The click of the mouse. The ring of the doorbell. The handover of the parcel, often containing something you hadn’t even chosen 24 hours ago.
That’s the extent of the online shopping experience for many of us. We see something we like, we hit ‘buy’ and we expect whatever it is we’ve ordered to arrive promptly.
Increasingly, we also expect it to be delivered free of charge, with 58% of shoppers saying this would make them more likely to choose a particular retailer according to a 2021 study by Brightpearl and Parcel Hub.
Amazon is the trendsetter when it comes to the rise of so-called rapid retail. The corporate giant offers its Prime customers ‘free’ one-day delivery as standard (although Prime membership costs £7.99 a month, or £79 a year) thanks to a combination of centrally located urban sort centres, a sophisticated in-house logistics network and a fleet of casually employed delivery drivers.
I went undercover at an Amazon warehouse in 2016 as part of the research for my book, Hired, and saw firsthand the cost of our appetite for cheap items.
Amazon’s supply chain can seem opaque from the vantage point of the consumer. Yet while working as a picker in one of its vast fulfillment centres, I worked alongside people who were under such pressure they were afraid to take toilet breaks.
Ultimately, it felt as if some of the costs of Amazon’s precipitous growth had been offloaded onto its workforce.
I wanted to know whether this was also true of the delivery sector. Has our appetite for super-fast delivery made things worse for the drivers fulfilling our online orders? To find out, I arranged to spend the day with an Evri (formely Hermes) delivery driver in the seaside town of Whitby in Yorkshire.
On the road I’m helping to load parcels into Dave’s* van. I’ll be spending the day with Dave, who’s worked as an Evri driver for 28 years and is also a GMB union rep, as he navigates the roads in a van packed with parcels.
We meet at Dave’s place at 10am. Like most drivers, Dave is self-employed so, in theory, he can start work at a time of his own choosing – but in reality, it doesn’t work like that. Instead, Dave must wait for a lorry to drop off his parcels before he can start work. And it doesn’t always turn up on time.
Today it arrived on time at 10am. But sometimes it’s not until the afternoon. Evri expects Dave to take his van out and deliver the parcels regardless. ‘It expects us to work until we’re finished,’ he tells me. Although, under a recent agreement negotiated by Evri and the GMB union, SE+ (self-employed plus), couriers can claim an extra payment when this happens.
In 2018, a group of Evri couriers won the right to be treated as workers instead of independent contractors. An employment tribunal ruled that the couriers involved in the case were entitled to the minimum wage and paid annual leave. Yet the ruling only applied to the 64 couriers who took the company to the tribunal. The rest of the workforce were left out on a limb.
Until recently, that is. In his role as a GMB rep, Dave was one of those involved in the 2018 case. In January 2019, he and others in the union persuaded Evri to extend the benefits won in the tribunal to any couriers who wished to be categorised as SE+. The GMB estimates that more than 70% of Evri couriers became SE+ couriers in the months that followed.
‘[We] sat down with the company and said, look, this proves your model isn’t the self-employed model,’ Dave tells me. ‘So now we’ve negotiated workers’ rights for 20,000-odd couriers. Which gives them exactly the same rights – [such as] paid holiday – that we get.’
There is a trade-off, though. Couriers who sign up to SE+ no longer receive the premium rates of pay available to those who remain fully self-employed.
Before the parcels arrive with Dave, they must be sorted at a local delivery depot. Prior to that, they’re transported in an articulated lorry. Each stage of the journey costs time and money. But who pays for it?
‘Free’ delivery – an option offered by 85% of the UK’s top online retailers, according to 2021 research by Micro Biz Mag – ensures that the customer doesn’t pay for it directly, although it may be partly costed into the item or subscription price.
But I want to find out who else is picking up the tab. ‘I would say we [delivery drivers] shoulder part of that cost,’ Dave tells me as we load the last few parcels into his van that he believes that it’s delivery drivers’ pay rates that typically get cut first when delivery companies are looking to reduce costs.
When I put this to Evri it rejected Dave’s assessment. The firm told me that pay rates for the majority of SE+ couriers increased by 3.5% in 2021. Evri also says it’s committed to not reducing couriers’ rates.
I once worked for three years as a Royal Mail postie. The job of a delivery driver is superficially similar in many ways. They go from door to door, stop briefly while somebody answers, then dash to the next house.
But that’s where the similarities end. The full-time employed postal worker – with pension entitlements, regular hours and a statutory minimum wage – feels increasingly like a relic from another era. Evri’s SE+ couriers might receive these entitlements, but most of the men and women across the wider industry are employed on a casual basis. They form part of the ever-expanding ‘gig economy’ in which workers perform a fresh job each day (although Evri informs me that SE+ couriers have a similar delivery round each day).
The flexibility of gig work suits some people. But such jobs often lack the worker protections enjoyed by traditional salaried employees.
Dave is emphatic that he values the flexibility of the work he does for Evri, as it enables him to fit deliveries around family life and other commitments. ‘It’s the one thing we all like [about the job]. Today, I’ll probably be finishing in about two hours or so. But when I’m finished I can go home, do the garden, go for a walk or do whatever I want.’
There’s potential for e-commerce to be greener than high street retail: a 2020 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that carbon emissions from online shopping are, on average, 36% lower than those produced by in-store shopping.
But this emissions advantage is dependent on the number of trips a delivery courier is making. After all, if couriers are driving more miles with fewer packets, they’re also burning more fuel.
A recent study in Mexico’s Journal of Cleaner Production found that fast shipping increases CO2 emissions by up to 15%, on average. So next time you order from a retailer that offers the option not to have next-day delivery despite it being available, do consider using a slower delivery option for reduced CO2 emissions.
The GMB and Evri negotiating a middle way between self-employment and worker entitlements feels like the way forward for the delivery industry. Yet not all delivery firms are willing to sit down and work with trade unions.
As I discovered, the expansion of the gig economy has had a profound impact on all workers, far beyond those who work for companies such as Deliveroo and Uber. Since the rise of casual gig work, traditional businesses have had to compete with ‘disrupters’ who cut costs by offloading some of the business risk on to their workforce. This has created a race to the bottom in some industries. And as the world’s biggest retailer, Amazon undoubtedly influences other, smaller businesses when it comes to declining pay and exploitative conditions.
‘I think the likes of Amazon drive expectancy,’ Dave tells me as he eases the van down a winding cul-de-sac overlooking Whitby Harbour. ‘Everybody else has to speed up and stay with them, otherwise we [Evri] lose contracts.’
Many people have been trampled underfoot to help make Amazon owner Jeff Bezos one of the wealthiest men in the world. A study of safety data conducted by the Strategic Organizing Center, a coalition of labour unions in the States, found Amazon workers at US warehouses had 5.9 serious injuries per 100 people – almost 80% more than those doing similar jobs at other warehouses.
Amazon likes to boast of its ‘customer obsession’. However, as Shel Kaphan, Amazon’s first employee and someone Jeff Bezos once called ‘the most important person ever in the history of Amazon.com’ has pointed out, Amazon’s ‘customer obsession … might not be good for people who aren’t customers’.
This includes the people out on the streets delivering our parcels. The phrase ‘race to the bottom’ comes to mind as I’m talking with Dave. Amazon has helped to foster a level of consumer expectation. This is putting tremendous pressure on other companies to tighten the screws on its workforces to stay competitive.
‘What will Evri want this year?’ Dave asks. ‘How much further can they push it? We’ve got one-hour ETAs, we have to take photographs and we’re tracked. What’s the next step?’
When I put these comments to Evri, the company tells me that the one-hour ETA was agreed with the GMB union in 2021. The company also says that taking photographs was introduced at the beginning of the pandemic as part of a contactless delivery process to ensure that customers and couriers remain safe.
As he clambers back into the van after dropping off another parcel, Dave lets loose, describing the courier sector as a ‘cut-throat industry’.
‘If we say we’re delivering for £1, someone else will do it for 90p. And then someone else will do it for 80p. I think we’re easy pickings because we’re self-employed. Until the tribunal, it could have paid me 50p an hour because I had no minimum wage. Now we have a bit of protection, which is a huge step forward.’
Evri says it has a ‘long-standing fair pay commitment to pay all couriers at least [a] national living wage’.
Delivery drivers working for other firms often don’t have the same protections that Dave enjoys. The impact of this erosion of pay and conditions can also be felt by the customer, as overworked couriers leave orders unfulfilled.
A 2021 Which? survey found that general satisfaction levels across courier firms were good. Amazon Logistics had the best overall satisfaction rating at 90%. Evri had one of the lowest ratings at a still-impressive 82%, slightly above Yodel, which scored 80%.
Yet these averages mask individual horror stories, including one Which? member who had six experiences in a row of Evri , while supplying photos of entirely unrecognisable properties (the issue was resolved after Which? intervened). And busy periods can result in a real headache: separate Which? research found that half of shoppers .
When things go wrong it’s often couriers who shoulder the blame because they’re the only humans the consumer has any direct contact with throughout the process. Evri doesn’t even provide a telephone helpline for disgruntled customers.
‘People want to berate us because they haven’t got their next-day delivery,’ Dave tells me. And yet your first port of call if things do go wrong should be the retailer you bought from, as your legal contract is with them, rather than the delivery firm.
I came to Whitby to find out whether the normalisation of next-day delivery has made the job of delivering parcels harder for couriers. I put the question to Dave as he ought to know.
His answer is unequivocal: ‘Yes. Because we’re really monitored on the next-day stuff. And we get a lot more complaints on them because it’s a premium service.’
It’s not only customer attitudes that are changing. The rates of pay for delivery drivers have changed, too. Evri couriers were initially paid bonuses for next-day items within the required timeframe. But as next-day delivery has become ubiquitous across the sector, Dave believes these bonuses have been reduced. The ‘new normal’ for couriers is delivering items at a pace, which in the past would have earned them a tidy bonus, but without the added sweetener of a top-up in pay.
When I talk to Evri, though, it paints a different picture. According to the company, SE+ couriers have seen a 125% increase in their bonuses since 2013.
Dave says drivers are also being squeezed by the subscription-style delivery services shoppers can opt to pay for these days. An example of a company offering this is clothing retailer PrettyLittleThing (PLT), whose distinctive pink packets we’re carrying around in the back of the van. For just £9.99, PLT customers can sign up to become ‘Royalty’, entitling them to free delivery for a year. But this isn’t exclusive to PLT – several retailers are offering similar services in what is fast becoming an industry-wide trend.
‘Before, when you [the customer] were paying a delivery fee, you’d maybe bulk out your order a bit. You had to spend, say, £50 to qualify for free delivery – so you might think, I’ll buy something extra for a fiver just to get free delivery,’ says Dave. ‘[Now] you don’t have to. And that comes through to us.’
This is because the amount he earns is dependent on the weight of each parcel he delivers. Free delivery means, in effect, that Dave must deliver morsingle-item packets, equating to more work with little extra pay.
‘You’ll see us go miles out into the countryside for one packet and I don’t even get [paid] a pound for going. It’s not Evri that’s to blame, it’s the way people are shopping.’
The delivery of more single-item packets affects the environment, too. If Dave is driving more miles with more small packets, then he also burns more fuel. E-commerce has the potential to be greener than high street shopping. But, of course, this emissions advantage depends on the number of trips a delivery courier is making.
Before I went undercover at Amazon, I was clueless as to what went on behind the fascia of the company’s vast warehouses. Similarly, I hadn’t grasped the mechanics of next-day delivery until my time with Dave.
‘I think we need regulation within the industry [and] to do away with this misnomer for customers that the delivery is free,’ Dave tells me.
And if shoppers aren’t paying for delivery at the point of order and it’s not being costed into the item or a delivery subscription, someone further down the chain is paying the price.
The delivery industry creates thousands of jobs and there are aspects of the work that drivers value. But expectations of free next-day delivery are fuelling an industry-wide race to the bottom that comes with a human cost attached. This is keenly felt by the men and women buzzing around the windswept streets of Whitby this chilly February morning – and by tens of thousands of others doing the same work up and down the country.
‘A queen waits for no one’, a strapline on the PLT website proudly boasts, as it entices customers with a year of unlimited delivery for £9.99. And, yes, retailers may have decided to treat customers like royalty. But we – as a society – should probably resist the urge to treat the people who bring us our online orders like serfs.
Amazon said: ‘We’re hugely proud of the Amazon delivery service partner drivers who do such great work across the country. Drivers have a number of ways to share their suggestions and experiences, including escalating any challenges to Amazon through a 24/7 hotline.’ It added that it’s committed to ensuring that drivers are fairly compensated and treated with respect.
PrettyLittleThing said: ‘Like the majority of major retailers in the UK, we don’t own or operate our own logistics. Instead, we work with several global courier companies. Our partnerships with these companies are based on volume of parcels moved not the weight of parcel.’ It added that the claim that subscription services increase the number of single-item orders wasn’t supported by PrettyLittleThing’s own data.
James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of ‘Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain’.
*Name has been changed to protect Dave's identity
This article first appeared in May's Which? magazine