Getting food home delivered has always been one of modern life’s greatest luxuries, but over the last couple of years it’s gotten even better. No longer are we limited to having to choose between the takeaway staples of pizza and Chinese food. The arrival of food delivery services like Menulog, Deliveroo and foodora (formally Suppertime) has reshaped the whole concept of eating in. Now we can get our favourite, gourmet meals couriered straight to us.
The great Australian dream of being able to order burgers, sushi or even lobster from the comfort of our lounge rooms has finally been realised. It’s peak convenience and it sounds almost too good to be true – which, it turns out, it actually is.
It seems like there’s a rule emerging when it comes to many of the new, disruptive services that are maximising our convenience at a relatively low cost – like Uber and new home food delivery services. If you’re getting a product or a service that is incredibly convenient but also suspiciously affordable, there’s a pretty strong chance someone is getting ripped off along the way.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what’s going on with a number of Australia’s most popular and fastest growing food delivery services. A report published this week found that the couriers who we rely on to deliver our delicious food were being paid as little as $10 an hour, well below the minimum wage, and weren’t receiving any penalty rates or superannuation.
Couriers who we rely on to deliver our delicious food were being paid as little as $10 an hour, well below the minimum wage.
Now few people were probably naïve enough to think delivery drivers and bike couriers were earning lavish incomes. After all we’re getting delicious meals delivered at only a slightly higher cost than what we would have paid if we went to the restaurant. But as a frequent user of these services I was genuinely surprised to learn they were paid below minimum wage, with no benefits whatsoever.
The companies get away with it by arguing that the couriers don’t work for them, but are instead independent contractors. This seems like a pretty silly argument when the couriers wear company uniforms. The only thing these companies do is organise food delivery, so if the couriers don’t work for them then who does?
The situation opens up an ethical dilemma. Millions of us regularly order home-delivered food. Sometimes it’s because we’re working late, often it’s because we’re tired and can’t be bothered to cook, and regularly it’s because we just want delicious meals that we aren’t good enough to make ourselves. Part of the reason why they’re such an appealing option is because they’re pretty affordable. But now it’s clear why they’re affordable – the couriers are being exploited.
The couriers are our only human connection to the entire process of food delivery. We order food online and we don’t interact with the people making our meal at all. When the doorbell rings, we hit pause on Netflix, race to the door, interact with the courier and then proceed to eat our dinner, without a second thought.
But now we know that the couriers, who are bringing us our decadent dinners, sometimes braving rough weather, chaotic traffic and angry drivers, are being exploited through our desire for convenience. On their below minimum wage salaries they’re unlikely to be able to afford the gourmet food they spend their evenings couriering across the city.
But when I resist the temptation to use an app and get food delivered and decide to make dinner, instead, I’m reminded that it actually isn’t that hard.
Does it have to be this way? Is the trade off between convenience and ethics inevitable? Delivery Hero, the parent company behind foodora, has valued itself at over $4 billion. That gives an indication as to how much money there is in the food delivery market. It seems unlikely that a company this successful has to exploit and underpay workers in order to make money. The trade off seems more about the proportion of the delivery surcharge consumers pay that goes to the actual drivers versus. the company’s profits.
But what if it became clear that the only way to get food delivered affordably was through underpaying a workforce made up predominantly of backpackers and international students, who don’t have a strong understanding of their rights? How many Australians would still do it? The allure of home-delivered dumplings or sushi might trump concern about workers’ rights. After all, most of us wear clothes and use phones that were made in sweat shops.
Even though many of us know that the exploitation of workers is a common aspect of our modern societies, it’s rare that we directly come face to face with the people on the losing end, like food couriers.
The difference when it comes to food delivery is that there is an easy alternative. When you come home after a long day at work, often the last thing you want to do is get into the kitchen and start cooking dinner. The temptation to use an app and get food delivered instead is powerful. But when I resist the temptation and decide to make dinner, I’m reminded that it actually isn’t that hard. In fact it can be fun, rewarding, affordable and easy. And I don’t have to look directly into the eyes of a courier knowing that I’m ripping them off in order to enjoy a comfortable, convenient courier.
Even though many of us know that the exploitation of workers is a common aspect of our modern societies, it’s rare that we directly come face to face with the people on the losing end, like food couriers. Until it changes, I don’t think we can justify ripping them off just to enjoy convenient meals. Let’s show solidarity with the people who brave the elements to make sure we get hot, delicious food by using services that don’t exploit their workers or, better yet, reclaiming the kitchen.
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Image by Michael Saechang (Flickr).