‘Snoop Dogg is advertising Just Eat, but it is me that has to deliver it’: the courier leading the UK’s longest gig-economy strike

“Don’t do it, brother!” shouts Parirs Dixon as a Just Eat delivery driver approaches a branch of Greggs in Sheffield city centre with his bag open, ready to fill with pastries. “Did you not know about the strike?"

The driver looks confused. Dixon, who is chomping a slice of pizza in the bakery doorway, dispatches an Arabic speaker from the picket line to explain why the driver shouldn’t collect his order.

Every day since 6 dicembre, bar a short festive break to recharge their batteries, Sheffield’s Just Eat couriers have downed their thermal backpacks for at least three hours a day in what is now the longest gig-economy strike in the UK. The strike has since spread organically to other cities, with couriers taking sustained industrial action in Chesterfield, Middlesbrough and Leicester, with more sporadic strikes in Blackpool, Huddersfield, Sunderland and beyond.

The Sheffield industrial action first targeted McDonald’s, but is now focused on four branches of Greggs. The aim is not to deter customers on foot, but to prevent drivers from crossing the picket, disrupting the flow of deliveries from one of Just Eat’s most important clients during the lunchtime peak.

Dixon, 25, leads the strike as chair of the Sheffield couriers and logistics branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a union set up in 2012 to fight for fair pay in the zero-hours and low-paid economy. A charismatic former footballer and part-time fashion designer, Dixon has been a driver for four years, whizzing around Sheffield in his Audi.

The morning we meet, he apologises for being late. He had just dropped off a delivery on the way into town (more Greggs) and returned to his car to find someone had crashed into it and driven off. Dressed in black with a Versace hat and True Religion hoodie, but no coat despite the drizzle, he despairs at the likely cost of the repairs, which will have to come out of his wages.

Delivery drivers get a rough deal, he explains, comparing their treatment to the baristas in the branch of Costa where we are sitting. “See the workers here, giusto. Imagine if they get paid £10 an hour and work eight hours, they earn £80. But imagine if they got charged £30 a day to use the coffee machine and the cups. The government would hear that and be like: ‘That’s not right.’ That’s what people forget about us drivers, that we have to pay for our cars, for diesel and petrol and insurance, out of our wages.”

Some drivers in Sheffield pay £3,000 a year just to insure their cars, lui dice. “Mine’s up to about two grand.” Petrol now costs so much that he rarely fills the tank. “I only put in £40 and that isn’t filling it up even past halfway any more.”

Although they deliver for Just Eat, the striking drivers actually work for a company called Stuart. It describes itself as Europe’s leading on-demand logistics platform, connecting retail and hospitality businesses with a fleet of local independent couriers.

Found in France in 2015, with a mission to “disrupt last-mile delivery in urban areas”, Stuart’s UK revenues doubled during the pandemic. The British arm of the firm recorded a turnover of £41m in 2020, up from £20.5m the year before, with gross profits almost £13m (31.5%), up from £566,000 (2.76%) nel 2019.

Though its accounts show the firm made a loss of £7.3m in 2020, they also reveal that its highest-paid director – probably the chief executive, Damien Bon, formerly of Lehman Brothers – was paid £2.2m in 2020, a tenfold rise on the previous year.

Dixon argues that Just Eat must also be doing nicely if it can afford to pay Snoop Dogg a reported £5m to front its TV campaign. It is only fair that the couriers share some of the wealth, he argues.

“Snoop Dogg is advertising Just Eat, but at the end of the day, it’s me that’s going to deliver it,” said Dixon. “Without the drivers, the company makes no income.”

The strike began when Stuart changed the pay structure for its UK delivery drivers. In precedenza, couriers earned a base rate of £4.50 for all journeys of up to 2.499 miles and up to £7.50 to go further. Adesso, they receive just £3.40 for the shortest trips (up to half a mile) rising to a base rate of £7.20 for journeys of 4.5 miles or more. These base rates can be supplemented by a daily multiplier depending on demand, but couriers say they are earning much less as a result.

Bryn Atkinson-Woodcock, one of the Sheffield strikers, says he used to earn £800 on a good week, but now sometimes earns half that. “They’re bleeding me out," lui dice. “I did three 15-hour days the other week just to make my rent. All of my costs have gone up.”

Demand for the service remains high as consumers take indolence to new levels. Atkinson-Woodcock reminisces about delivering a McDonald’s Coke to a man who lived above a shop that sold soft drinks, and the time someone paid a £9.80 delivery fee to be served four dipping pots from KFC (no chicken, no chips).

Couriers used to be paid double for orders that involved a long wait, but that also changed. The strikers’ first victory was securing the return of payments for waits of more than 15 minuti, which will be restored from April.

Organising a completely freelance workforce is difficult. Dixon estimates that no more than 20% of the local delivery drivers are members of the IWGB. Many are new immigrants with limited English who do not want to rock the boat.

“Some of the drivers have fled civil wars we have never even heard about,” says Dixon. “They’re like: ‘Look, I’ve been shot at, I can’t go back to my country or I die.’” He says they are willing to work for low pay because it is more than they could earn in their home countries and they are grateful for any opportunity to earn a living.

At the Greggs picket, a stream of couriers arrive, but are persuaded not to collect their orders, though some are more grumpy than others. There is a strike fund to pay those manning the picket – £10 an hour – but non-unionised drivers who show solidarity lose money. It is also an administrative faff. Cancelling the pickup on the mobile app takes precious time, and sometimes the drivers are required to provide photo evidence of the picket line they are refusing to cross.

Though Dixon is new to industrial action, it makes sense that this historic strike started in the Steel City. Sheffield has a long history of radical politics, from the miners’ strike and the People’s Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire days in the 1980s, to the tree protesters of recent years, quando residents were arrested after trying to stop the felling of street trees. Their tactics included setting off rape alarms to irritate the tree surgeons (“because they are raping the trees”) and chaining themselves to the trunks.

Dixon grew up off the London Road in south-central Sheffield with three sisters and two brothers, caring for their mother, Ruby Charles, who was disabled with rheumatism and arthritis. As a teenager, Dixon was paid to play football for the Chesterfield youth team but, after an offer of a professional contract fell through, he turned to charity fundraising and then couriering.

The flexibility of being a delivery driver suited his domestic setup. “This job was perfect for me. It provided an income that was actually decent enough and [I could] still be around my mum," lui dice. “If she needed me, I could just drop offline and go and help her. She used to come out with me on deliveries a lot too.”

Many of the drivers insist they love the freedom of the job. “I don’t want to work in an office listening to Jill from accounts talk about her holiday,” says Atkinson-Woodcock. “I like driving around listening to whole albums and audio books without a boss breathing down my neck.”

Sheffield may not have a reputation as a hotbed of criminality, but it has its seedy side. In ottobre 2019, Dixon was doing a delivery on London Road and got stabbed in the arm and hand. He turns over his palm to show a nasty scar. “I got stabbed really bad. I could have lost my life.”

His mum was in the car with him. She died of Covid-19 in July 2021 and Dixon was evicted from their council bungalow. The cost of private renting has come as a shock, and he regularly works long hours, seven days a week, to keep a roof over his head. As well as doing deliveries, he has a side hustle selling gym clothes under his own brand, ROTR (Realest of the Realest).

It is hard to gauge how effective the strike is, given that the drivers can simply avoid Greggs from noon until three and accept pickups at every other outlet during that time window. But Dixon is optimistic that it is working, saying that the shadow employment rights minister, Justin Madders, recently had a meeting with Stuart to raise their case.

Madders says Stuart representatives tried to tell him “there isn’t an issue here”. To which he said: “If there wasn’t an issue, there wouldn’t be a strike.” He wants Stuart to commit to meeting the strikers to find a compromise. “What they need [to do] is to create a system where people have a steady and reliable level of income that’s enough to live on. That involves fixing a realistic base rate," lui dice.

Brendan Hamill, Stuart UK’s general manager, insists the new pay offer does not amount to a pay cut. “Data collected since the implementation of linear pay has shown an overall neutral-to-positive impact on courier pay in Sheffield," lui dice. “We take courier concerns very seriously and aim to be the most courier-centric platform in the sector. Stuart’s pay per hour is amongst the highest in the sector and average courier earnings, calculated by the time couriers spend on deliveries, exceed the real living wage and this has not been affected by the introduction of our new linear pay structure. All couriers using Stuart’s platform are given equal opportunity to voice their concerns with us and we act on them wherever possible. The ongoing action by a small number of couriers does not represent the sentiment of the couriers we interact with on a regular basis.”

A Just Eat spokesperson said: “We are keen to maintain an open dialogue on issues that are important to couriers. We are working with our third-party delivery partner and are having ongoing discussions with them on this matter.”

Madders praises Dixon and his colleagues for taking a stand. “We know that the gig economy is a very precarious form of work, which makes it very difficult for people to push back against what they consider to be unfair working conditions. The fact that people are taking this stand is to be applauded and I think it shows there is a massive hole in our legislative framework where there ought to be proper laws in place, so that people do get protection in these situations.”

Asked what it would take for him to call off the strike, Dixon looks forlorn. “Right now we’re not even asking for a pay rise. The truth is we are only fighting for what they took from us. That is the saddest thing.”

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