Riding For Deliveroo: Resistance In The New Economy by Callum Cant

The Blurb On The Back:

What is life like for workers in the gig economy?  Is it a paradise of flexibility and individual freedom?  Or is it a world of exploitation and conflict?  Callum Cant took a job with one of the most prominent platforms, Deliveroo, to find out.

His vivid account of the reality is grim.  Workers toil under conditions set by the company’s algorithms, but they are not resigned to maintaining the status quo.  Cant reveals a transactional network of encrypted chats and informal groups which have given birth to a wave of strikes and protests.  Far from being atomised individuals helpless in the face of massive tech companies, workers are tearing up the rule book and taking back control. New developments in the workplace are combining to produce an explosive subterranean class struggle – where the stakes are high, and the risks are higher.

Riding For Deliveroo is the first portrait of a new generation of working class militants.  Its mixture of compelling first-hand testimony and engaging analysis is essential for anyone wishing to understand class struggle in platform capitalism.

You can order RIDING FOR DELIVEROO: RESISTANCE IN THE NEW ECONOMY by Callum Cant from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Callum Cant is a former Deliveroo rider currently studying for a PhD at the University of West London focusing on worker self-organisation in UK pubs, call centres and platforms.  There are some interesting points in this book, which looks at the organisation by delivery drivers for Deliveroo and UberEats but the Marxist class struggle analysis is at times laughably reductive and some of his suggestions to fix the problems wholly unrealistic.

The strongest parts of this book are those where Cant describes his experience of working for Deliveroo in Brighton.  He writes clearly about how the Deliveroo app works and the problems that creates for riders – especially cyclists who found it harder to do a lot of deliveries due to the hilly nature of the city – because of the variable drop rates.  He’s also good at pointing out the nature of the Deliveroo workforce and the additional financial problems that they face from the precarious nature of the “independent contractor” model, especially moped riders who are frequently stuck with finance deals for their mopeds.  

I thought he did an excellent job in summarising the difficulties in trying to organise workers to protest against these conditions – partly because of the fluid workforce but also the difficulties in getting people physically together (although there are meeting points where riders gather to wait for orders to come in over the app) – but also because they had their own means of communicating via Whatsapp (which is partly organised along ethnic lines) that was essentially invisible to those not in the know.  He also does well at showing the hard work done by organisers of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) at learning from the lessons of previous strikes by Deliveroo workers to try and build up membership and awareness and put together further action.

However, I was never really sure what it was that the Deliveroo riders wanted as Cant never really sets this out and I’m not sure whether he was actually interested in finding out.  Did they want a higher hourly rate or a higher drop rate? Did they want the benefits of being employees or did they want better conditions as independent contractors? I was also unsure whether Cant took the job because he wanted to research the workers movement and their strikes within the industry or whether this interest came after and that’s an issue because he suggests at times within the book that he was interested in pushing riders towards union-type action, which made me wonder to what extent he was forcing the agenda or helping to shape it.  I also found it interesting how, while Cant acknowledges that he has little or no knowledge of the feelings of female riders towards action and how the nature of the nascent movement and some of the sexist attitudes on the part of the male riders kept them at a distance, he also doesn’t seem to make any attempt to reach out to them or discover their priorities.  That, to me, seemed like a big oversight.

My biggest problem is that Cant is determined to set the Deliveroo rider action within a Marxist class struggle analysis and for me, it was too heavy-handed and ridiculously reductive in places.  For example, he keeps referring to the “bosses” but it’s never clear to me who he’s talking about – Deliveroo’s owners, the shareholders, the developers who work in the office, the HR staff or even the restaurants themselves (which he seems to include with them)? He’s also not interested in analysing the platform beyond the struggle between workers and bosses so the fact that Deliveroo doesn’t make a profit barely factors into his analysis and nor does the war Deliveroo is having against other platform delivery services like JustEat or UberEats (except to the extent that riders have taken action against them as well) and the fact that they’re basically competing until the last platform standing takes a monopoly (or maybe a duopoly) over the service, at which point they can jack up prices to both end customers and restaurants.  

There are sections where Cant’s analysis has promise (e.g. a parallel between Taylorist and Fordist principles and the way the Deliveroo algorithm works) but he disappears so deep into it (especially Italian worker action) that my interest started to wane, not least because he seems unaware of how some of the industrial action he cites (notably the Liverpool dock workers) ended up destroying the industry they worked for.  How that is supposed to be good for workers goes unexplored and while he discusses how “bosses” look to automate in order to avoid having to deal with workers and their action, he doesn’t go into whether this has an effect on tempering workers’ demands for rights or what (if anything) should be done to counter it.  Also frustrating is how he includes as an aside a fascinating section on people whose job it is to discourage worker organisation but then doesn’t mention how books such as his may be used as ammunition for the same.  

Where he completely lost me was in his ideas for how the problems faced by Deliveroo workers could be resolved.  His favoured option is for workers or the state to essentially take over both the platforms and the dark kitchens they run on behalf of restaurants to form a community food service for the population.  It’s pure fantasy land stuff and there are so many practical issues with it that I don’t know where to begin, not least in wondering exactly which workers are supposed to take control and operate them.  I also found it depressing how, having highlighted the economic problems faced by Deliveroo riders, he dismisses those who don’t want to follow the strike as “scabs” and seems supportive of attempts to intimidate and stop them from crossing picket lines.  Ultimately, I ended up with the impression that what mattered to Cant was less the problems endured by Deliveroo riders than the way their problems could be used to stimulate class warfare and I found that sadly cynical. 

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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