They’re the foreign workers risking life and limb to deliver food to your door. Every night for months I walked past them, their exhausted bodies in biking gear and fingerless gloves sprawled out on a public seat in south-eastern suburban Melbourne, food delivery bags dumped at their feet.
They’re the workers whose labour fuels the decentralised online gig economy, riders for online food-delivery start-ups. So I took a seat beside them for a few hours and asked them about their experiences.
Asher Wolf is a journalist, digital campaigner and media and communications adviser. You can follow her on Medium and Twitter, and contribute to her work on Patreon. This article is republished from Medium with permission.
"You can’t record our faces, don’t show our faces, change the names, change where we from. Don’t name the office. They’ll get rid of us if you do, we won’t get shifts. You call us “Hugo Chazev & Pablo Escobar”, something like that. You make up names for us, ok?"
Padeep (Bangladesh, studying a Masters of Public Health): My friend, he got hurt in an accident. He was riding home. He went to hospital, he had to spend money on himself, he can’t work now, can’t make money. He has to go home. You want to see the photos? I show you. He goes home to his country now anyway.
[And he sends me a photo.]
It depends on how many hours you work, if the job covers the bills. I’m studying Masters in Public Health. It’s diff-i-cult to balance the two. I come here to work, then I go back to uni, then I come back here to work. Always somewhere. That’s my life.
Daniel (Venezuela, studying English): Most of the people [we deliver to] are really cold. They don’t want to know us, just take the food.
Pradeep: Sometimes they tip, sometimes they don’t. When it’s cold, people are really kind sometimes. But I lost my motorbike a while back, it was her fault — she bumped the car into me, she didn’t head-check. The bike was worth $3000, she didn’t pay me for months. I couldn’t work. We have health insurance, but it doesn’t cover important things, like physiotherapy.
We’re just sitting here waiting for orders. We sit here because it’s the food area — all the restaurants. We’re not doing anything, we’re just sitting here waiting for the next job.
Yes, there’s …. bullying…. yes…from those people over there [and he gestures at the homeless people sitting on other public benches.] They damaged my bike. Someone pulled my bike over and it got damaged and it cost $250 to fix as well. No one paid for it, just me.
Daniel: Locals, they get drunk, and….
Pradeep: … you see lots of homeless people…
Daniel: …druuuuuuuugs. They’re on drugs. People have tried to jump on the bike, open the food box. Some of them have tried to jump on the bike and ride off. Maybe it’s just a joke, buuuuuut… [and he sighs.]
Miguel (Colombia): The companies are getting benefits, not us. This company, once it got to a certain level, it stopped giving us the benefits. Moving us off per hour contracts to per delivery contracts. They’re making the real money, not us. I’m not working today though. I went to the gym. I just come here to see the guys.
Pradeep: We need a voice for the riders. We need something. We’ve been talking about unions.
Miguel: We only have insurance if working. If you get hit on the way home from work, you’ve got nothing and you can’t work. My friend over there [he gestures at another rider] had an accident — and another friend had an even worse accident, he put his life at risk, he smashed his fingers up and then he has to go back home. If you get injured the office won’t cover the time. If I break a bone, I have to pay a lot.
Pradeep: I had a sprained leg — I couldn’t walk for a month. I fixed it right myself though. I can’t go to hospital.
Miguel: The worst thing when you get injured, you have to stop working. You lose all the money that you could earn, but you have to still pay your bills somehow. It’s very bad.
Pradeep: Everyday, every second is a risk. No one cares, no superannuation. Everything is a risk. Nothing. Nothing. And still we pay tax.
We get harassment. Harrassment. Today I had it twice. Scolding and….racism. This guy was like “go back to your country.” Another guy, he was like “do you have a ciggie…”, and then he yelled at me because I don’t. Everyday there is harassment. Miguel: I had racism from a drunk guy. He fell over on the ground, he fell down by himself. Then he yelled “FUCK YOU NIGGER!” at me. I don’t know why.
Pradeep: My parents don’t know I’m working delivery, they don’t know the risk. They think I’m in a call-centre. That’d be good. I’m a biotechnologist in my country, now I’m studying Masters here. The guy who had an accident yesterday, was an engineer for seven years. He came here to live and work and learn English. And now he can’t work at all because he’s injured, he has to go home.
Miguel: My mum said “work everyday.” So I work everyday. Australians have a different mind, they don’t know what real poverty looks like. My mother worked in I.T. in Columbia, she’s retired now, but she worked HARD. She says “work everyday, because you can go back to Columbia with money.” But now I think about my health, about my friend getting injured. It wasn’t my friend’s fault he got injured, and the driver ran away. Maybe the driver was drunk. We all just felt terrible after. It was just terrible. What do you do? I imagine if I get injured, I lose everything, I have to stop working. I think maybe if I was working in Columbia, I’d have some security maybe.
Pradeep: You don’t know if with all this work you’ll get hurt over time, your spine, wrists, legs… long term stuff. We don’t know.
Miguel: There’s no union. We haven’t seen union down here. We don’t have connections, we don’t have pro-tect-ía. We are our own companies: our jackets, bikes and bags — those things are our companies. All we’ve got. The office just gives us the delivery jobs, but they’re not our employers.
Pradeep: No one helps riders. We look after each other.
Miguel: Every year the job is getting worse. When they start up they paid very good, treated us very good. But they — the office — realised they could earn more money, so they reduced what they give. They looking after the customers and the people in the office. Not us.
Daniel: They have too many riders now. We don’t get enough jobs.
Miguel: Approximately six out of ten friends have injuries that made them have to stop riding for a long time. Friends help them, their parents help them. The office? No.
If you complain… they cut your shifts. My friend complained, now his shifts are less.
Here’s one thing that’s interesting. Listen to this: the bike store for the bike service, he gives us discounts. He looks after us. There’s no connection with the delivery company, the bike shop. But him, the bike shop owner, looks after us better than the company, he’s nicer to us because he gets our business. Because we’re professional riders, he says he will help us. Hah! He looks after us better than our office! I never seen anything like it. If you ring the office, go to the office, they will look at you like …. [and he snarls]
Daniel: In the winter, you wait in the cold for a job, your hands are freezing. It’s like, six degrees, five degrees and you’re like “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”
Miguel: I think the company could maybe help things when we get injured, when we’re home. I stop a shift because I’m injured, I don’t get paid. Real trouble.
We’re students here, we’re… we’re the low-class. We’re the un-der-class. At the end of the day… we bring the money, it’s a big business here. But we don’t make the big dollars. Everyone knows we need jobs, so we work a lot.
We are the underclass in Australia. People won’t do these jobs we do.
Pradeep: There’s many people without jobs in Australia, but I don’t see Australians doing this job much. Students come here with so many dreams, big dreams and priorities. But it all just falls away. It slides. They’re not paying us like Australian average rates. $10 per delivery. Sometimes I make a lot less than average wage in an hour. It’s a burden on me again, to work the hours to make the money. Can’t study when I’m working.
Sometimes I sit for hours and I earn nothing. I’ve made $10 in four hours. One delivery.
Daniel: I waited 90 minutes for the last job. I waited a long time. Only $10.
Miguel: Pay per hour is more fair, but they put us on $10 bucks per drop-off.
Daniel: Sometimes you go out for a whole shift and there’s no drop-off. Sometimes.
Miguel: I’m looking for more work in another job. I’m working as a cleaner. They’re paying me as an employee, I get Australian rates. It’s excellent. He’s a good employer. When I work Sundays, I get big bucks, even if I’m wrecked from delivery work, I take the cleaning job. Then I can rest more and study more during the week.
Pradeep: We get paid every 15 days for the delivery job. They always pay on time.
Miguel: Even if you get injuries, or you barely get paid — they always pay us on time [and he laughs.] One friend who got injured, he’s been one month he’s not working and his rent is verrrrrrrrry expensive, and so he’s going back to his country now. Now he’s finished antibiotics, I’m going out with him to drink, because he feels deeeepresssed. It’s depressing.
He can’t even pack his own bags because his hands are broken, wrecked. Everything he had to ask. If it was just one hand, ok — but it was two hands — broken. I went to his house, because I know how he’s feeling, and brought him food, because he couldn’t even cook, and I helped him pack his bags.
People get depressed. A lot of students are depressed. People don’t want to go home, but can’t find a way to get the money. Australia, it’s not an easy country to make friends in. I don’t get depressed because I have lots of friends who work with me. But Aussies, they’re polite — but they don’t make strong friends with us. Where are the Australians who are my friends? I think they have their own friends from when they were a child. Australians are not that snobby, but they don’t choose us as friends.
Aleksander (Estonia, studying English): I get $9 per delivery. They take off 50 cents for something. This is delivery. You don’t want to work? Then don’t work. You won’t get paid. I work hard, I get paid. I ride a bicycle, not a motorbike. I’m here studying English. One thing though… there’s no perks, in case you get hurt. It’s all on you.
Pradeep: Look, if I get one order from one company in three hours, what am I supposed to do? So I work for all the companies. All three.