The freedom of bike slaves Ruthless Criticism

[Translated from GegenStandpunkt 3-18]

News from the world of the precariat and its social policy support
On the value of the wonderful achievement
of getting to take care of yourself under your own steam

The freedom of bike slaves

The beauty of the free market economy is well known to be that individuals are not the passive victims of some patronizing authority, but everyone is the architect of their own fortune. How great that the modern service economy, in the wake of “digitization” and thanks to innovative start-ups, provides a wealth of opportunities that everyone can make the most of, according to their own intitiative and criteria. For example, as a bike courier for food delivery services like UberEats, Foodora and Deliveroo.

Couriers differ from normal dependent employees in that they have a service to offer. All the means to carry out this service are put in the hands of the riders themselves with an app: their own bodies, their bikes, and their smartphones. What gets worn down on the job is their own property, so it is entirely up to them to sacrifice their wages and free time not only for the recovery of their physical energy, but for the repair of their bikes as well.

Nobody forces them to work a rigid nine-to-five schedule or a 40 hour week. Foodora riders can decide for themselves when they’d rather not work; but because an attractive job like this is in such high demand and many care more about the money than free time from work, they usually reserve as little of their time as possible for themselves, and are more worried about being used too little than too much. The rival Deliveroo gives its self-employed riders the opportunity to freely choose which shifts they want to sign up for. Because there are more than enough candidates interested in this chance to be part of a young and motivated team, and hardly any of them are turned away, the sought-after shifts are quickly taken. Either way, the couriers compete with their peers, thereby bringing to bear the fine laws of the free market in their relation to the company:

“If there are more shifts than riders, the riders can flexibly make their own hours. If it’s the other way round, however, there is a competition for shifts that plays into the hands of the company.” (taz, 7.22.17)

The need for enough money at the end of the month makes even the less attractive time-frames desirable. In any case, the demand for night and weekend shifts leaves nothing to be desired; the same goes for snowy and rainy days, even though they are no longer paid extra. Because riders so reliably make sure the market is cleared and declare an unfulfilled need for shifts even beyond that, the algorithm’s invisible hand relentlessly changes with each update what the coveted good of a bicycle courier job costs those who want one – in the form of worsening conditions that are part of the deal. Not that this causes any noticeable reduction in the excess demand. For coordinating the two complementary needs of the couriers – on the one hand, a personal necessity sometimes getting in the way of keeping to the shift schedule and, on the other, the usual problem of not being called on enough – the riders can, if they wish, use the company‘s official WhatsApp Group and their free time to look for someone to trade with in order to adjust their working hours even more to their liking.

There is no more personal dependence on a boss whose expectations dictate one’s working life; Foodora says: “Be your own boss!” Riders are not faced with any superiors; they have basically nothing to do with the organizers of the platform; in fact, it’s almost impossible to contact them. So it’s entirely up to the riders themselves to decide how to carry out their work orders; as long as they don’t dawdle too much, they won’t get the boot. They can make this freedom pay off income-wise since Foodora added one euro to the hourly wage for the best 15% of its riders. Permanent monitoring and automated evaluations of every parameter relevant to their performance ensure the objectivity of the comparison as to who is successfully exceeding the average effort. At the rival Deliveroo, individual performance is reflected even more directly in the wallet. For independent couriers, earnings are measured solely by the number of deliveries made. So they also make every effort to exercise the freedom to choose how they heed their own and other people’s safety, as demanded by red lights, cursing pedestrians, and honking motorists, so it serves their own interest, and consciously accept the resulting risk of accidents. This again makes good use of the law of supply and demand in the market economy: The result of their greater willingness to take risks increases their need for accident-insurance benefits; this leads to a rapid rise in insurance rates, putting a fair surcharge on their bravery at taking risks – which in turn boosts their performance because this money has to be earned as well. And there is another way the market economy’s quid-pro-quo principle always works out for them: If they do not get any orders during their shift, they do not get any wages, but their working hours are seamlessly transformed into free time. Because couriers aren’t able or willing to do anything with this free time, the most stressful shifts are the most popular among self-employed riders.

So competition is good for the courier business and results in splendid efficiency. Because this boon does not do the riders as much good as they make happen for the companies, they have come up with the idea that, in addition to trying to pedal hard to make money as scattered individuals, an extra effort is needed: they should join forces and unionize to try and make sure they can survive the exercize of their freedom. So it is up to the companies to defend the supreme value of individual freedom and self-determination from being diluted: Foodora has let the fixed-term contracts of trouble-making unionists expire by the dozens, and Deliveroo is transforming its entire workforce into self-employed workers in order to pull the rug from under any institutionalized collectivism. The companies put the freedom of their employees above all else.