My Brief Career as a Food Courier
Delivery apps are convenient, fast and, as I found out during my own shifts as a food courier, a lousy way to earn a living.
Illustration: Kagan McLeod
The Drawbacks of Fast Food
When Iván Ostos started as a Foodora bike courier in 2016, he planned to work for just a few months. He was studying music in Toronto, and thought it would be a fun summer job. It was—flexible schedule, low stress. Most shifts, he made about $18 an hour. But three months became six months, which became a year. He dropped out of his university program and became a full-time Foodster, the company’s term for its couriers. The job became less fun. Other food delivery apps had moved in or aggressively expanded—Uber Eats, SkipTheDishes, DoorDash—and couriers swarmed the streets. Ostos’s wages nosedived. He started a second delivery gig, with Uber Eats.
A year ago, while on a Foodora delivery, Ostos T-boned another cyclist who’d swerved in front of him. Ostos’s first thought was, “Is the other guy okay?” He was. His second thought was, “Is the food okay?” It was. But Ostos wasn’t okay—he’d shattered his elbow. As he awaited an ambulance, he contacted Foodora and told them what had happened. Could he finish delivering the order, they asked? Ostos was shocked. “I told them I couldn’t,” he says. “It made me pretty mad. It was like I wasn’t even a person.”
Ostos wound up needing surgery. At the time, Foodora was the only major food delivery app registered with Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and the company recommended that Ostos apply for workers’ compensation. He received $210 a week for four-and-a-half months, until he got back on the road.
As far as Foodora was concerned, though, it didn’t really matter if he came back at all. The gig economy has a never-ending supply of workers, who’ve exchanged security for flexibility and a steady paycheque for an income contingent on hustle and luck. The jobs that are part of this new economy are various: Uber driver, furniture mover, Airbnb host. Everything is available in an instant, but the rise of these on-demand apps has been a source of increasing income inequality—witness the chasm between Jeff Bezos and the average Amazon warehouse worker.
Many are willing participants in the gig economy. Others are forced into it by declining job creation, stagnant wages and a manufacturing sector that’s all but vanished. Ostos is 24, but some couriers are in their 60s and 70s. Some are migrant workers or international students. Others simply have limited education and skills. The workforce is growing. According to Statistics Canada, one in eight workers, or just over two million Canadians, held a temporary job in 2018. Food app companies won’t reveal the number of people they employ in Canada because they don’t consider their couriers to be employees—they think of them as independent contractors—but their customer base has exploded. Last year, a study conducted by Angus Reid and Dalhousie University found that 29 per cent of all Canadians had used a food delivery app at least once. For couriers like Ostos, this was both the future of labour and their precarious present.
I’ve never been a big user of these apps—I like to cook, and I’m cheap. But many people seem to like having their food brought to them. “We’re spending more time than ever at home,” says Howard Migdal, a managing director at SkipTheDishes. “We didn’t build consumer demand, it was already there.”
That consumer demand is everywhere. Restaurants Canada, the food service industry association, said that food delivery grew by 44 per cent in 2018, with 85 per cent of all quick-service restaurants now using the apps.
App companies are fond of claiming they’ve been a boon to restaurants. In their view, the apps introduce new places to eat to people who otherwise might not try them.
Still, some restaurateurs are less enthusiastic. “They’re kind of a necessary evil,” says Max Rimaldi, co-owner of Toronto’s Pizzeria Libretto chain. For Rimaldi, the apps mean fewer customers in his restaurants, which affects his bottom line. At this point, though, Rimaldi feels he has no choice but to keep using the apps or else build his own in-house delivery system. “They’re giving people what they want,” Rimaldi says, “which is the ability to be freaking lazy, cocooning, watching Netflix and having their favourite food at home. Which is great, but that doesn’t do anything for guys like me.”
Last June, I decided to find out what the life of a food delivery courier was like. My first choice of company was Foodora—I look good in pink—but it wasn’t hiring. Then I saw a DoorDash ad during the NBA playoffs. I applied.
“Applied” is an overstatement. All I did was download the “Dasher” app—DoorDash refers to its couriers as Dashers—submit to a background check and show up for a one-hour orientation. Two other applicants, a couple of guys in their 20s, attended with me. There was no interview. On a tablet, I signed a contract releasing DoorDash from any legal obligation (and agreeing not to participate in any class-action lawsuit against the company).
Our first thermal delivery bag was free; additional ones would cost us $8. The enormous biker bags—the square insulated backpacks now ubiquitous on city streets—were $40, but the company was temporarily out of them. We were told to use our own backpacks. Our training as couriers was similarly perfunctory. “Just try to ride carefully.”
For every DoorDash order, the app tells couriers four things: where the restaurant is relative to the Dasher’s current location; where the drop-off is relative to the restaurant; how quickly the courier needs to pick the food up; and how much they’ll be paid. The fee varies, depending on order size and distance. For each order, DoorDash takes a cut as high as 30 per cent.
My first shift was the next day. I travelled to Toronto’s west end to await my first order. Fifteen minutes in, I wandered closer to one of the order “hot spots” the app recommended. Then it finally came—ping!
I accepted and raced to a noodle place 10 minutes away. I arrived at the restaurant soaked in sweat, quads burning. The food wasn’t there. The restaurant had no record of the order. I texted the customer. She didn’t want to re-order in case it got lost again. She cancelled.
Another ping came seconds later, for an order five minutes away. This time the food was ready, and I delivered it nearby without incident. From the first restaurant to the second and then up to the customer took, not including the time I waited for the order to be ready, about 15 minutes. I received $8.52.
Later that day, I lost a second order (and the entire fee) when I arrived at the restaurant to find it was too large for the basket on my bike. At 2 p.m., I knocked off. In three hours of work I’d completed five orders and made just under $40. As far as Dashers go, I was perhaps more of a Prancer.
But I was delighted at how nice restaurant staff were. One server offered me a glass of water as I waited, and an elderly woman at a pho place struck up a conversation as she assembled place settings. I felt a sense of camaraderie. I was less thrilled to discover that most of the people ordering the food were young, seemingly able-bodied and healthy. Very often I barely even saw them, just their hands emerging from doorways like the hands of a zombie emerging from a grave.
Riding a bike in downtown Toronto is treacherous. On a daily basis, you contend with aggressive drivers, inclement weather and countless potholes. I was lucky: in my handful of shifts, I was only nearly hit by passing cars twice. But I have a torn meniscus in my right knee, and by the end of my third shift my knee had swelled significantly enough that I cut the day short.
Not everyone can afford to shorten their shifts. And it’s those couriers who are more likely to feel exploited on the job. Ostos, the Foodora courier with the shattered elbow, recalled one shift when he was stuck at a restaurant, waiting for food, watching the clock tick. A couple of other Foodsters he didn’t know were also there. They started grumbling about their work, the lack of labour rights, the non-existent benefits. Like just about every gig-economy company, Foodora’s success was built on the backs of a desperate labour force.
One courier mused about starting a food couriers’ union, something that’s never been successfully done in Canada. Another courier agreed, but thought it was too onerous a task. How would you even get in touch with all the Foodsters? Food couriers have little discernible community. Without a community, how do you organize?
Some other Foodsters approached a bunch of unions. Only the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) was interested. It helped launch Foodsters United, a campaign site, in early May 2019. The couriers’ demands were simple: fair compensation, better workplace safety and benefits. “The people in the Foodora offices get benefits,” Ostos says. “But the guys working 12 hours a day on our bikes? The guys on the dangerous side of the industry? They don’t get massage therapy or psychological help?”
I met Ostos in May 2019 at a Vietnamese restaurant. He was working for Foodora and Uber Eats, but had also become a volunteer spokesperson for the union drive. The group set up an information tent near an area _couriers gather and reached out to Foodsters on Facebook. Foodora, meanwhile, continued to insist that couriers weren’t eligible to unionize—but they also sent emails and push notifications directly to couriers, warning them of exorbitant union dues and advising them to vote against unionizing.
The organizers needed to sign up 40 per cent of the workforce to join the union, but nobody knew how big the workforce was. There was also the issue of how to apply the gains that unions have traditionally fought for—minimum wages, overtime, etc.—to labourers who work irregular hours and for multiple companies. It was all very complicated.
But organizing workers has always been complicated. And other industries, just as complex, have successfully unionized in the past: mining, manufacturing, construction, professional sports. The gig economy may be new, but all it really requires is an expansion of the definition of employment. Ostos was optimistic that they could pull it off.
As supportive as I was, I felt skeptical. When I worked as a tree planter in my youth, I told Ostos, there was no union. We were treated terribly, but I could make enough money to pay for school, and I wasn’t going to be a tree planter for life. Isn’t being a Foodster similar, something you suffer through then move past? Ostos smiled grimly. He’d heard this before. “People get stuck in these jobs,” he said. “There are guys who were bike messengers in the ’80s and they’re doing food now. They didn’t move on and get a law degree. They had to keep working. I could try to find a better job. Or I could try to better my job.”
I ended up working five Dashes, nine hours in total, and made about $120, which I donated to charity. After those first shifts, the bag sat for a month by my door. It provided a strange reassurance. Rather than write in my stuffy home office, I could climb on my bike and make money instantly. I’d be out in the sun, getting exercise. But I’d also be a middle-aged guy with a bad knee barely making minimum wage. Meanwhile, DoorDash’s profits would continue to grow—in May 2019, it raised US$600 million from investors, and increased its valuation to US$12.6 billion. By November, they’d raised another US$100 million.
Meanwhile, the union drive had intensified. Foodsters United submitted their application to the Ontario Labour Relations Board, allowing Foodora couriers to vote on whether they’d join CUPW. Still, the fundamental question of what kind of workers they were hung in the air. The vote ended in mid-August, and the wait began for the matter to be determined by the board. In February 2020, the board released their decision, ruling that Foodora couriers are dependent contractors and thus able to unionize. But the results of the August vote are pending as a result of voter eligibility issues. If the couriers voted yes, the union could move to bargaining and Canada would have its first gig-economy union.
On a sweltering evening last summer, neither my wife nor I felt like cooking. It would have been a perfect day to order in. Instead, we walked to the tiny café around the corner from our house. Afterwards, we met up with friends and got ice cream at the hip new shop down the street. If this all sounds a bit like a Portlandia episode, okay, it kind of was. But it was also an illustration of community and commerce working well, of the way a city can feel like a village. When I saw a lone Foodster pedalling by, I silently wished him well.
Next, find out what it’s like being a grocery store cashier during the pandemic.
© 2019, Jason McBride. From “The Secret Life of Food Couriers,” Toronto Life (September 25, 2019), torontolife.com