It’s Monday 23rd March and the sunshine today feels bittersweet. My world, as most people’s, has suddenly shrunk in the past week and I walk around the quiet streets, going to the shop to top up the electricity. I feel grateful that I have my Deliveroo job, keeping my world expanded to the takeaways and suburbs of the city, keeping me in touch with whatever life is still going on outside. I cycle down to Wagamama’s at 6 and use their hand sanitiser, then the manager tells me to stand outside the restaurant. I get the two orders, both to the city centre. Then it’s a pizza from Pizza Hut and I think about when me and my friends used to come here when we were about 12 or 13, one of the first trips we were allowed to make into the city on our own. The city centre looked different then, more green, less concrete. I lose myself in a nostalgic reverie then image-search for ‘Bristol city centre 1999’. It looks the same as it does now and I snap out of it and deliver the pizza to Easton.
There’s no orders so I hang around outside Tesco’s on Corn Street. I never thought I’d wish for a busy Corn Street full of people. After a while the app pings and sends me Wong’s on Denmark Street, to Totterdown and Bath Road’s a dream to cycle up without any traffic. I cruise through the roundabouts around Temple Meads listening to Jeremih’s Birthday Sex. There’s a double burger order, first to Montpelier, and through Albany Park, past the lights of a shuttered Star and Garter, down Rosa Parks lane, to deliver, and next to St George. At the next order there’s five couriers outside Wagamama’s and we’re all checking our phones reading about BJ’s announcement that the country’s gone into official lockdown. Shortly afterwards, Wagamama’s announces online that they’re shutting nationwide, so no more deliveries. There’s a dwindling number of restaurants able to provide takeaway services and I start stressing about work in the coming weeks. I’m lucky I live in a country where there is welfare, and that I get some Universal Credit if delivery work dries up. I think about a video I watched in Kenya where the army came in to close market shops in a slum area. No government welfare for them, and not much chance of social isolation either, or regular hand washing for that matter. I start thinking about Gaza, where news of the first cases has come through in the past days. I try not to think of the worst. I drop off the curry and head back down Gloucester Road.
While waiting for the next order outside Five Guys another rider tells me that this all this virus stuff is manufactured media hysteria designed to shut down the world economy. ‘You don’t believe all this do you? It was made in a lab.’ I ask him why and he tells me its to launch a new global currency controlled by the global elite. What’s the point of that, I ask. ‘Control. Control’, he answers, and I leave it at that. He tells me he’s just come back from Guatemala after it shut its borders and went into lockdown and he had to hitchhike to Cancun and get the first flight out of there, rinsing the rest of his money, and now he’s relying on slim pickings on Deliveroo from Five Guys and whatever other restaurants stay open. Ok, take it easy, I say, and he laughs, but I’m not sure why.
I woke this morning with a text from my union telling me that they’ve started taking legal action against the British government to ensure that zero-hours workers are guaranteed fair rates of statutory sick pay and other protections during this crisis. To help them out you can sign the petition here and contribute to the crowdfunder to help support the case here. This is a critical time for some of the most vulnerable workers doing some of the most vital jobs the country now needs: think about the cleaner with precarious migration status facing eviction, the courier from Brazil needing to send money home to his family, the uber driver saving up to do a degree, and so on. In his book on labour organising amongst Deliveroo workers, Callum Cant writes about the many within the workforce with difficult migration/visa situations: ‘for migrants without the right to work in the UK, Deliveroo could be a vital lifeline. By renting or borrowing an account from another worker, they could work without having to provide a passport. This allowed them to survive within the UK’s ‘hostile environment’.’ As such, however, they could not leave and get another job, and were locked in to low wages and no benefits, all to Deliveroo’s benefit. I want to make clear that when I complain about the gig economy’s treatment of workers it is not about self-interest, I am privileged, qualified and flexible and and I have a range of other options available to me that I know that many in the workforce do not have due to language, migration status or other reasons. In his book writes about the ‘undifferentiated mass of deskilled labour’ that constitutes the Deliveroo/UberEats/Stuart courier workforce that can generally be divided into two groups: if workers socialise outside of shift time they’ll either be at a gabba rave or at Friday prayers. I’ll be in the former group, largely the cyclists who tend to be university-educated and young, using the courier work to top up another job as a means of saving. And the other group are largely the moped riders and drivers, usually migrant workers, often relying on courier work as their primary income, working full time often 50-60 hour weeks, and supporting families here or in other countries. It’s always important that there is solidarity in the workforce, as there has been in the successful strikes over the past few years. And regardless of workers’ own individual circumstances, the country needs these workers right now as they’re often performing vital services: cleaners, couriers, delivery drivers, supermarket security guards, drivers etc. Even a Tory MP said in Parliament today, ‘one of the things that this crisis has shown us is that many people we considered low-skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country’. He asks Priti Patel if, in light of this ‘sudden realisation’ (this is something that most people have known for some time), the government will consider changing the stringent rules on immigration. Spoiler alert, the answer is no. Yet coronavirus has also suddenly thrown a light on all the flaws in the zero hours contracts labour model, most critically at this point that it incentives people to work when they’re sick as there is no sick pay or other in-work benefits. ‘Flexibility’ for neoliberalism means cost-saving for employers and an intense pressure to work in all conditions for workers. Have a look at this short film by the Guardian on life for zero hours workers in the time of coronavirus.
In light of the treatment of zero hours workers, people might worry whether it’s ethical to order takeaway at the best of times let alone in the midst of a dangerous pandemic, when asking people to deliver your food is essentially risking their health so you can have a burger at home. A Wired article discusses this here. Deliveroo has exploited new technology to capitalise on the success of restaurants, leeching off their customer base and brand, and charging hefty fees (£300-500 initial fee to join Deliveroo, 25-30% of the cover cost, plus a delivery fee from the customer), which delivery drivers and couriers see little of. As an example, I get around £4 to take an order from town to Gloucester Road or Bedminster. Deliveroo have managed to take advantage in a tech boom, and using relaxed labour laws to provide their employees with no benefits or protections, and they’ve built a successful ‘brand’ through their name becoming synonymous with ordering a takeaway. They’re no better or worse than other predatory corporation extracting capital from workers in late stage capitalism. While I realise that’s quite off-putting, if people stop ordering takeaways then there will be more unemployment across the city, in both restaurants and across the delivery workforce. And I promised people that at least you can still order a burger at the end of the world, I would have to change the tagline on my blog.
In these times of a low hum of dread, a looming sense of menace, my anxious brain can’t decide which of the things to worry about and jumps between my parents, rising death rates in Italy and Spain, the war in Syria, mass unemployment, and Wagamama’s closing as if they’re of equal importance. My friend texted me at quarter to five this morning having been awake for two hours. This virus thing is messing with my body clock, she tells me. I try to focus on a podcast but can’t concentrate. I listen to latest episode of Invisibilia about a woman that can smell when people are going to get Parkinson’s or other neurological disease before they’ve been diagnosed. They are discussing what to do when the future is uncertain or scary, and come up with a mantra that when the future seems bleak, focus on the next right thing to do. I think about the people who have focused their minds on doing good acts like delivering food to nurses in London or setting up community support groups like this one by Acorn. Anyone can volunteer, or seek help. I end the night at a pizza place on Stapleton Road and chat to the staff there. They’re from Afghanistan and they are worried, about work, about the virus. I want to ask about how it is in Afghanistan but instead we talk about the rules on takeaways staying open. A guy comes in and starts chatting to me. He says he’s been in the city center feeding homeless people. He says it’s all the fault of China, they stole his country, then they gave this to the world. He’s from Tibet, and he wanted to open for business soon selling Tibetan food, but he can’t for another three months. Momos! I shout, as I remember the only Tibetan food I know. That’s right, he says, I make momos. He can’t open up for business right now but he’s making momos anyway and giving them out to people on the street. Thank god for this guy. I take my pizza and leave and say goodbye. He shouts after me, take care, and look after people!