Working In The Chain Gang

Homeless charities are warning that millions of people are now only one paycheck away from homelessness. It’s a cold Monday night in Glasgow, and I’m talking to someone who hasn’t had a home to go to for months. It’s an existence of sofas and car seats. The guy sat on the other side of me is overdue his own rent, but talking about the things he wants to do to help other bike couriers, once he’s square.

It’s a strange life, this one. Spending days and nights on a bike, hustling. Delivering shit for other people. Being yelled at all day. And, in Glasgow, spending most of your time soaked through by rain. All for something somewhere below minimum wage. A new problem to solve every ten minutes. A fresh chance to get killed or maimed on the road. Each delivery comes with the risk that your bike -the one thing you need for your job- will be stolen in the brief time you’re away from it. Picking up from someone who, in a good moment on a good day, might treat you like a human being. Delivering to someone who might appreciate the athletic feat you’ve just accomplished.

(Side note/universal truth: People in the poorer areas of a city will tip far more regularly, and in a greater amounts, than the people in the richer parts. They understand the value of human effort, and its relationship to money.)

As a crime writer, I mix regularly in circles of people who talk about being social writers, about the ‘working class.’ We write books full of people who spend half the plot rationalising their outlaw lifestyles. The more you live and outlaw lifestyle, the clearer it becomes that rationalisation is a thing best left to those who have time for it. You do what you do, when you do it, to live.

‘Working Class.’

‘Working Class.’

‘Working Class.’

I don’t know. This phrase is getting used a lot at the moment. Writers, publishers, everyone wants to be seen to be doing their bit to encourage the ‘working class’ or to present their own bona fides as a member of this group. We’re all in a rush to show how we have a finger on the pulse, how we want to tell ‘their’ story. On this cold Monday evening, I’m looking round this circle of 30-odd bike couriers who’ve gathered to hang out, and the phrase ‘working class’ is ringing kind of hollow. Whose story is being told?

One of the strangest, Narnia-like hot takes for Brexit that I’ve been given lately, is that leaving the EU will make room for more migrant workers to come in from outside of the EU. From Africa, South America, China. And that, in turn, this influx will lead to racists becoming less racist. Because meeting workers from a foreign land will somehow make them see the error of their ways, after voting to expel workers from….foreign lands. To believe this, we need to live in a bubble where this isn’t already the case. Where migrant workers from all over the world aren’t already here, and exploited, and less than a paycheck from sheer desperation.

This is the level I’m living at, half the time. Couriers, waiters, kitchen staff, hotel porters, cleaners. On the bike, I’m working daily with people from Brazil, Ethiopia, Eritrea. They bust their ass, and yet they don’t seem to exist to people above a certain floor. And along with them, the people from here, the ones who’ve been left behind, or chosen to step off the path. The ones who can’t fit into the packaged version of a normal life, or have never had a real chance to get one.

The guy sitting across from me is from Ethiopia. He had a hell of summer. First, he was hit by a car in the Merchant City. Cleaned out completely. And the car was totally at fault, the driver deciding the best way to take a corner, was to veer so wide he crossed the lanes, ploughing straight into a cyclist waiting patiently at the junction. The only reason the cyclist wasn’t blamed, is because there is video proof. About two weeks after that, this guy got stabbed. Saw the blade coming, put his helmet in front of his face for protection, took the blade in the gut. Cycled to the hospital, got fixed up, back at work the next day. And somewhere around that time, he also had his bike stolen.

To the racists in this country, this guy is here to steal their taxes or jobs. Funny, I don’t see them out there on the bike, working fifteen hour days, delivering food for a level of pay they would laugh at. To a number of progressives in this country, he doesn’t yet exist. He’s something that will happen after Brexit, and his arrival will herald a new era of anti-racism. I look forward to him getting here.

There’s a lot of romanticised stuff written about bike couriers. Some of it is true. It is one of the last real outlaw existences that people can see in a city centre. Crazy people, with no bosses, taking stupid risks for no real pay. Spending your day out on a bike, instead of in an office, brings an amazing sense of freedom. In the very best moments, when you see a line open up in the traffic, and you truly open up your legs and show what you can do, it’s the best job in the world. On your worst days, at 10pm on a wet October in Glasgow, when you’ve been soaked to the soul all day, and have to stand and change a tyre in darkness, it’s…..still a great job. When you wake up the morning after a long shift, and find out your legs won’t be waking up for another four hours, it can be more of a soul crushing existence.

Compared to some of the other types of work we don’t really talk about, it’s an amazing job. I’ve done my time in call centres. When we talk of ‘working class’ people and normal jobs, we tend to throw around phrases like ‘9 to 5.’ But 9 to 5 is really the privileged preserve of people in good office jobs. If you’re a call centre worker, you’re on tap for a whole range of ever changing shifts, including weekends, for which nobody in politics seems to have your back. I talk to so many lefties, and listen to Labour -my natural home- talking about bringing back industrialisation, of unionising these mythical workers. It’s a shining vision of the past. The working people who need help are being systematically dehumanised in call centres, retail parks, and warehouses across the country. Start getting protection and rights for them. My time in a call centre almost drove me mad, and certainly stripped away layers of humanity and self-worth.

Compared to that, working as a bike courier is just about the most humanising thing you an do. In a world full of shitty working conditions, it’s a chance to rebel, to insist on carving out some space to be yourself and work your own rules, dress your own way, live your own life. To value your own body and spirit every single day, as you achieve small slices of the impossible just to get a fucking box of chicken nuggets to someone. It’s an insistence that we will be human, even in an app-based industry that doesn’t see us that way.

But put the romance aside, and think about the people who tend to work in these jobs. People who are new to the country, people who were born here but have never seen a chance at anything else. People with ADD, people with dyslexia. People with dependency issues that keep them from holding down the mythic 9-5 or the crazy call centre shifts. Sure, you get some students earning beer money, maybe even a novelist, but don’t follow the overriding narrative that these are the majority. Don’t be fooled into caring less about bike couriers based on the fact that a small percentage of them are just earning a little extra cash.

A week ago, Glasgow couriers went on strike. Protesting the pay conditions imposed by one of the cities main delivery companies. Their demands were humble. A minimum of £4.00 per delivery. That is, the person who brings you your dinner, is asking to be paid at least £4.00 for the effort. This isn’t currently the case. Many times, that person might be earning closer to £3 for your trip. Possibly occasionally £2.80. A minimum of £4.00 makes it feasible to at least hit minimum wage for a consistent run of hours. And ‘minimum wage’ is a lie in itself, when it comes to courier work. Minimum wage for a shitty call centre, or a shop, will include entitlements to sick pay, holiday pay. It includes the understanding that there will be times you’ll be paid even when you’re not working. Bike couriers get none of this. Factor that in, and a minimum wage for a bike courier should be looking closer to £12.00 or £15.00.

In raising awareness of this issue online, I heard from a freelance artist who probably considers himself an ethical left wing white knight, whose answer was that the couriers should go get other jobs. Cool story bro, thanks for your input.

Who cares about this small community of people? Probably not you, because they’re cyclists. And you hate cyclists. You can’t really explain why. You just do. If pressed you’ll come out with the same tired cliches that don’t stand up to logic or scrutiny, but deep down, you’re just conditioned not to like them. Just as you’re conditioned not to think about the person working in the hotel basement, the person working in the kitchen, the person cleaning up after you. Just as your conversations about ‘working class’ will tend towards focusing in on arguments about the divide between the working and middle class, and who has or hasn’t sold out, and what more can be done to increase mobility from one to the other. Let’s all keep our eyes averted from the people who don’t even qualify for the conversation in the first place.