With restaurants closed and shopping hours drastically curtailed during Melbourne’s long coronavirus lockdown, ordering food to be delivered became a lifeline for many.
But the explosion in delivery services has highlighted the precarious nature of work in the gig economy, where workers often have no guaranteed hours, intermittent wages and worse conditions than permanent employees.
Kate (not her real name) began working as a driver in Melbourne in September when the fitness industry business she had been working in was shut down. She worked for Menulog, but the issues affecting those doing the deliveries are common across the industry. Here is an edited diary of her week trying to make ends meet with the city still in lockdown.
“DO NOT KNOCK. YOU WILL MAKE MY DOGS BARK WHICH WILL WAKE MY HUSBAND WHO DOES SHIFT WORK.”
This was the note attached to my first order of the day. I am always super quiet when I get something like that. I normally park a few houses away, drop off the order and then text them when I’ve dropped it off. The risk is the customer could claim they never got the SMS (or the food) or that they’ll make a complaint to MenuLog about you texting them, which made the dogs bark, which then woke the husband.
Too many complaints to MenuLog mean your account can be revoked. Revoked means no work. No work means no money.
After I’ve filled my car with petrol and bought a coffee, I’m down $48 for the day
I’ve had to learn a few tricks over the past seven months. That it’s OK to let some of your bills get high, just so long as you’re chipping away as best you can. That you can put your health insurance on hold for up to 12 months (but you won’t be able to use it). That car finance companies can be nice (they said I don’t have to make a payment until December). And when you take $10,000 from your super due to losing your job as a result of Covid-19, that money goes really fast.
I only got another three orders after the “my husband does shift work” house. And after I’ve filled my car with petrol and bought a coffee, I’m down $48 for the day. I’ve tried to stop thinking of it that way – I’ve had to learn to even it out over a month.
My first week’s pay was about $960 but has gone down quite substantially. In week two, it was $802 (before expenses), $684 the week after that, $361 the following week, $195 the week after that. And this week I’m sitting on $31.08. Or minus $48.
But given I’m not eligible for jobkeeper (I hadn’t been at my job long enough) and jobseeker is dropping, I had to do something – and that’s when I started MenuLog.
Tonight when I was waiting to pick up my order, I noticed that the restaurant was quite crowded. I think the maximum number of people that can be in a store now in Melbourne is eight.
I heard the manager shout: “All MenuLog drivers get outside NOW.” I looked around and much to my surprise they all started shuffling toward the door. When they weren’t going quick enough, the manager yelled again. I was disgusted with how these people had been spoken to.
The manager glared at me and that’s when I realised that I was also being spoken to because I am also a MenuLog driver. My order was ready in five minutes. The store where I was waiting is well known in the area for crime. It’s not somewhere you want to be when things go wrong, so I stood to the side of the doorway. I’d already planned what I was going to say to the manager if she yelled at me to get outside. It was at that point I realised she wouldn’t have cared anyway.
The first order I received today was from KFC. It had just passed 10am. I waited an hour for my next order, which was Subway, and it was going to a name I recognised. I’ve been delivering to them for the past four weeks. Coincidentally they always seem to get me.
It would be at least another hour until I get my next order. I felt a sense of panic as I was headed towards one of the many fish and chip shops in my area with the engine light flashing on my dash again. My mechanic said it’s going to be expensive to fix. Something to do with the diesel fuel injectors.? I was just trying to work out how on earth I’d make money without a car to drive if I didn’t get it fixed right away.
Thursday is when the schedule is released for the following week. I only get 12 hours automatically allocated to me and I then must pick the other ones up myself.
These are normally released at 3am so that’s when I have to get up. I’m exhausted from having done that over the last week, but I did manage to get 51 hours of work for next week. I’ll have to travel 20 minutes to get to one of the zones that I have three shifts in, but work is work.
When I’m dropping an order or walking through a dark carpark, safety is always at the back of my mind
The other way to get work is to look for “open runs”. You literally open the screen up and swipe constantly until a run pops up. If you’re lucky it will be yours – but 90% of the time someone has already claimed it as their own, so the chase starts again.
I’ve often spent a full hour a day swiping, looking for an extra shift. It gets to the point where your finger gets sore as you just swipe and swipe and swipe. You can often see others doing it as you wait for your order with desperation and disappointment in their eyes. It’s hard when you want to work, but so do hundreds of other people.
Fridays are normally really busy. I didn’t even get a chance to have much of a break.
I ran into Jacket Man (I don’t know his name but he wears a jacket, so he’s been dubbed Jacket Man) and he was telling me how he had to wait at a restaurant for 45 minutes earlier during the day. He was only reimbursed $5 for his time. I asked about his family (they live overseas) and he told me they were well. He works purely to send money back to his family and I admire that.
Like me, Jacket Man lost his job due to coronavirus. He was working in the hospitality industry and his family won’t survive without money. He wasn’t eligible for jobkeeper and he started driving as a way of paying the bills. He grabs his order (I’m glad he didn’t have to wait 45 minutes this time) and says goodbye before he heads off.
I don’t like to work past 9pm. I simply don’t feel safe. I’ve read stories about car jackings, drivers being hosed down because the order was wrong, drivers being robbed, bashed and verbally abused. Given the fact I’m a female, I have that added worry. And although it shouldn’t be like that, it’s very real to me. I often feel scared when I’m working. Whether it’s when I’m dropping someone’s order off or when I’m walking through a dark car park after picking up food, my safety is always at the back of my mind. I’d like to think I could take someone on if I had to, but I hope I don’t ever have to test that theory.
I am filled with guilt when I have a day off. I often spend time wondering if I’ve made enough money to cover the bills. I get the urge to jump online and see if I can get a shift. I look back at what I’ve made over the last week – $470 odd. That’s before expenses. I don’t make as much as I did since the curfew was lifted. I also received $438 that week from jobseeker, and $125 from family tax benefit.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried about how I’m going to afford Christmas this year, how I can pay for the things that need to be done to my car, or how I’ll afford to get new school uniforms for my kids.
I wasn’t earning a lot at my old job (about $550 a week) but at least I knew that I’d earn that regardless of how busy (or quiet) work got. MenuLog doesn’t work that way. But it’s better than nothing and if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be able to afford to live.
So next time your food is late keep in mind that your driver would have been reimbursed 5 cents a minute (if that) for waiting around. And at a lot of places they pick up from, they are treated no better than something you’d find on the bottom of your shoe. I could go into a store as a customer and be spoken to so nicely, but 10 minutes later go in as a driver with my big insulated bag and be treated like I’m worth absolutely nothing.
This job is not glamorous. It’s thankless and there is no legislation protecting any of us against bullying and harassment, or guaranteeing a minimum wage. Be nice to your driver – you may end up being one some day.