GMB union’s 2022 “Voluntary Partnership Agreement” with Deliveroo was conspicuously absent from coverage of the UK Supreme Court case which ruled against the IWGB union in their fight for statutory recognition and “limb b” worker status for Deliveroo riders last November. GMB were equally absent from the coverage of the recent Valentine’s Day strike, organised by the grassroots group Delivery Job UK. In both cases, GMB were seemingly not asked to comment by any outlet; when they were mentioned it was as a mere footnote. With this in mind it’s worth asking, in the almost two years since the Voluntary Partnership Agreement was signed, what has GMB achieved for Deliveroo riders? And has Deliveroo changed at all?

As you can imagine, the landscape for trade unions in the gig economy is less than hospitable. Trade union membership in the private sector fell to its lowest level on record in 2022. Neither of the IWGB or GMB have a significant number of Deliveroo riders as members. In their 2022 Annual Return, the IWGB said they had 6,616 members (not all of whom will be Deliveroo riders). For context Deliveroo say they have 50,000 riders (though the number of those who are actually active is less clear). Although I spoke to GMB for this article, they did not respond to my question on what level of membership growth they had seen since their deal with Deliveroo was struck. Delivery Job UK said that the response to a letter from GMB, emailed to Deliveroo riders by Deliveroo, which said they “are the trade union for Deliveroo riders” was “Who the f— are these guys? We’ve never heard of them or been approached by them.” 

Delivery Job UK says they have around four thousand people in their Whatsapp groups – although of course there is a huge difference between being a member of a Whatsapp group and a trade union. In 2022 the IWGB condemned GMB’s deal with Deliveroo as “a cynical PR move”, and told me last year that none of their members had ever met a Deliveroo rider who is a GMB member.

The boom takeaway couriers saw during the coronavirus pandemic has slowed significantly due to high interest rates hardening the previously fluid relationship tech firms had with debt, and the cost of living crisis dampening demand. Uber has warned new EU legislation could force it to close down in hundreds of cities and raise prices by forty percent in others. Deliveroo continues to occupy a precarious position within the gig economy as they are still heavily in the red, with the firm only expected to post its first statutory profits in 2025.

Deliveroo, once a company which boasted that it would give its riders more rights if the law was changed in a way which protected their “flexibility” responded to such changes to employment law in Spain in 2021 by ceasing operations entirely. Deliveroo also pulled out of Australia and The Netherlands citing lack of profitability. This lack of profitability and precarious long-term position did not stop Deliveroo dishing out an extra £250m to their shareholders. It is however unlikely that if UK employment law was changed Deliveroo would cease operations, as the UK is its largest market. Though it does demonstrate that Deliveroo is concerned only with what will increase its share price. Sacking nine percent of its corporate workforce, as they did in February last year, is another example of their ruthlessness. So, given GMB’s lack of membership density, what can they hope to achieve via their Voluntary Partnership Agreement with Deliveroo?

According to GMB’s Deliveroo Noticeboard the union has held two Joint Partnership Council meetings with Deliveroo since the deal was signed in May 2022. Due to the general lack of decent industrial relations reporting, information on what else GMB are doing in Deliveroo is hard to come by. The Noticeboard’s first entry states that “Through GMB’s agreement with Deliveroo, riders now have access to: Sick pay for riders for 2 weeks – currently at £245 per week”, and lists other benefits they say their deal provides to riders. Deliveroo’s sick pay scheme was in fact set up at the beginning of the pandemic. GMB did not respond when asked to comment on this. 

When it was announced, the Voluntary Partnership Agreement said GMB would: “have rights to collective bargaining on pay and consultation rights on benefits and other issues, including riders’ health, safety and wellbeing”. I asked Tom Warnett, GMB National Lead for Deliveroo, how Deliveroo responded when the issue of pay was raised in their meetings with Deliveroo, and what GMB’s deal had achieved since it was signed:

We’ve had meetings of the Joint Partnership Council from late 2022 and through 2023. Pay is undoubtedly the main priority for members. Members also want to see action from Deliveroo on restaurant waiting times and the way that riders are treated.  We’ve made progress on waiting times, which are coming down and where there is now more accountability. Similarly, on respect in restaurants, we’ve had progress and now have a tool where members can collectively submit calls for investigation. On pay, Minimum pay levels will increase in April, but we still think there is a lot more that can be done.

Fundamentally, it is Deliveroo riders who are delivering change for themselves. Through their reps they now have a seat at the table and are able to bring the voice of riders to senior executives of the company. That has led to the successes above. We’ve also been able to make some changes to improve the rider experience of using the app.  We’ve represented members and won cases on account terminations and access to rider benefits and as the union grows and more reps come on board, this will only increase. All GMB members have got access to the infrastructure of the union and know that they will have someone in their corner if they run into problems.

(This response was given prior to the Valentine’s Day strike)

GMB’s Deliveroo deal should be seen in the context of its agreements with Uber and Evri (formerly Hermes). The GMB-Deliveroo deal’s lack of a headline benefit for Deliveroo riders beyond representation was, and remains, instructive to GMB’s bargaining position (or lack thereof) with Deliveroo. With Uber, drivers must attend “Greenlight Hubs” when starting out in order to activate their account; where GMB, as part of their agreement as the recognised union for Uber drivers, has a presence. No equivalent exists for Deliveroo, meaning work is more atomised and organisation is more challenging. Warnett explains:

There’s no fixed workplace or shift pattern, riders are on the go, for many it’s not the main source of income and there are multiple apps to work on. In Uber thousands and thousands of private hire drivers are getting involved in the union.The difference is that there are high costs of entry to become a private hire driver (the high cost of vehicle lease, insurance, personal licence, etc.) and in many local authorities you’re tied to one operator. As well as joining to make work better at Uber, people are joining to protect their income. In Deliveroo, we are dealing with an industry that has always been causal and as a result, there is far less of a history of unionisation than other areas. That makes it a challenge.

On what legislation needs to change in GMB’s view in regards to the gig economy, Warnett said:

That’s a big question. Our members want to maintain flexibility where it is genuine. Most don’t want employee status as it currently exists, where hours of work can be dictated by managers. Flexibility is meaningless, though, if it is not possible to earn a decent living, take time off or afford to get sick. Across the board, pay should be negotiated and set at levels which reflect the risk the riders and drivers are taking on themselves by not having an employment contract.

Employee status “where hours of work can be dictated by managers” is not the kind of status the IWGB was trying to win at the Supreme Court (and was won by the ADCU against Uber). That GMB seems to share the view of Deliveroo on riders’ employment classification is not new information. Since the deal was signed, GMB and Deliveroo have held an annual event at UK Labour Party Conference, the most recent of which was called “Distinguishing between good and bad work in the gig economy”. Neither event featured worker representatives on their respective panels. Will Shu, CEO of Deliveroo said at the 2023 event: 

Riders could work in an Amazon warehouse, they could work at Nando’s, they could work at the pub, but they choose to work with us because of the flexibility that the job offers, and I think that’s a very important point.

Six months earlier, Deliveroo banned its riders from using the third party app Rodeo. Rodeo allows users to track their earning rates across different courier companies and identify which are paying them the best rates. Far from offering their riders flexibility, Deliveroo’s business model depends on its riders’ abhorrent working conditions facing as little regulation as possible. Benefits like sick pay, maternity and paternity pay, and even merely tracking their own earnings across multiple apps are deemed a luxury Deliveroo, whose market cap is £1.8 billion, cannot afford. It is clear that gig economy employers cannot be trusted to change themselves – and any positive changes they do make can be withdrawn just as easily as they were given. GMB declined to comment when asked about the Rodeo ban. 

Withdrawal of benefits is not a mere hypothetical. In March 2023 Just Eat laid off 1,700 couriers and returned to classifying all remaining couriers as self employed after hiring them on worker contracts in late 2020. Just Eat’s CEO wrote a letter titled “The tide is turning for Europe’s gig workers” in early 2021:

The gig economy comes at the expense of society and workers themselves. No taxes and social security premiums are paid. Couriers are not properly insured. The latter is especially concerning, as being a courier carries more risk than having a desk job. The pandemic has made the situation more hazardous.

GMB can be judged on what they have achieved in the short term, which is not a lot. In the longer term Deliveroo seems like a much more challenging environment for organising than other gig economy companies like Uber. GMB’s soft approach to Deliveroo should be contrasted with their more combative approach to Amazon (who own an 11.5% stake in Deliveroo). The two approaches are united by their opportunism. In Amazon initial wildcat action led to the first ever Amazon strike being led by GMB, meanwhile Deliveroo has recently sent out emails directing riders towards GMB as their recognised union precisely because of the threat of wildcat action by Delivery Job UK. GMB’s National Deliveroo Committee released this statement on the 21st of February, clearly in response to the Valentine’s Day strike action. 

For GMB, these different approaches will not represent a contradiction, but merely the union using all available tools at their disposal to increase their membership. And considering GMB are a TUC affiliated union and the IWGB is not, there was never any possibility of the TUC getting involved. In 2017 the TUC issued a fine of £25,000 to Community after Community union signed a recognition agreement with ASOS ahead of GMB, who claimed Community had just four members on site. 

If GMB’s ultimate aim is simply to slowly build membership in a sector where they do not have a lot of representation so that they can win improvements in the long term, they need to prove their strategy can extract meaningful and lasting concessions from Deliveroo. Nothing in how Deliveroo has operated thus far, and the general trends in the gig economy more broadly suggests Deliveroo will be in a generous mood when GMB meet with them in April to discuss pay.

Some may argue that there is room enough for both the more corporatist strategy of GMB and the strategies of the IWGB and Delivery Job UK, none of whom have a high amount of density within Deliveroo. This may be the case, however, such an argument should be weighed against  the fact that many of the organisers of the Valentine’s Day strike only spoke to journalists on condition of anonymity. Deliveroo does not seem like a company willing to extend respect towards riders who wish to organise to improve their working conditions, at least riders who do so outside of a GMB Joint Council Meeting.

The IWGB were approached for comment