Deliveroo’s Courier Cops

Deliveroo's new partnership with Neighbourhood Watch offers riders training in how to spot crimes, to 'keep communities safe' – but the company's treatment of its workers shows it couldn't care less about community.

A Deliveroo rider waits to make a delivery. Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty Images

Whether parked up outside a restaurant, or frantically weaving through traffic, the silver and green glint of the Deliveroo uniform is a familiar sight even on the quietest of streets. Except now, those riders won’t just be delivering food – they’ll be looking out for crimes.

That’s because last month the food delivery app announced a partnership with crime prevention organisation Neighbourhood Watch, to ‘help keep communities safe,’ by offering riders training in how to spot crimes. In the press release declaring the project, Deliveroo’s founder Will Shu said: ‘We want to support the communities in which we operate and use our platform for good.’ But for riders who’ve had to fight for basic working rights—who can earn as little as £2 an hour—and who are bogusly deemed self-employed, Shu’s sudden development of a social conscience is likely to be more than a little galling.

The Metropolitan Police-certified training, which consists of a series of online videos, will teach riders how to identify everything from street harassment, domestic abuse, County Lines and drug dealing to modern slavery and human trafficking. Reportedly inspired by a rider’s own positive experience of becoming Neighbourhood Watch coordinator during the pandemic, workers who complete the training—which is at least optional—will then promote the partnership by featuring the Neighbourhood Watch logo on their delivery bags.

While nominally an ethical gesture, the move seems more like an attempt to extract some positive PR for the tech company, which is much bruised after a recent catastrophic initial public offering, and by near financial ruin save for a last-minute injection of cash from Amazon. As Deliveroo, JustEat, and Uber Eats fight it out for a dominant market share, each attempts to craft a brand identity in order to win as many customers as possible. Back in 2019, Deliveroo UK and Ireland’s marketing director Emily Kraftman told Marketing Week that their latest global brand campaign would see them ‘winning in every neighbourhood,’ combining ‘big media with local, on-the-ground activation.’

How better to win in every neighbourhood than to partner with Neighbourhood Watch? By cloaking itself in a commitment to civic virtue and ‘strengthening neighbourly relationships,’ Deliveroo is neatly carving out a community image while offloading the effort onto underpaid workers.

Beyond the expectation on riders to continually absorb unremunerated tasks far exceeding the remit of their job, the partnership is worrying in other ways. Black and migrant riders make up a large portion of Deliveroo’s workforce, and are disproportionately subjected to police stops and immigration checks. (The first ever collective action taken by riders was the refusal in 2016 to deliver Byron Burger orders in light of the company’s collusion with the UK Border Agency, which resulted in the deportation of around twenty employees.)

In May, the Roads and Transport Policing Command tweeted about stopping forty-eight fast food delivery drivers for immigration checks in Tooting, arresting two of them. Deliveroo have likewise in the past assisted immigration raids that have led to the deportation of workers, and, back in 2018, a Guardian report revealed police officers were disguising themselves as takeaway delivery drivers; a photo of an undercover police officer posing as a Deliveroo rider in Finsbury Park was circulated widely online last year.

For the the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain’s (IWGB’s) Women and Non-Binary Officer, Kenya Scarlett, asking racially profiled and overly policed couriers to engage with this partnership risks pitting riders against each other. ‘What if you have white couriers who see a black courier talking to somebody, or going into a building, and they think, “I need to check they’re not committing a crime.” It encourages workers to look at other riders and wonder if they’re doing something wrong.’

The long-held associations of the Neighbourhood Watch with curtain-twitching and retired busybodies can mask complicated questions around citizenship and security, but the organisation’s vision of neighbourhoods contains implicit assumptions about what sort of ‘communities’ needed protecting, and from whom. (A 1983 Metropolitan Police’s press release termed the Neighbourhood Watch as for ‘ordinary home and car owners’, and other early Met publicity for the organisation featured only white people, except for one black man mugging an elderly white woman.)

While the pandemic saw delivery drivers classified as ‘key workers’, essential in getting those isolating the food they need, those same workers were simultaneously subject to surveillance and suspicion. Back in January, when a horse rider parked up in a Devon lay-by photographed a John Lewis delivery driver urinating against the back of his van, she was arguably acting in this limited kind of ‘community spirit’ – by policing perceived transgressions by those who exist to facilitate the existence of communities, but could never be a member of them.

In the press release, Deliveroo stressed the partnership would protect the safety of female riders, citing a recent roundtable discussion with female couriers. For Kenya, this move elides the immediate practical steps Deliveroo could take to make female riders safer. ‘If you’re getting harassed, is there an emergency button you can press so that someone calls you? What about if you’re getting harassed on a job, and you’re worrying that your delivery will be marked as not delivered, and so your account will be terminated, with no proper appeals process?’

For Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB, the hypocrisy is plain: Deliveroo operates under the guise of ‘community resilience’ and ‘connection’ while ‘deliberately keeping the workforce fractured, deliberately keeping working conditions poor so there is a quick churn of couriers. That way, they bulldoze any sense of community amongst the riders.’

In fact, Alex suggests the move might put workers at increased risk. ‘Couriers are already disproportionately affected by verbal and physical abuse. Imagine going somewhere late at night to drop off food. It’s a place where it’s already quite dangerous, where you might lose your bike, or someone might grab food off you. Now you’ve got this extra layer of being made a target, by people thinking you’re an informant for the police.’

That’s not to overlook the risks the partnership poses to customers. While Will Shu might suggest that riders are ‘well-placed to […] spot any concerns,’ Alex feels this misrepresents the precarious and hectic reality of working as a courier. ‘You’re ducking in and out of traffic, you’re chasing deadlines that are impossible to meet, you’re dealing with angry restaurants and pissed off customers.’

The combination of fleeting customer courier interactions, limited online training, and algorithmic management demanding constant rushing from riders poses serious logistical challenges to the success of the scheme – something especially alarming given the severity of the crimes couriers are being asked to spot. That’s why Jake Hurfurt of civil liberties campaign Big Brother Watch fears the partnership ‘risks creating an army of poorly trained snoopers that would be more Johnny English than James Bond. Nor would many people want Deliveroo riders to become a privatised, quasi-police force spotting pre-crimes.’

The recent Kill the Bill protests have highlighted that increased policing does not equal increased safety. Extending the web of policing in this way forms part of a broader pattern, whereby employees whose job have no criminal element find themselves asked to behave like the police, most notably in the case of ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation Prevent. Put simply, Kenya notes that ‘Calling the police is not always the safest option. It’s not always the police who can protect us.’

Deliveroo’s business model of accepting vast revenue losses in the hope it’ll outlast its competitors and eventually capture the market is looking doubtful. But as long as the company continues to plow through cash at astounding rates, customers can expect their pad thai to come with a side order of surveillance.