COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

Freelance food delivery workers have largely had to make their own decisions about working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who are they? How has their work been affected, and how have they responded?

On Sunday 15 March at around 17:30, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced the closure of restaurants and bars as of 18:00 that same evening. I was out on the road riding for food delivery platform Deliveroo and had to pick up an order from the KFC in The Hague’s city centre a little past 18:00. When I arrived, the bouncer was in the process of making people leave the fast food restaurant and was preventing new guests from entering. He wasn’t planning on letting me in, either, until I showed him the order confirmation on my phone.

Meanwhile, a WhatsApp group for Deliveroo riders in The Hague was buzzing with activity as we tried to digest the announcement. An English-language news item summarising the prime minister’s announcement was shared. What would this mean for food delivery services, riders wondered? Many feared the worst. Indeed, already before 20:00 a first message appeared, informing other riders that another KFC restaurant in The Hague had also closed for deliveries.

Reflecting on this event a few weeks later, one rider recalled fearing that “my business was coming to a close”. Some started counting their savings and calculated for how long they could sit it out if deliveries came to a stop. A few other riders were more optimistic, though. One or two were even talking about an approaching ‘golden age’ if restaurants would remain open for deliveries only.

Staying, leaving, and getting back into it

A good number of those riding for Uber Eats and Deliveroo are highly educated migrants[1]. Platform-based food delivery work is relatively easy to get into—no knowledge of the Dutch language is required, the work is flexible, and the earnings can be good. Food delivery work is probably seldom the only reason why international riders come to or stay on in the Netherlands. Rather, it helps to realise other aspirations, including international education, generating funds for projects back home, while it also subsidises internships and pays the bills while riders look for jobs more in line with their education level.

Uncertainty about delivery work that for some is their main source of income and the health risks of doing this work in the times of COVID-19 led to at least one rider’s decision to leave the Netherlands when this was still possible, even though this meant going into a 17-day quarantine upon arrival back home.

Most riders stayed, often negotiating their decision transnationally. An Uber Eats rider from an Asian country was advised by his parents to stay in The Hague because back home many people were losing their jobs, including educated employees. Others had to put concerned families at ease who had read media reports about the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe. One way of doing this was by saying that the situation in The Hague wasn’t as bad as elsewhere in Europe and that they were permitted to carry on with their work because it was “classified as an essential service”[2].

An international student said he stopped riding initially when the partial lockdown was first announced because he was “kind-of terrified”. When he later learned that food delivery work was continuing, he resumed riding. “I found a way I could help during this confusing time by doing delivery work in my break time after sitting in my room alone for a long time with eyes glued on the laptop,” he said.

The COVID-19 crisis also affected some riders in unexpected ways. Collecting a ‘zoekjaar hoogopgeleiden’ permit (search year permit for highly educated migrants) at the Dutch Immigration Office (IND) proved difficult because its offices had closed. This affected some Uber Eats riders whose student visas had expired in the midst of the partial lockdown. Uber Eats then automatically deactivated their user accounts, and getting them to reopen them based on the documentation for their ‘zoekjaar’ permit[3] took many phone calls and led to various days without an income.

Making money while trying to stay safe

As freelance workers, it is largely riders’ own responsibility to stay safe. Both platform companies have implemented so-called ‘contact-free’ delivery procedures, but what this means differs from restaurant to restaurant and in terms of what is practically possible when delivering the food to customers’ homes.

Riders are very much aware that food delivery during the COVID-19 outbreak carries a risk. Especially in places where one knows things have been touched a lot by many different people (e.g. crowded student flats) and you have to touch that button or hold that door handle, “you know there is something wrong, but you have to [do it]”, one Deliveroo rider remarked. He tried to stay safe by using gloves when hand sanitising gel was hard to obtain and has been using a scarf that Deliveroo distributed as ‘free winterwear’ because the surgical masks available in the open market were disposable ones.

An Uber Eats rider echoed similar concerns and said “for me it [food delivery work] is not safe, but I try my best to make myself safe”. He did this as follows: “I always bring my kit [tissue, hand sanitiser, etc.], and keep distance”. His main concern was that he might pick up the virus and infect his housemates with whom he shares his accommodation: “if I go outside and get corona, they will get it, too”.

For Uber Eats riders, the first weeks of the partial lockdown were quite good financially. It was even referred to as a ‘golden age’ by one rider because of the temporary bonus schemes, such as getting an additional €5 after having completed four orders, and then an additional bonus for each subsequent order. For the Deliveroo riders, business has definitely been slower during the partial lockdown. One rider guessed that his earnings were probably down to half of what he usually makes, but he was hesitant to ascribe it to the COVID-19 crisis, as there were various other factors, too. Reflecting on the past few weeks, he concluded: “My job didn’t end, but it also did not turn out as good as I thought [that] it would. No!”

[1] The demographics of Thuisbezorgd, another food delivery platform, appear different. Another important difference is that Thuisbezorgd employs its riders and pays them an hourly wage, whereas Uber Eats and Deliveroo work with freelancers who are paid per order.
[2] The rider in question admitted he had not seen food delivery work listed as such, but he reasoned that “in my mind, I feel that people need to eat and if they order food, then this is essential”.
[3] Formally: ‘orientation year highly educated persons’.
Title Image Credit: Roy Huijsmans.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

Color 2 Roy HuijsmansAbout the author:

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS, and a Deliveroo rider.


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