Ocado Drivers Are Fighting to Unionise the Gig Economy

Last month, Ocado Zoom drivers made headlines for organising against rock-bottom pay and outsourcing of their jobs. Now, they are unionising – and determined to win better.

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Ahmad Fahim found out his wife was pregnant while he was on a job for Ocado Zoom. He’d been couriering for the same-day grocery delivery service since it began in 2019, although he technically wasn’t employed by them. Instead, Ahmad was classified as an independent contractor working for Stuart Delivery Ltd.

He says he was promised an hourly wage of £15, and earning additional bonuses for delivery slots. Despite being responsible for his own expenses, such as insurance, petrol, tax, and car maintenance, Ahmad soon found himself taking home between £1,200 to £1,700 per week. ‘We were making good money,’ he remembers.

Earning well, and assured by his managers that there would be new opportunities with more Ocado Zoom sites under construction, Ahmad and his wife made the decision to leave their low-rent flat in Hounslow. Together, they made the move to a more expensive place in Acton, only moments away from the depot where he worked.

It was shortly after the move that Ahmad started hearing rumours about Ryde, a self-professed ‘rider first’ delivery business. ‘Every day there would be some new story on site, that Ocado are going to end their contract with Stuart, or get in more agency vans.’ Stuart managers told drivers not to worry about the rumours. ‘They always used to say “everything will be fine.”‘

Ahmad was already used to Ocado making decisions without informing the drivers who worked with them: in September 2020, the company had suddenly started using agency workers to drive vans, as well as an unsuccessful trial of riders delivering groceries on cargo bikes. Despite this, Ahmad tried to remain optimistic.

Then, on 14 June this year, Ocado Zoom announced they would be trialling a partnership with Ryde at the Zoom depot. As the the volume of work available to riders on the Stuart app fell, it quickly became obvious that this trial was in fact a permanent move away from Stuart. Despite pay and conditions being considerably worse than on Stuart, the drivers ‘all rushed into Ryde before we lost our jobs.’

Things began to change, and soon Ahmad found his pay and working conditions had plummeted. Working 14 hours, seven days a week, his pay rapidly decreased. A recent report in The Observer alleged that it was as little as £3.80 an hour, but Ocado and Ryde dispute these figures.

Under Stuart, groceries would be split between bags, to make sure orders weren’t too heavy for drivers to carry. Suddenly, Ahmad says, order sizes increased and weight monitoring stopped. On a typical day, he was finding himself doing between 20 to 30 deliveries, with each delivery between 30 to 40 kilograms. ‘I normally take painkillers every single day, sometimes twice a day, because of my back and knee pain.’

And it’s not only the weight. ‘We deliver to complicated offices and flats with no lifts,’ Ahmad explains. ‘We have to do it, because we fear that if a customer says “the driver didn’t bring a product upstairs” although our contract says it’s up to the driver, we could be terminated. We don’t want to risk that.’

For Ahmad, this has meant anger and disappointment. ‘You feel sick. My baby is coming in three months’ time. After moving house, I’m in too much debt. I applied for Universal Credit last week. Why am I working for such a company? They don’t care about us.’

Anger at their conditions moved Ahmad, and another driver, Bruno Sterling, to join the IWGB trade union. For Bruno, it was the fact that ‘Ocado are making millions, making a profit,’ while those couriering their goods are facing these conditions. Standing by watching colleagues struggle while Ocado CEO Tim Steiner was paid £58 million in 2019, he knew that ‘We’re the real company makers. Not those guys in power.’

Together with the union, drivers like Ahmad and Bruno formulated a set of demands for Ocado Zoom. Among other demands, drivers want to be brought in-house on Limb B worker contracts, a designation that would see them classed as self-employed but eligible for employment rights as they depend upon an employer. Rather than current pay rates, drivers want a return to £16 per hour, with costs covered, and a guarantee of bonuses during busy periods. On 23 August, IWGB put these demands to the Ocado board.

Ocado’s response has not been to engage with the IWGB or the workers directly (at the time of publication, there has still been no direct communication from Ocado). Instead, the previous day, a blog post on Ocado’s site had expressed ‘deep concern’ at the ‘allegations’ reported in The Observer recently.

Ocado claimed that ‘Ryde have investigated the specific instances mentioned […] and have confirmed no drivers delivering for Ocado Zoom are being paid below minimum wage.’ For drivers to glean any information about their own jobs, they’ve had to pore over posters stuck around the depot, or learn it from news articles.

Then, on 3 September, Ocado announced—via a poster at the depot—that come this month, they will no longer be using third party courier companies. Instead, the poster advertises that Ocado will be recruiting Zoom drivers via employment agency ‘Job and Talent’. Pay will be £10.85 an hour, the London Living Wage, but crucially still a decrease from the initial pay rates under Stuart.

According to a recent email sent from IWGB to the Ocado board, another poster also states that, once drivers are signed up to the agency, they will be directly employed ‘after one week’. IWGB points out that this wording is unclear, and could mean in-housing doesn’t happen for a longer period.

Meanwhile, a blog post from Ocado, also published on 3 September, says that over half of Ocado Zoom drivers are already directly employed and that the company is in the process of in-housing the remainder. This post makes no mention of Job and Talent. All of this has compounded confusion on the part of drivers. In an email to Tribune, Ocado also restates that Ocado Zoom drivers are now being offered in-house contracts, not positions dependent on agencies or third parties.

The workers see the situation as a case of fire and rehire and, IWGB argues, the move from courier company to employment agency constitutes an unofficial TUPE transfer. TUPE—a Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)—are the rights of an employee when they transfer to a new employer, which stipulate that employers have a legal obligation to inform staff representatives about the transfer.

Gig worker disposability is often understood as being terminated at the click of a button, or pay rates dropping overnight. But corporations have embedded worker disposability at the level of their business models. Over the last few years, as the the rapid delivery market has exploded with apps like Deliveroo and Uber Eats, traditional supermarkets have increasingly sought in on this model.

But uncertain of customer demand and logistics, these supermarkets have tended to form partnerships with existing gig work companies, with Deliveroo partnering with Tesco. In Ocado’s case, the company opted to outsource the actual provision of ‘delivery in a flash’ to a workforce they wouldn’t be responsible for.

In Acton, the first depot went from zero daily orders, and, through the hard work of the drivers, soon rose to several thousand a day. With the pandemic, demand only increased further. Drivers worked hard to meet it: Bruno worked 345 days straight, often for more than 15 hours a day, he says – beating the record for both daily and weekly deliveries done. ‘I was the first to arrive to pick orders and the last to deliver the last orders. I gave a huge amount to my job. I gave my dignity, and my life, to be with this company.’

For Ocado, the gamble paid off: in the first half of 2021, they’d increased their revenue by almost £200 million. Four Ocado bosses received shares worth £116 million, on the back of soaring stock market value. Drivers, designated key workers, were pleased at being able to help those stuck at home, even when it came at a personal cost themselves: some nights Bruno slept in his car outside the depot, fearful of bringing the virus back to his wife and their ten year old daughter. For Bruno, ‘It was a special moment because it was the lockdown, and I was really happy to be helpful for people. When I give everything I give the best of me.’

Those same drivers now feel that once they established demand and dependent customers, therefore proving to Ocado that the rapid business model is sustainable, and replicable across the country—a 32,600 square foot warehouse in Merton, South London, has been secured as a future site—they’ve been asked to reapply for their old jobs on less favourable conditions.

Alex Marshall, IWGB’s president, said: ‘Ocado started at this site from nothing. They got a big workforce on £15 to build up the business, who worked for two years on these rates. Then they’ve turned around and said ‘see you later’ to these workers. They’ve chewed them up and spat them out. All they’ve done is work hard, through rain, through snow, through the pandemic.

‘Ocado is a business that prides itself on ethical supply chains and sustainability,’ Alex adds. ‘All of these buzzwords make not only investors invest in them, but also consumers use them.’ When customers order from Ocado, they assume the drivers delivering the groceries are employees of the company. In this way, the company is able to benefit from the careful and managed branding of their service, while keeping the working conditions of the people responsible for delivering that service invisible from customers.

That’s not to say things were perfect before Ryde took over the contract. In November 2018, when Ocado awarded Stuart the contract for rolling out Ocado Zoom, the company already had a reputation for bogus self-employment. In 2019, Stuart had an Employment Appeal Tribunal Judgment made against it regarding its employment classification of workers as ‘independent contractors.’ Currently, over 100 Stuart couriers are bringing a claim against the company, disputing their designation as ‘self employed’.

After delivering groceries to many sick people, Ahmad himself got Covid, forcing him to stay at home for three weeks while he isolated and recovered. ‘It was bad. I had to deal with it, I had no other choice. Only my colleagues called and asked if I needed any help.’ He received no pay or compensation during this time.

Ahmad is from Afghanistan, a country he left twelve years ago. His pay when he started the job allowed him to send money to family members back home, who came to rely on his support. ‘I don’t feed only my family. I feed my other family members back home.’ Now, on such reduced wages, he feels ‘handcuffed’. ‘I cannot help them out financially at the moment,’ he says.

For delivery workers like Bruno, organising with the IWGB has been motivating. ‘To fight for everyone’s rights is great,’ he says. Members have promised to escalate their current protests, as well as strike action, for as long as Ocado refuses to engage. While the support and solidarity of the campaign has helped drivers keep their hopes up, Bruno still finds himself having moments of disbelief. ‘The way they have been treating us, I can’t find words for it. It is heartbreaking. I will never give my heart to a company like I did again.’

In response to a request for comment, Ocado directed Tribune to a blog post which states the following:

Today over half of orders delivered by Ocado Zoom are made by directly employed drivers, with the rest fulfilled by third party delivery partners.

Today we’ve announced that we’re moving into the final stages of recruiting our Ocado Zoom Acton delivery team and ending our current third party supplier arrangements. As part of this process, all drivers currently working for our third party suppliers are being offered the opportunity to work directly for Ocado.

The full blog post can be read here.