The following is the full transcript of episode 4 of the Fairwork podcast featuring Francis Scaife, a courier for a gig economy platform called Stuart.
This episode looks at management, what’s it like working through a platform, where the principal colleague you’re working with is your smartphone? And how do you deal with the problems you encounter in your working day when you have no human manager to turn to?
Francis Scaife works as a courier in the northeast of England, in their hometown of Teesside. It’s their home and they love it, but this is a town that has suffered heavily from industrialisation.
“We had quite a lot of heavy industries, like our steelworks, but it’s all sort of just totally died now. It’s not the best place to live sometimes, it’s quite like, when you work at night as a lone female it’s quite scary. But it’s okay, it’s just one of those kinds of forgotten towns in the north that people don’t really know about.”
Francis, whose pronouns are they/them, works for the gig economy platform called Stuart making deliveries around their local area. They suffer from several health conditions and have done for many years now. Working for Stuart was their first job after being out of work for some time.
“So my first day, I think it was pretty quiet. I remember being in the KFC car park, parked my car here, my best friend Jay’s car next to me to the left, and then one of her friends to the left of her. And we were parked in a row and I remember taking a selfie with everyone. It was just really nice to actually be out and to be getting paid to sit with your pals, basically, you know. On a slot, knowing that you were gonna get money regardless of if it was busy, so it was really nice. It was just sort of really…. I didn’t know if liberating is the right word, but I’d been out of work for so long, and just feeling like I wasn’t useful. So to suddenly have this job where – you know, it’s not a huge amount of responsibility – but I was getting paid, they expected me to do a job. It was just nice to feel like I was actually working.”
This is the Fairwork podcast, a look at the lives of the people working within the gig economy. This episode looks at management. What’s it like working for a platform where the principal colleague you’re working with is your smartphone? And how do you deal with the problems you encounter in your working day when you have no human manager to turn to?
Francis is classified as self-employed, meaning they don’t have access to any form of sick pay or holiday pay. “So I live with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia that’s sort of the main issues and I’m going through tests for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. So it basically just means that I have quite a lot of chronic fatigue and muscle and joint pains. I get dislocations in my knees and in my ankles. So it just it makes…. obviously, I am sitting down quite a lot as a driver in a car but it does affect (my work). When I get these flare-ups of pain and I just can’t get out of bed and I know I need to go to work if I want the money that week. That’s been something that’s been quite tough recently, as my health has been declining a bit, like having to take those sick days but not really having access to any sort of sick pay for them.”
Stuart operates a system whereby couriers can either work ‘On Slot’ or ‘Off Slot’. On slot means that couriers are guaranteed an hourly wage for a predetermined period, but must be in a specific zone for an exact amount of time, and follow certain rules. This includes the inability to reject work. Off Slot, on the other hand, give couriers more freedom, including when and where they work and what jobs they accept and decline. Francis prefers Off Slot working due to its flexibility but sometimes feels the need to work On Slot. I asked them about what it’s like working through the app, and what it’s like communicating with Stuart.
“So I would say communicating with Stuart is like pulling one’s teeth. It’s just, it’s painful, it’s long, it’s slow, it’s arduous. You basically… say you have an issue on a job. You know, a customer hasn’t answered the door and you need to return the food to a restaurant. You contact them through the app, and they will make you sit and wait like 10 minutes, and you’ve got to jump through all these hoops. But it’s often that they have an automated reply. I think they have some kind of system set up to filter out certain words that you message them, and it will just auto-reply something related to that. So if you say something like ‘this job is too far away’. You might get a reply back asking, ‘why have you not delivered the food yet?’ And often it’s just totally unrelated. It just feels like, I don’t know, like anyone else, if you have an issue at work, you contact your boss, right? You, you can go and talk to someone, you can talk to HR, whatever. But with us, it’s like you have this app that you can email us, we can’t really promise you’ll get the reply that you want. There’s no sort of appeal if you think something’s wrong, and it just feels like we are feeling totally disposable, like we don’t really matter. That’s the first thing that I would say is important – that communication with your boss, or with your superiors, and we just don’t have that. I think it makes me just feel, as I said, quite disposable, like, they don’t really, they don’t really care. They’re a huge, huge multinational company. That is, you know, raking in quite a lot of money. And I feel like they could put so much more effort into their contact with their workers, you know, the very people who are delivering their packages that they want to be delivered. If you can’t even have the most basic sort of set of communication with those people, how can you expect them to work for you and be happy about working for you? Especially if you can’t even, you know…. it makes me feel crap that, you know, if I have an issue on a job, or if someone… There have been times where I’ve messaged where I felt my safety was at risk, and you get some auto-generated reply, where someone hasn’t even read your message.”
Francis has had numerous cases where they felt worried about their safety whilst at work, and turned to the platform for help and support. “Yeah, I mean, there’s been a few times where I felt my safety was at risk with Stuart. One of them in particular, I was at a guy’s house delivering some food, and he literally grabbed my arm and started to pull me and I just pulled myself back and got in my car, and drove away. I managed to get parked, message Stuart and I got just some kind of… I think it was just some kind of auto-generated reply, as I said that they use this filter system on certain words, and it just didn’t even relate back to what I’d said to them. And I was just like, ‘some guys basically just assaulted me and you haven’t even bothered to reply properly, haven’t even bothered to give me a constructive answer’. You know, what can I do about this situation? Can I flag this person’s house or put a complaint and it was literally just… I can’t remember specifically what it was. But I just remember it was some auto-generated reply that didn’t… didn’t even relate to what had happened. But, it seems to happen quite a lot. Like I don’t do deliveries in certain areas, because of my safety and worrying that something’s going to happen there. And knowing that if I contact, Stuart is probably not going to give a very good reply to that.”
As a means to manage workers, the Stuart app runs a scoring system for all of its couriers, known as a client performance score, or CPS. The score is a tool to let couriers know how well or badly they’re performing.
“It’s based around how many jobs you take, how many slots you take, or how many slots you don’t turn up for, it counts all of those things in and gives you sort of a weekly score of how well you’re doing. And it’s like how satisfied your clients are with your work. And you can sort of be penalized by, say, you take slots for a week, and you don’t turn up for two or three of them. Your CPS would be penalized because you’ve, you’ve booked a slot and you’ve not turned up for it. It’s essentially just like not turning up for a normal shift at work.”
A key aspect of the scoring system is that Stuart doesn’t make public how scores actually impact couriers and how they use within the process of algorithmic management. “This is the thing I don’t know. I don’t know if the higher your CPS score is the more jobs are assigned to you or I don’t know what their job allocation is like or why they allocate jobs to certain people. But I think some of us definitely have wondered if having a higher CPS score would mean your allocated more jobs as well.” In addition, scores can be used as a reason for terminating someone’s account.
“But yeah with your CPS, it’s this sort of looming threat that if it ever goes below a certain point that you might get your account looked into and possibly terminated. But it definitely looms over me and sort of feels like, they’re sort of dangling my employment on me and saying, ‘look, if you don’t have a high score, then we will terminate your account.’ Because I think that has happened to people before where, if you go below, I think around (a score of) two, they give you, I think, a fortnight or something to improve your score. And if it doesn’t improve they’ll terminate your account. So I think that definitely worries me sometimes because mine’s only about three. It’s not great. And that’s because obviously, I’ve had a lot of sick time off or the day before the shift I’ll have a flare-up and I’ll need to cancel it, so I’ll be penalised for that. So I definitely worry about my CPS score and wonder if it’s going to ever come and bite me in the bum.”
For Francis, communicating with Stuart has always been difficult. It operates no fixed offices in the area where they work and all communication takes place via email. At the start of the UK’s first national lockdown, couriers were facing difficulties related to their work and Francis turned to Stuart for help. “We were having a lot of issues accessing toilets, like delivery partners, being able to access toilets at places where they were picking drops off. And there was this sort of requirement that all couriers wash their hands before and after every delivery, but there was no way for us to do it. Because places just weren’t letting us in the toilets. So I crafted this really great email, it took me days. This email I thought was fantastic. It was really sassy, I thought I got my point across, And I got this sort of… it was so so blunt, I couldn’t even put it into words. I spent ages on my email, it was pages long. And I got this reply, which wasn’t even a couple of lines; wasn’t even a paragraph. And it just said, ‘we are aware of the issue and are discussing it with couriers’. And that was it. I don’t even think she said, ‘Hello Francis, how are you?’ it was just very much ‘we know, we’re discussing it. Thank you very much. Bye.’”
“I think my response to it was, you know, that situation, not being able to access toilets was humiliating enough. And I really spent a lot of time trying to get my point across to this lady about why it was an issue, why it was important, and why it was against the law. And it was just this whole …. it’s just how Stuart is, this blunt, blasé, they don’t really have time for you, so let’s just craft this tiny little email. And it just makes you feel so small. Because it was crap having to deal with not being able to access toilets, having to go to the toilet outside, some couriers – you know, it was really really desperate – some couriers going to the toilet, in streets, and in bushes. It was demoralising and painful enough to even go through. So for them to reply with not even a paragraph. I don’t even think they even said ‘hello’ or said my name. It was just ‘we are discussing it with couriers, thank you.’ She probably didn’t even say thank you. I think I’m being too nice.
Well, I just thought, you know what, I’m one of you damn couriers, I’ve worked for nearly two years now. Do I not get a say in this conversation? I just think they needed some kind of quick response to get me off their case and I don’t think Stuart realized that I’m like a dog with a bone and I’m not letting all these issues go. They’re not getting away with it.”
Thanks to Francis B Scaife for sharing their story.
At Fairwork, we believe that all work can, and should, be characterised by fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair representation, and fair management. Platforms ultimately have the power to improve standards and the ability to choose to.
Many platforms operate management structures that are opaque and with little capability for workers to understand the processes by which work is managed and distributed. Platforms can improve the work they provide by opening up communications channels for workers with human representatives, taking active steps to ensure that discrimination does not occur and opening up documented channels for workers to appeal low ratings and deactivation.
We’re actively campaigning to improve the conditions for gig workers around the world and hold platforms to account. You can find out more at fair.work.