Fear of crime in the gig economy

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Related Themes: Robbery, Violent crime

Fear of crime in the gig economy

Takieddine Boudhane was stabbed to death in Finsbury Park after a driving altercation. Jabed Hussain had acid thrown in his face in a moped robbery. Iderval Da Silva was beaten to death in Battersea when he tried to stop teenagers from stealing his moped. Ibraheem was racially abused and attacked when trying to protect a colleague in Nottingham.

These victims all worked in the food delivery gig economy.

Facilitated by technology, this industry has grown rapidly in recent years.  Alongside this, there has been a significant increase in moped theft which can then fuel further moped-enabled crime.  

Today the Police Foundation has published a report looking at the impact of crime on food delivery couriers in the gig economy in London. This, to our knowledge, is the first study to explore and give voice to this ‘hidden’ category of workers from a criminological perspective.

A huge majority of couriers we interviewed had been a victim of crime or attempted crime while working, contributing to more widespread insecurity than previously recognised. The report also finds that there is widespread under reporting of these offences. We pinpoint three factors that make moped delivery couriers particularly vulnerable to crime; the nature of the gig economy, a lack of protection from commercial platforms and low levels of confidence in the police.

Firstly, as a self-employed independent contractor, food delivery offers a quick and straight-forward route into employment, uncapped hours of work and therefore unlimited earnings. Conversely, couriers told us they feel exploited in a culture of finance over safety.

Earnings are wholly dependent on customer demand, which can be volatile; there is no guarantee of a consistent income and thus there is an intense pressure to complete jobs quickly. Coupled with reported ‘poverty pay’, uncertainty results in couriers needing to work extremely long hours (60-hour weeks are not unusual) to earn the money they require to avoid falling into poverty. This is exacerbated by the ease with which companies can take on new couriers, resulting in surplus labour.

Having little choice but to be available for long hours, often at night and while alone, as well as ‘waiting around’ for work, makes couriers a target for moped theft. Fear of losing their livelihood if their moped is stolen exacerbates feelings of vulnerability.

Secondly, the report illustrates a lack of protection from commercial platforms. Uber Eats do not allow the courier to view the delivery location until the order has been accepted, directly adding to couriers’ anxiety. In theory, couriers can cancel the trip and report the reason as ‘I feel unsafe’, however, couriers we spoke to reported Uber Eats suspending accounts and even issuing financial penalties when doing so. There is also no guidance on how to work in the safest way or protect couriers from dangerous situations.

Several couriers also told us that after reporting being a victim of crime to Uber Eats, their account is suspended for two weeks while it is investigated. As this period is not financially protected, couriers are left unable to work on the platform and are threatened with severe financial hardship. This undoubtedly results in a reluctance to report crime.

Thirdly, couriers’ experience of the police response has contributed to heightened feelings of insecurity and under-reporting. Reduced police presence, slow response times and poor communication with victims results in couriers lacking confidence that the police can catch moped thieves and investigate such crime successfully. The often time-consuming process of crime reporting is understandably avoided, especially if there is no loss of possession or injury, due to the nature of gig economy work. However, it is worth noting that reported moped thefts and wider moped-enabled crime has reduced since the introduction of the MPS’ Operation Venice.

As a result, couriers go to significant lengths to protect themselves from the devastating impact a stolen moped can have on their livelihood, including by securing their moped, avoiding particular locations and carrying weapons.

The Police Foundation makes a number of recommendations for food delivery companies, restaurants, the police and London authorities to protect couriers and ultimately prevent crime.  These include the creation of a database of self-reported courier experiences of crime, accessible to couriers, the police, delivery companies and local authorities. This would allow couriers to better assess the risks they face and encourage collaboration between the police and other authorities to tackle courier crime. We also call upon food delivery companies to provide better workplace protection and financial security, both to prevent crime and to encourage couriers to report it if they become a victim. 

Couriers have quickly become a familiar part of the urban landscape. Couriers have uplifted us when a pandemic has pushed us down. But they are some of society’s most vulnerable and expose themselves to significant risk for rewards which can be precarious. The challenges they face deserve greater public attention and we hope that our report serves as a catalyst for action.