Is there one?
Before I started this job, I hadn’t heard much about the industry being in its death throes. People just talked about how cool couriers were, and how lucky (riding their bikes around all day), and how they’d love to give it a go, if they didn’t have to have a proper job to pay the mortgage. But now I’m in the thick of it, it’s become an all-pervasive theme – one of those conversations you have again and again, day after day; with different people, via different anecdotes, but still basically the same thing. Work’s been on a downward trend for the past decade, and now – well, I would say it’s reaching crisis point, but I was saying that six months ago, and things have got worse since then.
The real question is – where do we go from here? Will the work continue to dwindle, until the only people left on circuit are the three or four old-timers who couldn’t find a way out, and the annual crop of hipsters, biding their time till the ski season starts? Will the companies carry on cutting their rates to try and steal each other’s clients, passing on the loss to the people at the bottom (i.e. us), and keeping their balance sheets healthy by charging couriers an arm and a leg to hire the radios and bags they need to do their job? Will the dying breed that is the London courier finally limp its weary way to extinction? Or will the courier industry finally get its act together, and find a way to change things before it’s too late?
Naively, I’m still hopeful. But then, I’m still fairly new to all this, and can’t quite imagine that all the energy and vibrancy and creativity and camaraderie and love that make up the courier community could just disappear into thin air. Then again, I can easily see how they might be poisoned and eventually torn apart by the bitterness and resentment – and despair – borne of too many fruitless hours on park benches, listening (with a certain schadenfreude) to the silence on the radio that means no one else is getting any work either, or (with mounting paranoia) to the day’s meagre offerings being shared out among the rest of the fleet.
If we’re ever to come out of this miserable downward spiral, what has to change? Because some sort of change is vital, you mark my words. And the more I think about it, the more I realize that the change has to come from us. Sitting around waiting for our fairy godmother to come and put the work back into the industry isn’t going to get us anywhere. We have to do something. To be perhaps obviously Darwinist about it, we have to adapt to survive. And to be more particular about this, it’s not just going to be the survival of the fittest – those who last the next five years will not only be the fittest and fastest, but also the most resourceful and adaptable, and those willing to rethink the way they work, and to take matters into their own hands, and to make sacrifices. Because, as we all know, real change is usually difficult and painful. That’s why it doesn’t happen more often.
I’ve been talking to lots of people about this lately – both couriers and civilians. In the past 24 hours, one of the latter has said he thinks the answer is for the couriers to cut out the middleman (i.e. the courier companies who take more than 50% of what we earn), and one of the former has told me about a business plan he drafted a few months ago for setting up on his own. An exenger (who now works in a bike shop) just now opined that “the trick is not having a boss.”
This consensus is entirely in tune with what I’ve come up with so far – and with the views of almost every other courier I’ve exchanged rants with. People are increasingly disgusted and incredulous at the way courier companies blithely cut their rates, make spurious deductions from our pay packets, and habitually over-recruit so as to be able to cover the work more quickly (even though this means there’ll be fewer jobs per courier per day). And I have a feeling that, any moment now, all our impotent bitching might actually coalesce into action. Well, you never know.
So, what are our options?
1. Form a union and campaign for cycle couriers to be made full employees of the companies they work for, with a guaranteed minimum wage, insurance, proper sick pay and holiday pay, and the right not to be dismissed without at least a cursory disciplinary procedure. Wouldn’t that be nice? People have tried this in the past, with varying degrees of success and failure. The disadvantages? Well, for a start, anyone involved in such potentially revolutionary activities is likely to become very unpopular with their company, which could lead not only to their being given less work, but also to other companies not wanting to take them on, when they finally, inevitably, peremptorily, get kicked out. Furthermore, having to provide all the regular perks of employment to their sub-contractors could well send some companies under. After all, the money has to come from somewhere, and most companies have already cut so many corners that they’re practically circular. And not all couriers would welcome the constraints of legal employment – they’d lose the freedom that is the silver lining of increasingly cloudy self-employment. But I still have high hopes for this solution, especially after talking to 24 Tee, the grande dame of courier bloggers. Have a look at her posts, tagged under ‘revolution’; they’ll tell you all you need to know.
2. Diversify. Seek out new markets and new civilizations. There’s only so much work you can wring out of the foundering banking industry, only so many tapes the media industry needs to send across Soho (incidentally, a friend in the know tells me that about 50% of them contain wraps of coke), and the lawyers are doing more and more of their stuff by email. But cargo bikes are on the rise, and with them we’re breaking into flower, food and stationery delivery. And if we can think of other things that might be delivered by bike, and persuade people that this is a good idea, we might suddenly be back in the game. The downside? Well, no more skidding around town on your fixie, with two envelopes and a CD in your bag. Cargo bikes are slower and heavier, and they get stuck in traffic jams.
3. Go it alone – keep everyone else’s hands off your hard-earned cash by setting up your own company, and operating as an independent courier. The pros? Everything you earn is yours, and yours alone. Seb, for whom I did my very first courier work two years ago, has done this, and charges a flat rate of £20 per job. This means that, if he does 10 jobs per day, he makes £200. If I do 10 jobs a day, I make £27.50. Another friend of mine works independently, and charges £5-10 per job, and usually makes over £100 a day. The cons? It’s a lot of work to do on your own, and there’s no one to mop up the surplus on busy days. And you’re not going to have busy days – or even make a living – unless you’re able to find clients, so you also have to be a marketing genius. My brother set himself up as an independent courier in Leeds, a few months ago and, as far as I know, didn’t make a penny. He now works in a bike shop.
4. Go in-house. Legends abound of savvy couriers who approached one of their company’s clients, asked how much they spent on couriers per year, and offered to cover all the work themselves, for less. Drew, who I met in New York, has a gig like this, though as far as I know he didn’t set it up himself. He and another courier work exclusively for a photography firm, where they make an hourly wage, no matter how much or little work there is, and have a nice office to themselves, where they get to keep their spare kit, go online when it’s quiet, and keep warm when it’s cold. The disadvantages? Well, it could get boring and repetitive doing the same runs over and over again, which is likely to happen unless it’s a very big company. And there probably aren’t that many firms with the money or inclination to support an in-house courier, although I do know of one or two in London. Plus, I don’t think there are many couriers who could get away with marching into the facilities manager’s office and dripping sweat all over their desk while they put forward their business plan.
5. Cooperate. Get rid of the boss, and set up a workers’ cooperative. It’s already been done, by Mess Kollective in New York and Velocity in Dublin, among others. No one’s in charge; everyone owns the company; everyone makes the same money. And it works. Just ask Brixton Cycles (the best bike shop in London, in my totally unbiased opinion), which has been run as a cooperative ever since it opened, nearly thirty years ago. The disadvantages? Well, you have to pull your weight. No slacking off, and no blaming your controller when it all goes wrong. And if you do slack off, be prepared to face the wrath of your colleagues, who will have to work harder to make up for your laziness. The current lack of responsibility in couriering is curiously restful. The buck stops with the controller, and he’s the one who has to call up the client and grovel if something goes wrong, no matter whose fault it is. In a non-hierarchical organization, I can’t imagine anyone else would be willing to clear up the mess you’d made. Couriers already working in collectives say it’s a lot more work than they did before, but that the satisfaction of working for yourself easily outweighs this – not to mention the satisfaction of knowing that every penny you make is going to feed you and your colleagues, rather than going towards the salary (and benefits) of your controller and his manager. And as a member of a cooperative, I think you’d be more likely to take pride in the quality and standard of the work you do, something people are doing less and less at the moment.
So what does the future look like?
I don’t know, but it seems increasingly likely that we’ll be in charge of it, which, eventually, has to be a good thing. And how we get there? Well, that’s the interesting part.