The University of Sussex had been slowly grinding to a halt since the start of the UCU strike. Things...
Continuing our string of worker’s inquiries this has been submitted by a Deliveroo worker and comrade in France
3.1. Quality of self-employment jobs — an overview
There appear to be few studies at national level focusing specifically on the quality of self-employment and the
national articles take a number of different approaches to assessing quality of self-employed jobs using the
data available, such as working hours and flexibility, income levels, education and learning, and the provision
of social protection. The articles also discuss the reasons individuals move into self-employment
(opportunity versus necessity) and what appears to be a growing phenomenon of ‘forced’ self-employment.
It’s seven o’clock on a Wednesday morning. The middle of the working week, ideally, but this isn’t work. This is la vie de l’auto-entrepreneuriat. Life as the French precariat is an experience very close to that of the bogus self-employed contractor in the United Kingdom. It is a problem endemic within and throughout the European Union. In France, from the perspective of a young foreigner, it is how you work: in language teaching, the various takeaway logistics platforms, bar work, gardening, flyering, office work, and consultancy. The system was brought in by Sarkozy, and Hollande cozied up to it in a much more sophisticated and seductive manner than any British leader could have mustered. Predictably, his replacement Emmanuel Macron is a big fan. What this experiential account highlights is the transnational and intersectional nature of this issue. Most colleagues in the workforce are foreign, European or otherwise. Some are students working part time, others are Europeans making a living, and some are economic migrants sending money home. Most native workers are either second generation migrants, people of colour, recent school-leavers, or parents and most are at an intersection of some of the above. What this worker’s inquiry seeks to provide is a ground-level overview of the problem. Though nuanced to the individual, the experience holds a plethora of similarities across the gig economy and across national borders.
Again, it is important to stress that the data provided in the national articles is often taken from different
(national, although sometimes European) sources and uses different measures and covers different
population groups. Nevertheless, the national articles confirm that working long hours (longer than employees)
is common among the self-employed. This is the case, for example, in the Czech Republic, Denmark,
Germany, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia,
Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Croatia and Norway. Average working hours reach more than 49
hours per week for the self-employed in Germany and more than 55 hours per week on average in
France (compared to 39 hours for employees). Working outside of core working hours (i.e. evenings and
weekends) also seems to be more common among the self-employed in certain countries. 
Last night’s shift finished at eleven and it was a three mile ride back home. In fact, today there’s a shift teaching so there’s no work until the afternoon; however, at some point after eight o’clock the shifts will be released by Deliveroo. Of more than one hundred registered riders, around fifteen to twenty five core team members will scramble like wildebeest for the best shifts to shifter. The company felt the lack of a word for “shift” in French merited the invention of it as a verb as well as a noun. Signing up for shifts entails sitting from 7.50am until anytime between eight and half ten waiting for the shifts to appear on the application before the email is sent out. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. Unpaid and timed without concern for the worker; once an email announcing the late arrival of the time sheets was sent out at five to eleven.
Shifts start at eleven and have done since the regional management cut the shifts starting at quarter past eight back in November due to “seasonal eating habits.” About a hundred and fifty work hours a week gone and quickly forgotten but we all continue to rise at the crack of dawn on Wednesday mornings. Those who make a living from Deliveroo work 11am-11pm seven days a week taking a break for lunch at around four or five when business is sure to be slow. For those of us who work other jobs, the aim is to try and deliver two an hour 10€ 11am- 2pm and 7pm-10pm unless there’s work elsewhere paid at an hourly rate. Most also aim to take a day’s rest from cycling once a week.
Flexibility and job satisfaction
In terms of the reasons people opt for self-employment, EU-level analysis suggests that people choose
self-employment for reasons such as the prospect of greater autonomy, self-fulfilment and the flexibility it
offers. The latter — flexibility — is noted in several of the national articles as a reason for moving into self
“Work when you want and how you want” is what they tell you when you sign up, hailing the arrival of the ‘flexi-job’ as the answer to the prayers of all students and young workers before explaining without laughing that there is a shift pattern on the internet. However, they’ll play the cool uncle at a wedding slipping you Baby Sham and say, “if you’re finishing at ten, you can work through to half eleven.” It’s the one example of the minimum human contact you have with the management the author can provide and of course, the truth is far from this. On the understanding that work can be done even if they are not on the time sheets, many riders have earned their delivery fees and tips in good faith only for Deliveroo to withhold payment.
The first long, angry email is given a stock reply within the normal response time: roughly two weeks or less, it reads “we don’t deal with pay packet issues, please fill out this online form and send it to someone else.” The form gets a response within three hours which reads “we remind you that this is working off the time sheets, this work is not paid.” This practice, where a majority of staff understand the situation to be that self-employed contracting can be undertaken as and when one likes whereas in reality, the company pockets all the profits of your labour, would be considered theft in any other situation. The truth is that as a Deliveroo rider you work when they want, how they want and if they want; they’ll have your wages.
It was the reduction in guarantees which drove workers to wildcat strike action. Enough was enough they said one rainy night waiting in the deluge for somebody else’s gyoza. Everybody was downing tools, calling in sick, refusing all orders or in some cases simply selecting them as collected and delivered one after another; partly in order to confuse the systems and management, partly through the sheer desperation of poverty in work in the hope that some of them might appear on payslips.
The company offered one-to-one sessions with everybody over two days. Refreshments were promised but instead four spokesriders and a trade union representative attended a sole meeting and only water was consumed. None of the demands were met save for the freezing of the guarantees (for just one month) and the reduction of staffing on each shift by one. The company actually acted contrary to some requests, unifying the city’s previous two zones in to a colossal monozone despite calls for the reintroduction of a third.
The rain may not have dampened spirits so much had the previously scientific method for measuring adverse weather remained in place. 15€ per hour for any hour wherein it rains more than 2mm was replaced in March, the month when rains arrive. In preference to this meteorological nonsense, the company changed the rules to “whenever weather conditions are particularly adverse”. This is something which is to be agreed with management, the whereabouts of whom we do not know but whose measure of how adverse the weather conditions in a place possibly hundreds of miles from them are, we must trust.
The self-employed in Europe are three times more likely to be working poor than employees: 18 %
compared with 6 % (data from 2007, relating only to the EU-25) (34). However, most national articles comment
on income for the self-employed, which is not always lower than that of dependent employees.
In an average week, with no last minute cancellations of classes, the author works 39.5 hours. Broken down it’s about twelve hours teaching and the rest deliverooing. This brings in around enough to pay rent, eat food and have fun. The wage received from Deliveroo is dependent on both custom and my health (a fall in November put me on my arse for six weeks with no sick pay) The option to work the dead hours is there but hanging around waiting for people to order food at four o’clock in the afternoon to earn, in most cases, less than half of the minimum wage is not at all worth the withering of self-worth. Meanwhile, the guarantees which were used to incentivise working the lunch and teatime shifts have been nulled and replaced at the last minute before pay packets are emailed out, cut from six hours a day to four, cut from four to just two in the evenings, cut from seven days to five, to three, cut in monetary value and finally removed almost altogether.
Private teaching actually pays better than bar work but finding enough students to cater for takes time and social capital. Skint students meet you in a bar and pay 15€ an hour, rich parents pay 25€ for an hour of you teaching their kid English in the kitchen. Teaching through a school pays less than this, a pre-tax 13€, a post-tax sub-minimum wage. This income is dependent however, on the attendance of students and the continuing of the course or stability of the school. Furthermore, this work is by nature seasonal, adding to the precarity.
The author survives on this income but not getting rich. Their overdraft will not be paid off by it, nor their student debt and they regularly find themselves with half their money in the landlord’s pocket and the other half spent on eating. As a European the author has encountered a Kafkaesque bureaucracy forcing unstable accommodation, subletting and exploitation. The author cannot speak for their international colleagues.
Even the bills concern the work, paying for bike parts, paying for gear to work in, paying for board pens to teach, paying for extra photocopying because you think the old dears deserve a text to read and a vocabulary list. Like miners who had to rent their lamps and were paid by the truck for coal dug from the face, who if they came across a face of rock would have to rent the machinery to clear it before earning money again, we carry out the most dangerous work of twenty-first century logistics and receive none of the respect, half the wage and a fraction of the labour organisation.
The chance to participate in ongoing opportunities for learning (or rather, the lack of opportunities) is mentioned
in the national articles for Spain, Lithuania,Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands and Norway.
Wednesday appears to be the only day any work gets done by the demi-gods from management who we only see on Facebook thumbnails of ‘people you may know’ or on ‘test days’. These happens when one or two of them bring their best fixies down when the weather is nice during a recruitment drive and make forty odd hopefuls do a Tour de France category two climb. The author never saw those who didn’t make it to the top again; they have come to understand, given the level of respect they have experienced, that they were probably taken off the road and shot like lame racehorses. Later today they might send us a text saying “you can shiftes tonight without being on the shift patterns because we expect a load of work.”
Never was less training or vetting carried out. Anybody can walk into these positions on the weight of an online form and a conversation with twenty other hopefuls in a hotel function room. Deliveroo training here also involved the ticking of multiple choice questions solely on topics of business transactions and company liability; -What do you do if you suspect a toddler has ordered a buffet for four with two bottles of cava? a) call the operations team, wasting your time and theirs, b) drink it yourself, c) ask for ID or, d) give it them. –What do you do if you have a puncture? a) report it, b) drink it yourself, or c) pray to the kangaroo deity of delivering burgers?
What are learned are a few rather important life lessons. Quickly it is realised that you don’t have to do anything: steal food, it’ll get replaced at the company’s expense; don’t pick up the phone to the company, they’ll text or email you anything important; don’t worry about getting it delivered on time, you don’t need to die for somebody else’s dinner. None of this matters because it is utterly worthless work.
In certain countries, the self-employed seem to be more‘at risk’, i.e. they do not have the same social protection
as employees if they are short of work, ill or disabled.The self-employed also fare worse in terms of pensions
and entitlements to paid holiday.
Social protection for employees in France is high. Very high in fact, due to a strong union movement and a penchant for strike action, if you’re absent from work through illness you’re entitled to state support. However, this is only given to those who have spent twelve months in the country working on the books None of the rest of the state’s benefits are available either: for example, up to 50% rent allowances for students, seasonal workers, artists and the low-paid or previously-employed and entitlement to staggered declining redundancy payments available to anybody in contracted employment for three months at the termination of the contract. Remember, self-employment does not count as a job.
Reliance on a micro-business model for income provides little to no security. Taxes must be calculated and health insurance must be paid, work must be sought out constantly and new avenues for a sub-minimum wage income discovered. The summer brings with it tourism opportunities for the auto-entrepreneuriat and a pedalling position has opened up. For paying the princely sum of ten quid a day you can have the honour of taking people around town in a big white electric-leg hybrid powered tuk-tuk. Don’t scratch the advertising, that’s the income generator. Make sure you park up somewhere visible and have them take photos in front of the income generator. This one is cattle-rather-than-marsupial-themed, which brings a certain irony to the idea of a ‘cash cow’. The income is still precarious but it is at least cash in hand and the rates are higher than Deliveroo, should the work come along.
Reasons for moving into self-employment: opportunity
According to the aforementioned Flash Eurobarometer No 283 ‘Entrepreneurship in the EU and beyond’, 55 %
of respondents who had started up a business or were currently taking steps to start one, stated that they
were doing so because they saw an opportunity and 28 % were doing so out of necessity. Thus, in addition
to the prospects of a higher income, greater flexibility and other reasons for moving into self-employment,
the question of ‘opportunity versus necessity’ is important. Recent trends also suggest that among those who
take up self-employment out of necessity, there maybe an element of pressure from their employer to do so
(this phenomenon is referred to in various ways across the national articles, from ‘false’ or ‘forced’,
to ‘pseudo’ or‘bogus’ self-employment).
The truth is, this is how foreign graduates moving to France and other European countries to teach their mother tongue have negotiated the system for years. Most ex-pat forums advise on tax payments and warn against dodgy institutions which have nobody employed on their books and outsource all their language education contracts to skint students, kids on gap years and recent graduates, to tar this community with the same brush. It seems to be some sort of joke, because every private language school I have come into contact with offers work on only these terms paying less than private classes arranged on French Craigslist, Le Bon Coin and restricts your use of their photocopier to one side of A4 per student per week, making teaching really rewarding when contracted to educate elderly xenophobes who need everything in large print.
There’s always one plonker but high unemployment amongst youth and high growth in the platform sector seem to be the main driving forces amongst colleagues to sign up. With the exception of one rider who scabbed on the strike, is always in contact with management, and actually said they love the job. That’s the image Deliveroo wants to promote though, the idea of excited young people pedalling their expensive road bikes about for pocket money and fitness. In reality many rent electric bicycles to make extra orders and those whose bikes are stolen negotiate six to eight hours of southern European traffic and mountainous climbs in Mediterranean sunshine on cumbersome and heavy, three-geared public rental bikes.
This hunger for income is mercilessly exploited by the platform market. The worker’s role is even broken down into being and doing in most cases. The doing is the paid work, the taking a pizza up a hill for 5€; the being is the waiting for custom, the waiting for an order, the waiting for work. The worker is adorned with advertisements, either in house or external sponsorships, visible in a public place and paying the bosses with their time. The worker feels powerless. Independent and isolated, free and fucked – can take it or leave it (and you can, you really can leave it) but you know full well that not doing it means poverty.