpacking. Unsurprisingly, the new insurance offer was presented by Deliveroo as a magnanimous concession from management, rather than as the result of the collective organising efforts of its riders and of the continued public scrutiny that this has engendered. This attitude is symptomatic of gig economy’s companies approach to employment relations, which denies any role for collective bargaining and union representation.

For Deliveroo, recognising that an improvement in working conditions is the result of workers’ pressure and demands would mean contradicting the fictitious claim it works so hard to sustain – i.e. that its riders are nothing more than atomised individual contractors, rather than a workforce with shared interests and collective power.

It is crucial to point out that this ‘offer’ did not come out of nowhere, but is the result of the hard work of collective organising that Deliveroo riders all over Europe have been undertaking since the summer of 2016, through various unions and collectives.

The fact that the company feels compelled to improve its offer is the clearest sign that collective action by workers pays off – and is more necessary than ever in a as of yet poorly regulated sector like the gig economy.

Despite its significance, however, the provision of private insurance for accidents coverage unfortunately does not represent a major breakthrough in terms of gig workers’ rights and protections. Other entitlements – to holiday pay, pension contributions, and an hourly minimum wage – are still denied to the self-employed couriers workforce.

In the absence of set minimum earnings levels and guaranteed working hours for couriers, the provision of sick pay in the form of 75% of average gross earnings cannot guarantee meaningful protection in case of accidents. In numerous countries, indeed, Deliveroo riders routinely complain about the difficulties they face in securing enough shifts or receiving enough delivery jobs to make a meaningful income, and about the lack of transparency in the role of the algorithm in determining the distribution of available work.

Replacement rates calculated on the basis of an unpredictable and often very low income are not an adequate safety net: the 75% of zero, after all, would still be zero. Through this move, however, Deliveroo can shelter itself from some of the public criticism surrounding the controversial classification of its workers as self-employed, without fundamentally altering its operational model, but rather legitimising it to the eyes of the public.

Presenting the provision of sick pay as a ‘benefit’ also contributes to undermining and subverting the very notion of protection from work-related risks as a basic employment right. It is surreal that coverage for accidents shall be considered an exclusive ‘privilege’ that workers have to feel grateful about – and yet, this is a common feature of the discourse used by gig economy companies.

Conflating basic rights with privileges facilitates the progressive dismantlement of collective protections and safety nets, as workers come to accept their absence as natural feature of post-industrial working life. Indeed, recent research shows that many gig workers see the lack of protections at work as normal and unavoidable. However, there is nothing natural about this: company-provided, individualised welfare provision cannot and should not be a substitute to universalistic, inclusive, rights-based forms of protection.

Ultimately, Deliveroo’s insurance offer is not a radical change in the operational model of the sector, but rather a patch that does little to solve the numerous underlying problem surrounding the regulation of work in the sector. Yet, it is also a testament to the fact that gig workers’ collective organising efforts are being effective in putting pressure on the sector’s employment model – and that, indeed, they are probably the only means through which meaningful change will eventually come about.

Work areas: Economy and Industry.