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FLEX’s latest report highlights systemic issues experienced by couriers in the app-based delivery sector in the UK

November 25, 2021

If I could change anything about my job it would be everything. Higher pay, an hourly living wage and pay per delivery. Organisational structure which involves actually working with or for other people, as opposed to an algorithm. Being able to understand how said algorithm works. Not being pitted against restaurant staff by a company/business model which drives down restaurants’ profits as well as our pay. Entitlement to holiday pay and sick pay.

British-Japanese App-Based Courier, Survey response

Today FLEX publishes a new report on the experiences of workers in the UK app-based delivery sector. “The gig is up”: Participatory research with couriers in the UK app-based delivery sector is the third and final working paper in a series on the experiences and drivers of labour abuse and exploitation in three understudied low-paid sectors of the economy. The first two working papers in the series, on commercial cleaning and hospitality, were published earlier in 2021.

This latest publication focuses on the experiences of couriers in the app-based food and goods delivery sector in the UK. It investigates what issues couriers are facing at work, what change they would like to see, and the factors which may create risk of labour abuse and exploitation in the platform economy.

The report is based on research carried out by FLEX together with app-based couriers. It uses a feminist participatory action research (FPAR) approach where workers from the sector are involved as paid peer researchers throughout, enabling them to shape the research findings and recommendations. By involving couriers as researchers, this report seeks to bring the voices of people with lived experience to the forefront and include their perspectives in the policymaking process.


Our research found several concerning issues experienced by app-based couriers, with interview and focus group participants* and survey respondents** reporting the following:

  • Lack of access to rights: Research participants, the majority of whom were classed as self-employed, were concerned about not being entitled to key employment protections, such as sick pay, holiday pay, pension and National Insurance contributions. The majority of survey respondents (59%) had no access to financial support when ill or injured.
  • Low and unpredictable earnings: 63% of survey respondents earn below the national minimum wage based on self-reported earnings minus work-related expenses. Low pay was linked to unpaid wait and travel times between deliveries; numerous costs associated with the job, such as for equipment, fuel, and insurance; and being paid per ‘drop’ rather than hourly combined with over-recruitment.
  • Work-related violence: 82% of survey respondents had experienced violence at work, including being shouted or sworn at (59%), being threatened with physical violence (24%), having their vehicle stolen (24%) and being assaulted or attacked (20%). In addition, 57% of female and non-binary participants reported experiencing sexual harassment.

I feel unsafe all day every day because there are thieves on the street. They steal motorbikes. I’ve been in many situations, four situations, where they have tried to take my motorbike. One time they came to take my motorbike at a petrol station with a machete. […] I have a friend, he’s been attacked as well, with acid. It’s very unsafe.

Said, Algerian App-based Courier, Interview, 15 April 2021

Our analysis identified four key factors contributing to couriers experiencing these issues, and creating risk of labour abuse and exploitation:

  • One-sided flexibility and control. Though the platform companies promise couriers flexibility, we found that this was often limited in reality with couriers having to work at specific times and in specific locations to earn a decent living. Additionally, there is little transparency over how pay is calculated or what actions might lead to terminations, which pushes some workers to accept conditions and treatment they would otherwise denounce.
  • Subcontracting of risk. Being classed as self-employed means that couriers must carrying many of the risks and costs usually covered by employers, while losing out on key benefits meant to protect workers in case of illness, injury, and eventually old age. Platform companies are not legally responsible for couriers’ wages and conditions, but still have significant control over them.
  • Lack of proactive regulation. The UK legislative framework has not caught up with new forms of employment, including platform work, meaning that many of the issues couriers are experiencing are not in fact against the law though arguably they should be. There is a need for proactive regulation of the sector by the government, which has so far relied instead on individuals bringing cases to Employment Tribunals to clarify the law.
  • Vulnerability created by immigration policy. Migrant workers are overrepresented in platform work in part because they face barriers to accessing better protected and regulated work and financial safety nets. Some of these barriers stem from restrictive immigration policies that limit people’s options and ability to push back against the erosion of employment standards.

Reimagining employment relations: decent work in the platform economy

This report provides evidence of a sector where decent work standards are not being met. Many of our research participants described issues that would be considered as labour abuse in any other sector but which, given the inadequacy of the current legislative framework, cannot be considered as such when it comes to platform work.

The sector continues to grow, with more and more people taking up some form of platform work. However, so far what we have seen is a sector not up to standard, with our research showing couriers unable to access key employment rights, earning under the minimum wage, and experiencing dangerous working conditions including verbal and physical abuse and sexual harassment.

With so many people moving into this type of work, platforms should consider how they can offer better protection and security to workers. There is room to build effective resilience to exploitation, but for this to happen the government needs to step up and take a proactive role in regulating the sector and enforcing existing legislation. Couriers involved in the research called for the following:

The companies can’t continue to use loopholes to misclassify us as self-employed as they currently are – they should be held accountable and meet their responsibilities and give us rights and protections of workers.

Survey response, British App-based Courier

 We need basic rights like a minimum wage and transparency over our work status and termination.

Survey response, British App-Based Courier

It is crucial that the solutions taken forward to address labour abuses and risk of exploitation in the sector are informed by those most affected by them. Couriers have a wealth of knowledge and insight about the factors contributing to and driving risk of labour abuse and exploitation in the app-based delivery sector, and we hope that by shedding light on these matters we will start to see meaningful change on the ground.

Read the full report here.

This project is supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

* In total, 27 couriers engaged in the research through interviews and focus groups.

** The survey ran in two languages (English and Portuguese) and reached 49 participants from 19 different nationality groups. Migrants accounted for 62% of respondents.