Battle of the Dark Kitchens: Why Deliveroo couriers combat covert cookeries

In mid-July, Deliveroo drivers and trade union activists blockaded the Deliveroo Editions (also known as “dark kitchens”) in Swiss Cottage.

Dark kitchens are small industrial units located in residential areas. Customers ordering from the app might think their food comes from high street restaurants. But frequently it´s actually produced in these industrial kitchen units. Drivers gather outside them waiting for orders to appear on their phones, ready to  deliver them to the customers. 

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has been organising among drivers in the Swiss Cottage kitchens for some months now. 

We demand better pay and conditions from the company. Drivers need to be paid at least £5 per drop, and £8 per double drop to make ends meet. Deliveroo must also treat them like human beings instead of machines. They have closed their on-site toilets, and prevented drivers congregating to socialise between drops. Imagine if your workplace closed the loos and locked the break room just to keep you working “more efficiently”!

These are all attempts from Deliveroo to punish workers that are becoming organised.

Driver networks v cyber capitalism 

Recently, London drivers joined their mainly cyclist colleagues of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain  (IWGB) in Nottingham and the IWW in Leeds blockading their respective kitchens. All branches have asked Deliveroo to end the ban that stops them from picking up deliveries from their respective kitchens. In Nottingham and Leeds the ban targets cyclists, while in London, motorcycle drivers are the ones suffering the ban.  

In London, Deliveroo cynically used sustainability as an excuse to repress the workers, who are overwhelmingly full-time motorcycle drivers. They never took any steps to become sustainable, until the union got together demanding better pay and conditions. After the action, all the drivers were suddenly banned and Deliveroo began pushing drivers to switch to their own electric mopeds.  The company would rent them to the drivers – making even more profit out of their work. Some of them have been picking up orders from the kitchen for years. All they received from Deliveroo was an email explaining that they were automatically banned from their main source of income. The company blamed the council for the decision. However, when the IWW contacted the local council they denied any such policy.

After the ban, Deliveroo didn´t have enough non-moped cyclists to pick up all its deliveries. Consequently, they had to give a considerable boost to attract enough cyclists from other areas. However, the month-long fee boost to cyclists also sought to sow division between cyclists and drivers. Fresh cyclists are less likely to join the drivers if they are the UK’s best paid Deliveroo cyclists. 

By banning drivers from the busiest pick-up point Deliveroo also dispersed them around dozens of restaurants. When drivers no longer meet in a single point communication and organisation becomes more difficult. Moreover, they don’t have enough orders from restaurants and they are really struggling to make ends meet.

How we beat Deliveroo’s union busting

During the previous protests we´ve held by the Editions, the company didn´t hesitate before removing them from the app. This made it impossible for customers to order from the kitchen. 

The protests themselves were a multilingual show of force.  There where Brazilian, Iranian, Bengali and Pakistani drivers, among other migrant drivers. Everyone protested side-by-side, demanding better pay and an end to the motorcycle ban. They mostly worked in the Belsize area or joined in solidarity from their usual areas in central London. Seeing that we would’t go away, the company shut down the kitchen completely and sent the kitchen workers home. Without orders to be picked up, no workers were tempted to break the Deliveroo shutdown.

However, the next day deliveries were sent to cyclists with the intention of creating conflict between cyclists and motorcycle drivers. Not many cyclists entered the kitchen to pick up orders. But this tactic from the company created a certain division between both groups. Reference to Leeds, where cyclists organised with IWW to blockade their kitchen, helped show that the enemy is management.

Not content with creating division among the workforce, Deliveroo also called the police to suppress our protest. Previously, cops paid little attention to our protests. But now they showed us whose side are they on. They sent three cars and threatened to remove us from the pavement. Fortunately, we were determined and numerous enough to stay in front of the kitchen until Deliveroo closed it completely.

The way forward?

A driver who joined all the previous protests told me: 

“We drivers knew that on Saturday Deliveroo was going to close the kitchen at 7pm [when the action started]. After the protest on the day before, they expected another action the next day. But some cyclists wanted to keep working, and told the manager they would resist against our shutdown. The manager, deliberately allowed them to work, which caused confusion, arguments and troubles!”

However, both union activists and drivers agree that, overall, we managed to hurt the company’s pockets. We resisted their union-busting strategies and gathered a multilingual migtant workforce to fight their poverty wages. 

Deliveroo made £64.3 million last year – an increase of over 5,000% from the year before! The company has many kitchens around London, and closing just one is not as effective as we’d like. Nevertheless, we set an example for the rest of the city and we are planning to expand very soon.

If you are a Deliveroo or UberEats driver working in London, or are interested in volunteering for the campaign, please do not hesitate to get in touch. Work conditions can change, but only when we work together.

To join or to get further information about the IWW’s work in London, go to https://iww.org.uk.

Victor García is the London Deliveroo Organiser with the IWW.

Photo credit: London IWW


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