Considering a side job to support your creative endeavours? Food delivery giants Deliveroo and Foodora promise flexible hours, competitive wages and fresh air to anyone willing to hop on a bike. Harmless way to earn a quick buck, or gateway to exploitation of the precariat class? We sent our reporter to find out.
Light rain is sprinkling into my face. It’s not enough for the extra “bad weather” bonus – you only get that if it’s pouring or snowing – only to make the bike ride a little uncomfortable. But my mentor Moritz* has prepared for it: his smartphone has a waterproof cover. I know this because I’m using his phone to navigate out to an office in Kreuzberg, where we’ve got to make our second lunch delivery in 45 minutes.
As a Deliveroo test rider, I don’t get to use the app that notifies you when you’ve got to pick up an order and where to deliver it. I’m not even entitled to the cooler with a kangaroo mascot on it. And anyway, Moritz says, the app wouldn’t run fast enough on my old iPhone 4. “It tracks your speed, your route, the forecast, holidays, everything. It calculates how many people are required per shift and notifies drivers of the available times,” he informs me.
I should make my smartphone a little smarter if I’m to become a “Roowoman”. I should definitely upgrade my bike a little, too. Whether or not I want to buy my own helmet or other safety gear is entirely up to me. Considering Deliveroo won’t pay my health insurance if I take the job as a freelancer – which they’d prefer me to be, as I was told at my interview a few days ago – it seems like a prudent investment. I could also opt to be a part-time employee: in exchange for a stricter schedule and more taxes, I’d get my insurance covered, earn minimum wage and have the possibility to rent a bike from Deliveroo for “just” €5 a day.
If I really worked my way up through the ranks I could even become a mentor like Moritz. In between deliveries, I learn that he’s originally from the north of Germany, came here to earn his master’s degree and has been working different courier jobs for six years now. He loves cycling, went vegan a year and a half ago and believes the plant-based lifestyle increases his performance. “In all fields, if you know what I mean,” he laughs, and I try to force a smile.
He gets a little less chummy as I lose time trying to figure out our route on the app. I’m afraid to tell him that my map-reading abilities have always been poor, and I doubt any amount of Deliveroo training would change that. Still, both the gourmet burger and the Indian combo arrive on time. The customers hardly even look up from their screens as we put their food on the side of the table. “Enjoy your meal!”
The London-based Deliveroo has been operating in Berlin since April 2015, the same month that its main competitor, Foodora, moved its HQ here from Munich. Both apps offer the same thing – speedy online delivery from trendy restaurants – and both have found an army of eager couriers in the German capital.
The appeal is obvious: you don’t need to commit to long hours, you don’t need a driving license, and you don’t even need to speak German. All you need is a bike and a smartphone.
And the application process couldn’t be easier: a short online questionnaire, an in-person interview and a test ride, and you’re good to go. In Deliveroo’s case, it only took a day for their rep to call me in for a “20-minute info session” at the company’s local office, right on the Landwehrkanal. They gave me a date for the test ride and told me if I was hired, the rest of the training would come later, over a one-month period.
“The people who work with us appreciate the flexibility,” explains a Deliveroo spokesperson. “Especially freelancers, who are able to develop further in other fields and live out their ideas and passions while earning a competitive income working for us.”
The company, which is present in 12 countries and worth about €650 million, boasts 300 couriers of over a dozen different nationalities in Berlin, many with little knowledge of German and big creative dreams to accomplish. They seem to be endlessly hiring, which they attribute to growing consumer interest – surely nothing to do with a high turnover, reports of exploitative wages and growing dissatisfaction with the job, even strikes. That’s been happening in London, but not here.
In Germany, things are supposed to be a lot better… yet the “competitive income” Deliveroo’s spokesperson referred to turns out to be €7.50 an hour on a freelance contract, a full euro less than the minimum wage, as guaranteed for all employees in Germany since January 2015. Of course, freelance rates are not subjected to the minimum wage law, and Deliveroo promises an extra €1-3 per delivery “depending on the distance and speed”, a mysterious calculation based on the algorithm of the all-knowing app.
But according to ex-Deliveroo worker Pedro*, the reality of it is that you might stay on standby without a single delivery for hours. “It would happen that I got three or four deliveries during an eight-hour shift,” he says. A 24-year-old graphic designer from Spain happy to use his own gear and leg muscles, Pedro was the ideal bike courier candidate.
The money ended up being a lot less than I expected. I’d get three or four deliveries during an eight-hour shift. And Berlin people are not exactly famous for their tipping…
Yet, he says, “The money ended up being a lot less than I expected. You’re supposed to get some bonuses for weekend and holiday hours, and in case of really bad weather – which was almost never bad enough for them! They tell you that you’ll keep the tips, but Berlin people are not exactly famous for their tipping. Plus we often got impossible delivery schedules calculated by the app, and obviously people won’t tip if we don’t make it on time.”
Germany’s trade union confederation, DGB, called Deliveroo’s €7.50 freelance hourly wage flat-out “illegal”; its president Doro Zinke suggested in an interview in May that since the employees weren’t unionised, it would be up to the couriers themselves to take their company to court.
Pedro didn’t sue; he quit after two months. “With my hourly wage and the fact I had to pay for my own health insurance, I ended up not earning enough to cover my rent,” says the Spaniard. “I thought, what if I got sick and couldn’t work, or I got hit by a car? When I asked them, they said they ‘strongly encouraged’ me to have insurance, and that was it.” He moved on to Foodora instead.
Acquired last year by Berlin-based Delivery Hero, Munich company Foodora is Deliveroo’s closest competitor on the upscale food delivery market, also using a fleet of “flexible” bike couriers. Worth over €3.5 billion, the company has 450 riders in Berlin, identifiable by their hot-pink coolers and gear. About half are German; the rest come from all over.
Unlike Deliveroo, Foodora doesn’t hire freelancers: all their riders are employed either as “working students”, €450/month mini-jobbers, part-time workers or full-time employees. All get the German minimum wage of €8.50 per hour. “Everything is set in the contract, the responsibilities of the employee, the benefits and holidays they get, the one-month notice if someone quits…” says Berlin PR manager Vincent Pfeifer. “We want to give and get all the information possible and make it clear for both parties. We play on the safe side!”
Maybe that’s why their application process was a little stricter than Deliveroo’s. Their online questionnaire asked for a few more details, like what kind of bike I had and how many hours a week I could work. Then came a short phone call, checking whether I have all the required documents, such as a working visa and social security number, and then they challenged me: “Bist du tough genug?”
I find out on my test ride. We meet at the HQ in Friedrichshain. My “rider captain” – no mentors this time – is a lot less talkative than Moritz, and doesn’t come across as particularly smiley or friendly. Sarah*, a sporty Australian in tiny black shorts and the magenta company t-shirt, tells me to follow her, looking behind her from time to time to see if I can keep up. Moritz had involved me in conversations with restaurants and customers; this time, I have to do all the communication as Sarah watches.
In the late afternoon, we bring a woman a pizza and it turns out that the restaurant didn’t pack the extra sauce she had asked for. A couple of phone calls later, she’s arranged with Foodora for a refund but takes the food anyway. “It happens. No worries,” says Sarah brusquely. We part ways after that, and she says I did okay – I’ll be hearing from them. On the next corner I almost get hit by a car. He honks. I’d like to ring my bell, but I don’t have one.
Pedro prefers Foodora to Deliveroo, though finds neither company ideal. “In a sense, Foodora is better, yes. We get €8.50 an hour plus tips – and as a part-time employee, my insurance is covered. So at least I’ll be treated in a hospital if a car hits me – and that’s bound to happen on these streets!” laughs the Spaniard, who actually refuses to wear a helmet for fear of messing up his thick black locks. “At the same time, we’re just too many people and not enough work, especially in summer. So oftentimes I don’t get the shifts I want, and I just have to take whatever’s left in order to complete my 20 hours a week – which I end up not completing anyway, most of the time.”
Pedro, who’s been in Berlin for eight months, doesn’t want to do this in the long run. He’s hoping to find a job in his field very soon; till then, he says, at least he’s getting to know the city a bit better.
I could stand to know Berlin better as well, despite having been here a lot longer than Pedro. After two application forms, two info sessions and two test rides in less than four weeks – which, by the way, I still have no idea whether I’m getting paid for, since nobody ever told me and I kind of forgot to ask while pedalling – Deliveroo has sent me an email response: they’re “not hiring at this time”. I’m still waiting to hear from Foodora, but I remain hopeful. I remember Moritz telling me both companies will offer more work once the weather gets worse. Should I invest in a proper rain jacket, just in case?
Originally published in issue #152, September 2016.