A precarious kind of freedom: On shift with Manchester's food delivery riders

They normally whizz past at speed. We asked them to stop and talk

Good morning Millers — today’s weekend read is about one of the fastest growing jobs in Greater Manchester: food delivery.

For the past year, The Mill’s video reporter Jack Brooks has been interviewing dozens of delivery riders out on the streets — at traffic lights, outside restaurants and while they rested between jobs. And he had one big advantage getting those interviews: he was working as a rider himself. Through his reporting, we wanted to get the fullest-ever picture of what this kind of work is like and why people do it.

Today we release Jack’s 8-minute original film, which features five of the riders he interviewed on camera and footage he shot on his helmet while completing jobs in the city. We also have a piece to accompany the video, in which Dani speaks to Jack and tries to understand how this new type of work is shaping our city and our economy. This has been one of our longest-running projects, so we hope you will forward this newsletter to a few friends so they can watch the video too.

A few months ago we published ‘The Manchester Dream’, a long read about a delivery rider from Sudan called Ahmed, which became one of our most popular stories ever. Because that story focused more on the experience of an immigrant rider, today’s piece looks more closely at the other major demographic among the people who bring food to your door: students and graduates — including Jack himself.

You can play the video by clicking the embedded player below, or by visiting our brand new YouTube channel. Please do follow us on there to see our future films.

All the photos in this story are stills from the film.

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Meet the delivery riders of Manchester: an original film by The Mill

This film was created and produced by Jack Brooks. Sound by Tom Blanchard.

By Dani Cole

Jack Brooks’ entry into the world of delivery riding came as a last resort. He was a month into the first lockdown of the pandemic, and his temp job had ended. He and three of his friends had moved up to Manchester early in the year and were living off their savings in a shared house in Didsbury. Everyone had worked like crazy since they’d graduated the summer before so they had a “couple of grand to their names.”

Jack, 23, grew up in the South but knew about the blossoming of Greater Manchester’s media industries, and wanted to be part of it. His goal was to find work as a videographer, maybe working in MediaCity. “I assumed there would be jobs available, and they would need people to fill them,” he says. Then the pandemic put a stop to hiring not only in many media companies but in the thousands of hospitality and retail jobs that tend to offer young creatives a good back-up.

So he became a delivery rider. It made sense: he already had a bike and enjoyed cycling. His application with Deliveroo took too long. The British company — whose riders wear distinctive mint green jackets and box bags — was hiring thousands of new riders but many more thousands wanted to join. In the end, Jack borrowed a friend’s Uber Eats account — which is not technically allowed but is common among riders who want to get going quickly.

He bought a fake Uber Eats bag off Facebook Marketplace for £40. It had a misspelling, but nobody seemed to notice. So from May 2020 to February of this year, he ferried chicken dinners, artisan pizzas and groceries across Greater Manchester, clocking up 60 to 70 miles in a day.

A neighbourhood war

The proliferation of delivery riders on our streets is the most visually noticeable change to urban life in the past half-decade. They are ubiquitous — as much a feature of the 21st century city scene as coffee chains and people staring at their phones. Try standing on any city centre street on a Friday or Saturday night (the delivery companies do more than half their weekly orders on those nights) for more than 30 seconds without spotting a rider. You won’t be able to.

It used to be just traditional takeaways — pizzas and curries in particular — that delivered food, usually employing their own drivers or riders. And then along came Deliveroo (founded in London in 2013) and Uber Eats (launched by the ride-hailing app Uber a year later) with a new business model: they would sign up thousands of self-employed riders in every city and restaurants would pay the delivery companies a hefty commission to take the meals to an ever-expanding market of customers. Within a few years, the range of food available to order online or via an app had dramatically expanded, and bike riders were everywhere, all being directed around by their phones.

It was the largest cities like London and New York that filled up with riders first. But in the past couple of years, the food delivery phenomenon has well and truly arrived in Greater Manchester. Uber Eats and Deliveroo have poured staff and resources into the city region, aggressively courting restaurants to sign up to their apps and spending millions of pounds advertising to local consumers.

Until recently, Manchester was considered a stronghold for Just Eat, a much older company (founded in 2001) that tends to be stronger in less affluent areas in the North and Midlands. It is better known for delivering fast food and more conventional takeaway fare, although many restaurants are now signed up to multiple apps, so the differences have narrowed. But ahead of its stock market float earlier this year, Deliveroo aggressively targeted Manchester. One former salesperson in the company’s large Manchester office says that her team was instructed to sign up the kinds of restaurants that help Deliveroo to differentiate itself — including much-loved independent pizza shops and hipster burger joints.

The ex-staffer told us that the company planned its expansion in Manchester and Salford neighbourhood by neighbourhood, like a highly strategic ground war, working its way out from the city centre, where it was already strong, and taking on Just Eat in a ring of residential suburbs like Levenshulme and Chorlton. In some areas, Deliveroo’s advertising tends to emphasise quality and choice, and in others, it offers more discounts to lure the budget-conscious. And by all accounts, these efforts have paid off handsomely in the past year, recording massive increases in orders and filling the streets with its mint-liveried riders, even as the lockdowns eased and people returned to normal dining.

What’s happened in Manchester recently is indicative of how the delivery war is playing out across the world. “In a market where there is no clear dominant business, the winner is the one left standing,” explains Wired magazine. “So Just Eat, Deliveroo and Uber Eats have fought for market share and emptied their pockets to offer lower rates to restaurants and bigger marketing campaigns in a bid to capture enough customers to boot the others out of town.” As a result, these companies usually lose money, barring a few financial quarters during the pandemic when restaurants closed and orders soared.

Overall, Deliveroo doubled its UK army of riders from 25,000 to more than 50,000 during the pandemic year, and its competitors grew amply too. As the virus hit, all of the firms were deluged with applications from wannabe riders, especially from students and immigrant workers previously employed in hospitality and other low-wage sectors closed down by government restrictions. Joining them were thousands of highly qualified job-seekers with impressive-sounding degrees, whose hoped-for graduate roles had suddenly vanished from the recruitment sites. Out on his bike, Jack Brooks met all of them.

The perfect job

Jack loved his first shift. He remembers thinking: “This is like the perfect job!” He could make £70 to £80 a day if he was working hard, with a stomach full of porridge and a packed lunch in a tupperware box, pedalling furiously around Manchester. He earned about £250 in an average week despite rarely doing it full time. Plus, because delivery riders were classed as key workers, it allowed him to get out of the house and earn some money.

He took a lot of deliveries from Rusholme’s Curry Mile, and cruised for miles down canal paths under the open sky. He liked how he could see the rhythms of the city playing out before him, and how the job introduced him to his newly adopted home. Within the space of two orders, he went from an estate near the Etihad Stadium, where kids set off fireworks in the street for fun, to one of the “massive swanky tower blocks” in the city centre, where people expected him to deliver to their apartments on the top floor.

“You see a lot when you’re all over Manchester and in places people wouldn’t go unless they had a reason to be there,” he says. Riders have to be a bit strategic about where they position themselves in the city. He tried to avoid picking up orders to Wythenshawe — it wasn’t a good place to deliver because there weren’t many restaurants and it was a long way back to the action.

The pandemic posed difficulties for the riders: restaurants wouldn’t let him inside their toilets out of fear of the virus and many public facilities were closed. “Say you’re doing 7-hour shifts on your bike, you end up going for a piss in parks and down back alleys,” Jack says. It was stressful, but there was no other choice. In local Facebook groups, people would share photos of delivery couriers relieving themselves and there would be comments such as This is disgusting. Can’t their bosses discipline them? “You really don’t understand,” he says. “There was nowhere else to go.”

When MMU students were locked in their campuses, he delivered beer from supermarkets, pushing it over the fence. But overall he noticed most of his customers were families. Some tipped him for his work via the app, including one customer who gave him £15. Jack is an especially warm and gregarious guy, and he sometimes enjoyed his encounters on the doorstep as he handed over a meal or a coffee.

The vast majority of the riders were young men, although he met the odd woman. Some riders did it part-time to top up their income but many relied on it to pay their rent and feed their families. That latter group included lots of men who had recently arrived in the UK, some from eastern Europe and many from countries in Africa. He estimates that migrant workers represent the biggest portion of riders in Greater Manchester.

The experience fascinated him. He sensed that he was taking part in a new and controversial kind of work, where people never meet their boss and take their orders from an app. That’s when he started recording interviews with his fellow riders for The Mill. He started approaching them while they were huddled around eateries or would flag them down in the street. Sometimes he recorded short snippets of audio on his phone while they waited at traffic lights, and other times riders agreed to talk to him on camera.

‘It was supposed to be a quick fix’

Jack’s film, which you can watch here, captures the range of risks and rewards involved in this kind of work. “It’s a great job to be honest,” a rider from eastern Europe tells him, although he notes that “You don’t have much control of how much money you are making”. A university graduate tells Jack: “It was supposed to be a quick fix for just a month or two,” but he’s now been riding for well over a year. “Here we are, still working,” he says ruefully.

Ahmed, the rider from Sudan who we profiled earlier this year and who didn’t want to appear on camera in the film, told Jack he likes the flexibility of working for an app but could only make decent money on the weekends. He was earning between £200 and £400 per week while he learned English to support his university application. He also mentioned a downside highlighted by various riders: poor treatment from the restaurants they are picking up from. Some of them “treat you like less than other people,” Ahmed told us.

Montana, 23, who shimmers in a sequined jacket trimmed with faux-fur during her interview for the film, worked as a Deliveroo rider after graduating from MMU. She enjoyed cycling and for her birthday, her friends chipped in and she was able to buy an electric bike. From September 2020 she rode around Manchester with disco lights flashing and a Bluetooth speaker playing music, and only stopped when it got too cold about five months later. “I just really like that I can go round and just kind of do what — don’t tell Deliveroo — but what I’d probably do for free,” she told Jack, smiling.

As a female rider, she was a rare breed, but she said the only time she didn’t feel safe was when her phone ran out of battery, sometimes leaving her deep in an area she didn’t know with no directions for getting out. Also, she says men on the Curry Mile would sometimes jump out in front of her. “I’m not gonna stop so I don’t know what you’re wanting from this situation,” she would say to them in her head. She did experience comments from male riders and says she didn’t like jobs that required her to cycle the Fallowfield Loop. “That’s one of the places I didn’t like because it felt quite scary to go at night,” she told us.

Plenty of male riders mentioned the dangers of the job too. As Jack put it, “the faster you can ride, the more money you can earn — and this inadvertently encourages dangerous cycling.” One young man told us his friend was knocked off his bike, and admits: “I will be trying to do it as fast as possible”, adding that “It can definitely be dangerous sometimes.” And of course, as self-employed workers, riders get no pay if they are injured or get sick. The fear of accidents is why one of the interviewees in the video says he doesn’t work in the city centre. “I’ve heard so many riders getting injured just working down town,” he tells Jack. “If you hit your head, that’s it,” he says. “You’re risking it for £3.”

Indeed, £3 is about what a Deliveroo rider might earn as a base rate for a trip. Uber Eats riders are paid a base fare, plus the distance they travel and a drop off fare. The amount varies for each city, but it’s about £2 for pickup, £1.50 per mile, and £1 for drop off. Deliveroo offers about £4 per drop or £6 per hour, plus £1 per drop. There are also incentives like a 1.5x fee “boost”, where earnings were multiplied at certain times or in certain areas, and riders can also pick up multiple orders at the same time.

Jack says oversubscription — having too many riders in an area and not enough jobs — would make some days difficult for him. A bad day saw him earn £10 for 3 to 4 hours of work. He would come back home and chirpily ask his friends, “Guess how much I made today?” Indeed, analysis of invoices from hundreds of riders by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed that some were earning as little as £2 an hour and that on average they made less than the £8.72 minimum wage for those over 25 (around two thirds of riders made more than the minimum wage). Deliveroo responded to the story by saying it was only “meaningful” to calculate rates of pay for deliveries, not the time between orders, as the analysis had done.

The flexibility of the job is one of its biggest attractions and was raised by many of the riders we spoke to. “At least there’s nobody actually there to tell you what to do,” one of the students told Jack. Some riders said they were sick of working for unreasonable bosses, and others mentioned that working for an app that you can switch on and switch off when you like meant they could do the school run and be flexible if their families needed them at short notice. Hospitality businesses have noticed that some of their workers who started doing delivery when bars and restaurants closed have chosen not to come back.

“If you love cycling, having a healthy lifestyle, and also earning on your schedule, congrats!” shouts a job ad for Deliveroo in Manchester sunnily. “Deliver food from Deansgate and Castlefield to homes in Burnage and Salford Quays, and also enjoy free time in between.”

However, the freedom to choose your hours is constrained by the most powerful variable on the apps, which no rider can control: consumer demand. “You can work whenever you want, but you can’t earn money whenever you want,” says Jack. “That’s why it’s so precarious — because there’s no guarantee there’s going to be work for you.” It reflects a comment by a rider quoted in The Economist’s 1843 magazine, who said: “You can make money but only when it’s busy. You don’t choose your hours. The weather and customers choose your hours.” This job offers freedom alright — but it’s a precarious kind of freedom.

At times Jack would wait around in the “pissing rain” and there were no orders to fulfil. Throughout the winter, he wore snowboarding trousers, because they were waterproof, and pulled on a snood to keep warm. Once he declined a job and nothing came through for him during the next two hours. It was a Friday night, usually one of the busiest times of the week. “I can’t prove it, but I think it was the algorithm punishing me,” he says. When an order is declined by a rider, it’s reassigned to someone else.

‘A lot more at stake’

Jack’s first ever trip as a rider took him to West Didsbury. The order was from an American-style burger joint but the map was taking him to a noodle bar. He spent 15 very confused minutes trying to find it, and then eventually went into the noodle bar to ask. Yes, the workers inside told him, he’d come to the right place. He quickly realised what was going on. The noodle bar was cooking food for another restaurant — one that was getting lots of demand on the apps. “There was so much food being ordered and restaurants were completely shut and there was no-one inside them,” he says. “They could kind of do anything in there without customers seeing.”

An even more extreme example of this trend is the so-called Deliveroo Editions site on Ordsall Lane — a huge “dark kitchen” in which various known restaurants cook up meals specifically for delivery. The Manchester Evening News reported in 2019: “The traders currently operating from the Salford site include cult Midlands burger bar Boo; sushi restaurant Zumu, which has sites in Hale, Wilmslow and Alderley Edge; and West Didsbury pizzeria Proove.”

Dark kitchens — restaurants with no tables or in-person diners — are said to be the future of the takeaway industry. The Mill met a Manchester restaurant operator a year ago who said he was planning to launch a pizza joint — before clarifying that his food would only be available on the apps. He’s following the example of Salford-based dark kitchen Burgerism, launched in 2018 by three men from Ireland, which reportedly delivered over 1000 burgers a day during the coronavirus lockdowns. The food writer Jonathan Nunn argues that: “The new alliance of dark kitchens and delivery apps poses an existential threat to the restaurant, one of the last bastions of the British high street.”

Dark kitchens are perhaps the starkest example of how companies like Uber Eats and Deliveroo are changing our economy and our labour market. Media coverage of the delivery boom tends to focus heavily on its negatives — the insecure work, the low pay and the often extortionate rates of commission that the apps charge restaurants. Certainly, Jack acknowledges that his experience of the job was not representative of those who relied on it to survive. For migrant workers and those who rely on it to feed their families, “there’s a lot more at stake,” he says.

His film lets us hear from the riders themselves, in particular ones who are doing the job while studying or after graduating. Their interviews offer a more nuanced, complicated picture of the work itself, from its appeal to its dangers. But they also tell us about the kind of economy young people are emerging into, and the pressures that have led them to a job they weren’t expecting to take. “I’ve been applying for over 400 jobs now,” one of the graduates says. “All those rejections do get to you, sooner or later.”

Jack is still looking for a graduate job in the media or the arts. Nevertheless, something about the experience changed him. He realised that, even though he still very much wants to find a job he loves, he likes the freedom of flexible work. During the second lockdown in November 2020, on his days off, he was training to be an English language teacher. He no longer delivers for Uber Eats, but when we last spoke during the final round of edits on this piece, he was still pedalling somewhere — across Europe this time, heading for Croatia. 


You can watch our 8-minute film at the top of this article, or by clicking here.

If you would like to contribute to our future reporting on this topic, please hit reply to this newsletter or email dani@manchestermill.co.uk — we’re happy to speak off the record.

📧 If someone forwarded you this story, please join The Mill’s mailing list to get high-quality Greater Manchester journalism in your inbox by clicking here.