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Couriers on Britain's shopping addiction: 'Customers don't care as long as it's cheap'
Wednesday, 30 August 2017 at 16:26
Jane Holder’s doorstep is familiar territory for Totnes’s parcel couriers. Dozens of packets come and go as she trades an extraordinary array of kitsch vintage items over the internet from her Devon home.
Holder’s website offers a £2.50 plastic sailing ship described as “wonderfully ornamental but completely pointless vintage Chinese junk”. For £1, there’s a pair of brightly coloured plastic hand-grenade horns that “make a horrible noise”. As useless ephemera goes, it is hard to beat.
She also buys bagfuls of clothes for herself, routinely ordering 10 items at a time to her door – only to send eight back again. Online shopping has become “recreational, a hobby”, she says – and she’s not alone.
Britain spends more online per head than any other country in the world, according to a study by the UK Cards Association. On average, we each spend £4,600 a year online, more than £1,000 more than Americans do. By 2025, we will be placing orders for 2.7 billion parcels a year, more than double the 1.3bn being delivered this year, according to the online-retailers industry body, IMRG.
“It’s so much easier than parking, trudging round the shops and not finding what you want,” Holder says. “You try something on with what you’ve already got, and send it back again [if it’s not right]. Most of the time you don’t pay for delivery. Even with Uniqlo I pay £4, but that’s half the price of parking.”
The apparent frictionlessness of online shopping is, however, an illusion. Across Britain, this hugely competitive industry is pushing tens of thousands of couriers to work uncertain hours for low pay, often under considerable pressure and with little or no employment protections, to get all these packets to our doors as quickly and cheaply as possible.
“Some consumers are aware we are earning so little, but there are plenty who really don’t care as long as it’s cheap,” says John, a self-employed courier for Hermes, the UK’s second-largest delivery company after Parcelforce, which is among those serving Jane Holder and her neighbours in Totnes.
John has calculated that he often takes home as little as £5.75 an hour, and rarely earns above the national minimum wage of £7.50. He is now delivering 80 parcels a day on average – up from about 55 last year – and has to lash sacks of parcels to the roof of his hatchback because the passenger seats are packed full.
With its chassis slumped low on the suspension, the car looks like an overburdened donkey; apart from the windscreen and on the driver’s side, John’s view from every window is blocked. This doesn’t look safe – but Hermes says it provides regular information to drivers about vehicle loading and ensuring windows are not obscured, adding that if the volume of parcels doesn’t safely fit, it will pay couriers extra to do two runs.
John thinks many online shoppers have no comprehension that couriers are mostly only paid according to collection or delivery, not by the hour. He cites one regular irritation: customers returning Amazon packages who order a courier to collect them, but fail to wrap the parcel or label it properly.
“[In that case] we don’t get paid because we can’t collect it,” he says. “The next day we go back and they are not there – so we don’t get paid again. Then finally we catch up with them, and they tell us they’ve taken it down the Post Office. That’s three trips to the doorstep and we don’t get paid for any of it. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of faith in the British public.”
For the past year, I have been investigating Britain’s fast-growing delivery industry, unearthing shocking stories of dismally low pay (less than £2 per hour, in one case) and severe job insecurity.
Some couriers told me they have felt threatened with losing rounds if they are ever unavailable to work, even when their children have fallen seriously ill or a loved one has died. Most recently, there has been outrage at charges levied by some companies on self-employed couriers who fall sick and cannot find cover for their rounds.
To date, concern has largely been focused on the behaviour of courier companies. But what about the responsibility of consumers, whose insatiable demands for free or cheap delivery arguably drive retailers to demand low prices from these courier companies, which, in turn, squeeze the couriers?
In Totnes, Holder says she has “heard all the stuff about the conditions for couriers” and believes they should be better paid. “But it’s like short-haul flights: everybody said we shouldn’t do it, it’s destroying the planet, but then everybody else is doing it – so we do it.
“How do you change that attitude?” she asks. “The problem is, it’s not directly causal. Whatever the consumer does is not going to affect the life of the person delivering the parcels.”
Countless psychologists have documented the phenomenon of online shopping addiction: some shoppers describe the arrival of a package as like winning a prize – they talk about the “thrill”, even the “high”. Never mind that the courier desperately looking for a safe place to stash your new summer shoes while you lie in the bath not answering the door likely receives no sick pay or holiday pay, and could lose their work at a moment’s notice.
One of John’s regular drops is for Laura Hutchinson, a website designer who receives as many as five packages a week – mostly clothes and some household furnishings. She is the kind of consumer who chooses her supermarket based on issues such as the way they treat their staff and their attitude to fair trade. But while she always looks for offers of free delivery, she admits to having given little thought to the couriers who drop off her parcels.
When she hears about practices such as DPD charging self-employed couriers £150 if they fall sick and cannot find cover, and some couriers from Hermes earning below the minimum wage, she describes it as “kind of shocking” – but is stumped about what she can do.
“Retailers have a responsibility about where they are getting their clothes made, and is there child labour involved,” she says. “It should equally be on their minds whether these courier companies are working responsibly, and if they are not we shouldn’t use the courier.”
Hermes uses self-employed couriers, so the company is not obliged to pay the minimum wage, which only applies to employed workers. But it has claimed the average earnings of its couriers, after expenses, is £9.90 an hour. DPD uses a mix of employed and self-employed couriers.
So far, when the Guardian has asked John Lewis, Next and other retailers to comment on the treatment of couriers who deliver their goods, they have always declined.
Broken by the demands
Spend a day with a courier and you will be struck not just by how hard the couriers work, but how strange the items we want delivered are. Couriers lug huge, metre-square boxes containing ornamental garden fountains, car parts, bulky mattress-toppers and duvets.
The £133bn of stuff that arrives annually at British doors, swaddled in enough brown cardboard to denude a Finnish forest, is gushing forth not just from Amazon and Asos but also centuries-old retailers such as Fortnum & Mason and Harrods. Among the fastest-growing sectors for delivery are lingerie, gifts and shoes.
This growing torrent of parcels is heartening news for the delivery giants. Hermes, ultimately owned by 73-year-old German billionaire Michael Otto and family, turned a profit of £27m in the UK last year using almost entirely self-employed couriers. Another giant, DPD – owned by GeoPost, a subsidiary of France’s postal service – made more than £100m using what it describes as “driver franchisees”: essentially, self-employed drivers.
But across the industry as a whole, the experiences of those on the frontline of delivery are not always so positive. While some describe the work as satisfying, enjoying a sense of independence as they fit their work around other commitments and serve their local community, others describe feeling broken by the demands of the job: impoverished by low pay and a self-employed status that seems to provide little of the freedom it implies, plus none of the benefits and protections of traditional employment.
One parcel courier in London highlights the pressure of the targets imposed on him. “We do have to meet targets – which is to bring as few packages back to the depot as possible,” he says. “If you bring back 10 parcels, say, they’ll start complaining straight away.”
Our bottomless demand for online delivery is placing greater pressure on retail workers, too. “The extent to which online customers are treated with importance above everything else is extreme,” reports one manager at a major supermarket. “Online shoppers [staff that complete consumers’ online orders] are expected to work from 4am and pick at pace, with demanding productivity targets. I have seen online managers and team leaders get signed off sick with anxiety, depression and stress … because the role is so demanding.
He continues: “The expectation to get ‘perfect orders’ is a daily focus above every other task in store. Queuing behind six people at a checkout on Monday morning? Sorry, every checkout colleague in the store is picking online orders, that’s more important. Want some breakfast in the cafe? Sorry, can’t do hot food because the cook is out driving an online van, covering a driver who went sick (after their 11th shift in a row with no day off).”
He concludes: “Customers expect perfection but don’t want to pay for it, and the race to be the best online retailer to achieve this is the only goal [my supermarket] see.”
Stories of woe
There has been a kind of grim inflation in the stories of woe emerging from the courier frontline over the past year.
Peter Jamieson, a Hermes courier from Edinburgh, spoke out last September after the company abruptly withdrew his work as his wife lay dying from cancer; partly, it seemed, because he was struggling with his rounds while supporting her chemotherapy.
Then in January, Leicester-based courier Armandeep Kaur said she was hounded to get back to work by her manager at Hermes, after her six-year-old son had a heart attack and died.
Hermes subsequently acknowledged that in Jamieson’s case, “Our behaviour fell short of the ethical standards we have set ourselves.” In the case of Kaur, it said: “The field team did everything they could to support her … by helping to provide alternative cover during this difficult time.”
In March, UK Mail courier Emil Ibrahimov, from east London, was charged nearly £800 when he was unable to work as a result of being hit by a car while on duty. “It is inhuman because this happened while I was doing their job,” he told me. “The car accident didn’t stress me out as much as what UK Mail did afterwards.”
UK Mail’s response was: “UK Mail hasn’t profited out of this. They are simply covering the cost they have incurred finding cover for rounds.”
These are the human stories behind a trend identified this month by the House of Commons work and pensions select committee, chaired by Frank Field. “Increasingly, some companies are using self-employed workforces as cheap labour, excusing themselves from responsibilities towards their workers and from substantial national insurance liabilities, pension auto-enrolment responsibilities and the apprenticeship levy,” it said in its final report, squeezed out before parliament broke up for the general election.
The report concluded: “The ease with which companies are able to classify their workforces as self-employed both fails to protect workers from exploitation, and potentially increases strain on the welfare state.”
One of the couriers who provided Field’s committee with evidence was Mac Ramsden, who worked for Hermes. He told how he worked seven hours a day, six days a week for about £40 a day – the equivalent of £5.80 an hour (the UK’s current national minimum wage is £7.50 an hour).
However, Ramsden’s take-home earnings were lower still, because he also had to pay for his own petrol, car insurance and mobile-phone expenses. “And I worked for free a lot of the time,” he said, explaining that he would spend up to two hours a day at the sub-depot, helping sort through the piles of parcels, before starting his round.
On the question of whether he should have been classed as self-employed, Ramsden said: “I had no control over anything that I ever did.”
It is evidence that stands in stark contrast to that of the Hermes UK chief executive Carole Woodhead, who told parliament: “Hermes couriers’ average gross earnings stand at £11.40 per hour, and are calculated (using an extremely conservative set of assumptions about deductions for fuel, vehicle insurance, depreciation and other expenses) to be £9.90 per hour after expenses.”
In a written submission, Hermes told the committee: “We are certain that all of our couriers earn in excess of the national living wage … Hermes is proud to provide regular, stable and flexible opportunities the length and breadth of the country, including in some of the UK’s most deprived communities.”
Both Hermes and DPD declined to comment for this article.
The problems that couriers face are not universal, but they are widespread enough for consumers and policymakers to be asking what can be done. Some couriers, too, are fighting back, staging public protests and preparing legal challenges in employment tribunals over whether their self-employed status – which denies them the right to the minimum wage and holiday pay – is, in fact, bogus.
Others have given evidence to MPs, who, in recent months, have launched multiple inquiries into the industry, which is part of Britain’s ever-widening “gig economy” of flexible and insecure self-employment.
This month, Matthew Taylor, the former Downing Street policy chief appointed by Theresa May to review modern working practices, warned: “Persistent scandals of bad working conditions, poor legal safeguards and job insecurity suggest that bad work is all too common. We need, therefore, to talk about quality of work, and not just quantity.”
Some leaders in the courier industry are alive to the problems, too. Jonathan Smith, chief executive of APC Overnight, which has 3,500 couriers delivering 21 million parcels a year, believes there needs to be greater transparency about the true cost of delivery.
“While consumers get ‘free delivery’, there is no such thing as delivery at no cost – and I think people confuse the two,” he says. “The retailer, the carrier and the consumer all have to stay in balance to make this thing work, and they all have different expectations.”
According to Smith, “This model hasn’t settled down yet. I am convinced that many consumers would be very happy to have more transparency on the cost of delivery. People are not silly; they understand there are costs and they understand that if you pay a bit more, you possibly get a better service.
By contrast with Hermes and UK Mail, APC mostly uses employed couriers rather than piece workers. “If you employ someone, they stay longer, develop greater knowledge and you get greater quality,” Smith says, explaining that some APC depots do use a small number of self-employed couriers, and that the firm uses extra self-employed couriers at peak times.
There are signs that growing consumer awareness of the real cost of delivery could help deliver better working conditions for people such as Emil, Armandeep and John.
Back in Totnes, shortly after I spoke to Jane Holder about her use of couriers, she emailed to say she has looked up the firm she uses and found that it is owned by UK Mail, the firm that charged Emil Ibrahimov nearly £800 when he was unable to work as a result of a car accident while on duty.
“I will now stop using them,” she wrote. “Reckon I might stop recreational online clothes shopping too …”