Throughout the pandemic it’s likely that every person reading this article has relied on online shopping, and in turn that we have all relied on a growing army of parcel delivery drivers working under extreme pressure. The vast majority are classed as self-employed, and many have started work as a courier or driver as online shopping has boomed over the past year.
Officially, little is known about this trend or their working conditions. Their salaries and working hours aren’t captured in government or national statistics. Chancellor Rishi Sunak admitted in February that ‘we don’t have perfect information about the self-employed, we don’t know their particular circumstances.’ The government, it seems, hasn’t been paying much attention.
What we do know is that the decade following the financial crisis saw a sustained rise in insecure forms of work – agency work, zero hours, and bogus self-employment. And while recent figures show a drop in the overall numbers of self-employed during the pandemic, in certain industries it has continued to grow. Chief among these is parcel delivery drivers, and the CWU’s analysis shows that van drivers are one of the largest self-employed occupations across the country.
In recent months, Amazon, DPD, and Yodel are some of the companies that have announced further hiring sprees in response to record levels of online sales. Yet, like many gig economy operators, these companies often incorrectly categorise their staff as self-employed, negating them of any obligation to provide basic workers’ rights (minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, and more), as well as excusing themselves from paying National Insurance contributions.
In line with this growth, reports of mistreatment of delivery drivers are now coming thick and fast. Earlier this month, we heard that Hermes couriers were told to accept pay cuts or lose work. Newsnight’s investigation into conditions in Amazon told a story of unbearable workloads amid ten-hour shifts with no bathroom breaks.
Not being able to access public toilets is obviously a violation of workers’ basic dignity outside of a pandemic, but takes on an even more sinister twist during Covid-19. Late last year, Unite the Union found that ‘several members [drivers] reported developing Covid-type illnesses they attribute to being unable to wash their hands as the government directed.’
Furthermore, when drivers are only paid per successful delivery, they are often left scrambling to complete their rounds. A recent survey of Amazon delivery drivers found that 82 percent of them were forced to break the speed limit to keep up with demand, endangering their own lives and those of the public. Drivers who often have to front their own costs—uniform, petrol, and insurance, as well as occasionally leasing the van from the company—are left to choose between sticking to the speed limit or eking out a living.
The fact remains that many of these delivery companies are hugely profitable. They can easily afford to employ their drivers on permanent contracts but choose to squeeze labour costs in what is a highly competitive and unregulated market. Amazon’s profits (but not its tax bill) surged by 35 percent last year while DPDgroup’s profits more than doubled compared to 2019.
With little sign of the Employment Bill we were promised, there is no prospect of help coming from this government on its own initiative – particularly when it freely admits it doesn’t have the data to understand what’s going on. As ever, workers and unions must organise industrially and politically to overcome these exploitative conditions.
This is a major focus for the CWU – but we need to hear from parcel delivery drivers themselves. If you work as a parcel delivery driver, please take part in our survey here, and tell us about your experiences. If you know someone who works in the sector, please share the link with them and ask them if they can spare ten minutes to support the campaign.
If the 2008 financial crisis taught us anything, it is that we will not ‘build back better’ while giving employers free rein to exploit their workforce. A new deal for workers that guarantees a living wage, sick pay, and health and safety for all is long overdue. It’s time the government and employers did more than just applaud those who have got us through the past year.