Abdul Khan has a dream. He wants to own a farm, or maybe a zoo. He will keep rabbits, sheep, cows, dogs, cats, horses and pigeons. There will be a guesthouse that he can rent out to tourists. He doesn’t mind where the farm is – in the UK or back home in Pakistan – as long as there is room for his animals. “I love all the animals,” he says. “Farming is a dream life. I would love it.”
For now, Khan (not his real name) works in London as a courier for a delivery app. Khan, who is in his early 30s, didn’t expect to end up couriering. His plan was always to set up a business. He is a natural entrepreneur. When he was at school in Pakistan, he bought sandwiches and sold them for profit at a market. When he was studying business management, he sold sim cards at a train station. He was good at it – and it is not hard to see why. Khan is charming and charismatic, the sort of person who – as his mother-in-law always tells him – could sell sand to Arabs and ice to Inuit.
By 2019, after working in retail for nearly a decade, Khan had saved enough money to buy a hot food van. He planned to sell Pakistani street food at markets in London and burgers and chips on sunny days at beaches on the south coast. He bought all the equipment and did work experience with friends who owned street food vans. He did test runs. A south coast resort on a rainy day was a bust – he made only £20 – but when it was sunny he made £2,000 in four hours. He would have made even more money, but he ran out of food.
By the end of the year, the business seemed viable. Khan had applied for all the permits and identified where he wanted to trade. He had saved enough money to live on until it was profitable. He went on holiday, to visit family, and returned in February 2020, ready to knuckle down.
Then Covid hit. Khan spent all his savings on rent and living costs. He was ineligible for government assistance, as he hadn’t been trading long enough, and for months he was unable to take the van out to earn money. “The pandemic killed me,” he says.
So, out of necessity, Khan works as a courier. He has six people to support. His wife has health problems and has to look after their two young children, so can’t work. His parents in Pakistan are elderly and frail. Khan sends them money every month. He is an only child, so there is no one to share the load.
“I hate running the kitchen,” says Khan, using a Pakistani colloquialism that means paying your household expenses. “I can do much better. But I have to provide.”
A pot of chewing gum rattles around in the cup holder of his hybrid car; Khan often skips lunch to keep working, so he chews gum to stave off hunger pangs. He has two phones: one plugged to his dashboard, which he uses as a satnav, and one that he uses to select jobs via the company’s app and liaise with customers. The second phone pings constantly with notifications that are like sound effects on a video game.
Every morning, Khan logs into the app. It has a bulletin board listing all the available jobs for that day. Khan scans the app, looking to cluster similar postcodes and create an efficient and maximally profitable route. The key is to find the biting point between postcodes and job value. On a good day, Khan will collect a bunch of packages from N5, say, and drop off all of them in SW9, say, and all of these jobs will be high-value, at £15 or £20 each. (It is rare for an inner-London rate to be higher than £25 a delivery. “That is very much a glorious job,” says Khan.)
It is more complicated than it sounds. For starters, Khan needs to make sure all the packages will fit in his car. He picks up all sorts of things routinely: supermarket shopping, restaurant equipment, medical equipment, electronics, children’s toys, single packs of cigarettes. He needs to be sure that he will be able to collect and drop off the items within the set timeframe, with minimal waiting. He needs to consider whether the order value is worth incurring central London’s congestion charge. He needs to assess whether the rate being offered reflects his fuel costs and the amount of time he may spend in traffic. “Time and effort and fuel and price,” says Khan. “You take everything into consideration and weigh up the job. Is it worth it?” Khan has only seconds to decide before another driver selects his preferred job from the board. It is a hasty calculus, with financially devastating consequences if he gets it wrong.
Early November. Work is slow. Khan starts at 9am and finishes at 6pm. In that time, he says he makes £103, which sounds acceptable, until you subtract the congestion charge (£15) and the cost of Khan’s fuel (£25). If his figures are correct, he seems to have made just £7 an hour, which is well below the legal minimum wage of £8.91 an hour.
In fact, it works out at even less than £7 an hour, because of all his other costs. Khan owns his car, but he has to pay for insurance (£2,300 a year, paid in monthly instalments) and services (£210, payable each six months), plus new brake pads (£315 a year) and tyres (£320 a year).
This is despite the fact that the platform for which Khan drives has pledged to pay all its drivers the living wage. Khan says, when his costs are accounted for, it can be hard to make the minimum wage. “It is hard for me to pay my rent and put food on the table right now for my family,” he says. Fuel prices have been increasing all year, which is hurting self‑employed drivers such as Khan. “It’s really difficult when they’re not increasing your pay,” he says. “Petrol has gone up too much.”
He used to pay £1.14 a litre. Now, it is closer to £1.45 – an increase of 27%. In January, UK inflation hit a 10-year high. Food prices are soaring. Khan tries not to think about the mounting cost-of-living crisis and how bad things might get. “I need to put myself into what I want to achieve,” says Khan. To stay afloat, Khan works between 50 and 60 hours a week.
Khan is classified as a self-employed independent contractor, meaning that he has no employment rights, is not entitled to the legal minimum wage and does not receive sick pay, a pension or annual leave. Instead, he is paid only for each drop. There is no compensation for his travel time to collect the parcel, his waiting time (unless the client exceeds the prescribed collection window) or the time he spends stuck in traffic or lost.
In the view of Alex Marshall of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents gig-economy workers, “these apps bogusly classify workers as independent contractors”. A true independent contractor, Marshall says, is “someone who comes around and offers a quote for a job, like a plumber, and decides if and when they want to work”. Marshall says someone such as Khan, who is reliant on the app for his income and is powerless to negotiate his salary, should be classified as a worker and be eligible for annual leave, the minimum wage and other benefits. But the apps exploit loopholes in legislation. “There is minimal employment regulation enforcement in this country,” says Marshall.
In March last year, the UK supreme court dismissed an appeal by Uber against a landmark employment tribunal ruling that its drivers should be classed as workers. At the time, it was hailed as a breakthrough that could put pressure on other gig-economy firms to change tack, but many say little has changed in practice.
Delivery is not, historically, an industry with large profit margins. “The only way it can be profitable is if you underpay the person who is the courier, by not treating them as an employee, by not paying taxes, by not paying their insurance, by refusing to give them sick pay or cover them if they have an accident or train them,” says Prof Annabelle Gawer, the director of the Centre of Digital Economy at the University of Surrey. “That is where the ‘savings’ are coming from.”
By the first week of December, Khan’s financial situation is dire. He had to return to Pakistan for family reasons. His cousin wanted to marry a woman from a different community and it was causing problems. Khan smoothed things out; they got married. Only Khan could have done it. “You know that one character in your family who controls everyone?” he says, laughing. “That’s me. People listen. I said to them: ‘Come on now! We’re living in the 21st century.’” Normally, Khan would pay for flights back to Pakistan in instalments, but because the situation was urgent he had to front the cost, £470, in full.
Luckily, work is busy. Khan leaves home at 9am, then picks up and drops off 11 parcels. “I was everywhere,” he says. Horley in Surrey, Wembley in north-west London, Greenwich in the south-east of the city. Because he is so busy, he eats lunch late, at around 4pm – a wrap from a chicken shop. “If you stop for half an hour to take a break, it delays everything,” he says. “You are losing money.”
Khan has always been a grafter. When he worked in retail, he would sometimes come in on his day off, for free. He learned how to cash up – counting and recording the money taken from the till – even though this was above his pay grade. He progressed from shelf stacker to team leader to deputy manager to store manager. “I love to learn things,” he says. “This is why I got progress.” With his experience, he could easily go back to the shop floor, but because some of his family have medical conditions Khan wants the flexibility to take them to their hospital appointments.
As he is driving, Khan listens to talk radio. James O’Brien on LBC is his favourite. He is not so sure about the station’s outspoken presenter Maajid Nawaz (who has since left). “Sometimes I love him and sometimes I hate him,” says Khan. He speaks to his mum and dad on the phone. After 12 years of living in the UK, his mum still asks him the same question every time Khan calls: what did he have for dinner last night? Khan considers ringing his newly married cousin, but he doesn’t want to disturb his conjugal bliss.
After 200 miles and a 13-hour shift, Khan gets home at 10pm. He attends to his animals: dogs, a tank full of fish and a parrot. They get only the best: Royal Canin food for the dogs, which he supplements with fresh chicken, tuna and sardines; nuts for the parrot. The fish tank, meanwhile, needs to be heated to 30C. His wife has waited up for him, so they eat dinner together, which makes Khan happy, as he hates eating alone. Afterwards, he checks his app. He has made £250, although he believes it is closer to £130 after costs.
In the second week of December, the pre-Christmas rush picks up. It is the busiest time of the year for couriers. At 9am, he picks up a job heading into central London – a smart move, because he knows he will be able to pick up other jobs while he is there. At 7pm, he is almost ready to come home when he sees a job going – to Brighton – for £60. Khan is already heading that way, as he has a drop off in Crawley, West Sussex. By the time he gets home, it is 12.30am. For his fifteen and a half hour day, he earns £208.
“These companies operate in ways that are hyperexploitative,” says Marshall. “People aren’t making the minimum wage and they’re running around like headless chickens.”
Khan’s wife has waited up for him, as usual. They eat dinner and she goes to bed, but Khan stays awake, going through the paperwork on his outstanding parking tickets. He has three fines, totalling £600. “The tickets are really, really stressful,” he says.
Urban planning is not designed for car couriers. “If anyone can be a courier, that means that, theoretically, any number of cars can be on the road at any time,” says Dr Oliver Bates of Lancaster University. “Are these platforms talking with city planners about the need for drop-off and collection points? Or are we just building new blocks of flats in areas with double-yellow lines all over the place? Because these are the people who, through the pandemic, risked their health to bring us food and consumer goods. I wonder whether cities take account of that.”
Khan always appeals his tickets, but two of his appeals have been rejected, so he has no choice but to pay them: £260.
Christmas week. Khan is working furiously, partly to pay for the parking tickets, but also because he knows his work will dry up in the post-Christmas slump. “It’s always less busy in January,” he says. “People spend so much money on Christmas and new year.” Cab drivers also log on to courier apps to pick up some jobs, meaning there are more drivers than work to go around.
Khan picks up a job, collecting from a restaurant in east London and going to south-west London, for £20. It has been booked into the system as a 5kg job, but when Khan arrives he sees that it is actually a large number of much heavier items. He refuses the job. “I’m not having it,” he says. “It’s not right. It’s not worth it.”
Khan should receive a small cancellation fee, because the order was incorrectly booked on the system. But to try to weasel out of paying it, someone has claimed that Khan was rude and chose not to take the job. After arguing about it all day, Khan eventually gets paid the cancellation fee.
The decision went his way, this time, but, as an independent contractor, Khan has no rights. He can’t make the app pay him a cancellation fee and he can’t query or negotiate the rates it offers. The only power Khan has is to accept or reject jobs that are offered to him, which, when times are lean, isn’t much power at all.
“How many other jobs do you have where your rate of pay is changing in front of your eyes and there’s no minimum standard, or transparency about how you get paid and how they calculate it?” says Marshall. “You take what you’re given and it’s yes or no. They think the freedom is that you can say yes or no. Like it or lump it. But that’s not freedom. These apps prey on people’s desperation.”
Work is slow the week after Christmas. Khan takes a job he would ordinarily avoid: picking up groceries from a supermarket and dropping them at someone’s house. For this, the app will pay him £10. He arrives at the shop and contemplates the order. There are 14 crates of shopping to be delivered to a third‑floor flat. Khan isn’t allowed to take the crates with him, only the plastic bags. He calculates that it will take him an hour and a half to load the bags into his car, drive to the block of flats and carry up the bags. “It’s too much,” he says. “It’s not worth it for £10. I’m not doing it for that.” He rejects the order at the supermarket, meaning that he travelled there for nothing.
Khan is used to delivering groceries: before he began working for his current app in November 2021, he drove for another delivery company, which included delivering for a major supermarket. Khan earned more money then: the company had a minimum income guarantee and he sometimes earned £15 an hour. He worked hard for it, delivering groceries throughout the pandemic, sometimes even sleeping in his car at night because he finished work late and had a shift in the morning. He wanted to keep driving for the company, but the work dried up.
Khan tries to help fellow drivers. He has been involved in helping drivers come together to lobby their bosses for better pay. Gig-economy workers are often migrant workers of colour. “Most don’t speak English as a first language,” says Marshall. “They are indoctrinated to believe they are lucky to have any job at all in a society that constantly says they are unskilled workers.”
When Khan was at school, he helped organise pupils in a campaign to get air conditioning in classrooms. The staff room had air conditioning: it wasn’t fair. After a year and a half of organising, which included direct action – the boys unplugged the teachers’ air conditioning unit – they were victorious. “I don’t know why I’m like this,” says Khan. “I can’t handle something being wrong.”
A few days later, Khan is at one of his regular pickup spots, a warehouse in south-west London. He is friendly with the client and they get to griping about the cost of living. Fuel prices keep increasing. Khan is now paying £1.55 a litre. The client tells him that the app has put its rates up. Khan is incensed, because his pay has not gone up. “The company increases the cost to the customer, but they are not paying us proper money,” he says.
A few days before new year, Khan leaves home at 9.15am and drives to his first booking, a bijou party store in south London. He has been booked to collect two packages of inflated balloons and drop them at two separate addresses in north London, for £23. He arrives at 9.55am. The package can be collected at any time from 10am.
His phone goes. The client tells him that he can’t collect until 10.20am. Khan remonstrates with her, pointing out that she booked the delivery for 10am. “I don’t have it ready,” she responds. In the end, the balloons aren’t ready until 10.40am, at which point he drives away with them bobbing on the backseat.
As customers go, Khan is used to worse. “Sometimes they are really rude,” he says. When he gets lost and asks for directions, they’re dismissive and won’t help. “They say: ‘I don’t know! This is your job. You should find it.’” If Khan asks them to come out to collect a parcel, because there is nowhere for him to park without getting a ticket, they refuse. “They say: ‘It’s not my problem. You shouldn’t have taken this job.’”
Previously, the disrespect would grind Khan down. “It used to annoy me too much, but now I’m used to it,” he says. “What can you do? Argue with them? Then they give you a bad rating and you’re not going to get more jobs.”
The rest of the day is quiet. He drops off the last of the balloons at a multimillion-pound townhouse. He carries a laptop to the seventh floor of a building and returns to his car, out-of-breath and worried that he will have been given a parking ticket. (He hasn’t.) He collects boxes of food that makes his car smell of tomato and garlic from a catering business. He drops off his final package in central London just after 3pm and hangs around for a bit, to see if there are any other jobs. There aren’t, so he goes home.
He calculates he has earned £75 before expenses. It is not enough. “Now, if I don’t work, I have no money for next week. How am I going to pay my bills?” he says. “I’ve never been in this position before.” He says this matter-of-factly, without a shred of self-pity. He makes just £306 all week, before expenses.
The first week of January, things are dead. “Not too much work nowadays,” Khan says. “Not good. Struggling time.” He earns £252 in a week, before expenses. “It’s nothing,” he says. “Not even paying my bills.”
Khan has one good day during the second week of January. He makes £152, driving from Lewisham in south London to Wembley, then central London, Wimbledon in south-west London and Horsham, West Sussex. But it is a one-off; the other days are slow.
To save on having to heat his car, Khan stays at home, constantly checking to see if anything half‑decent has come in. There are plenty of supermarket pickup jobs, but it is not worth it for £6. “The whole job will take one hour, and I’m not even making £6 an hour, after car costs,” he says. “Will be more like £2 to £3. What’s the point?”
Khan and his wife have decided it is best that he sells some of his animals. The parrot, the fish and one of the dogs. He can’t afford to keep them. Heating the fish tank adds to the electricity bill. Each dog eats half a kilo of food a day. The parrot needs nuts to snack on and toys for stimulation.
“Obviously, it’s not nice,” he says, his voice totally flat. “But if I can’t afford it, what can I do? They deserve a better life. I need to provide for my children.” Letting one of his beloved dogs go will be unbearable. “It’s hard,” he says, after a big pause. “It’s hard. Really sad.”
He wonders if there is any other work he can do until things pick up. Gardening? Odd jobs? He is endeavouring, as always, to maintain a serene outlook. “By stressing out, you won’t get jobs,” he says. “There’s nothing to be stressed about. Stress won’t solve the problem.”
For now, he sits at home, waits, refreshes the app. He worries about how he will pay his rent and bills, send money to his parents, save enough to get his catering business going again, make it profitable enough to buy his farm. Of his dream, he says: “Let’s see if it ever comes.”