Has anyone seen my self-respect?

This must be the only job that gets more stressful the less work there is.

If you’re a courier you’ll know what I mean. Sitting on the same park bench for 90 minutes.

You start off slightly edgy, not sure whether to start on a sandwich or get your book out, in case you’re called away for another job.

Some minutes pass. Definitely time for a sandwich.

A while later you’ve eaten your sandwich, and your other sandwich, and the flapjack you had in your bag for emergencies, and cooled down enough to put your jacket back on.

Boredom sets in.

The suits on the next bench, who arrived after you, finish their Pret sandwiches and go back to their office (and are replaced by identical suits, with identical Pret sandwiches).

You finish your book, and catch up on all those texts you’ve been meaning to reply to.

You resist texting all the other couriers whose numbers you have, to complain about the lack of work, because that would just be stupid.

Boredom turns to paranoia.

It’s awfully quiet – is my radio still on? It is. Oh.
Am I definitely on the plot, or have they forgotten about me?
I bet everyone else is being given work.
I know for a fact ___’s being fed.
And ___’s always been the controller’s favourite.
Is it something I’ve done wrong?
Maybe they’re punishing me for that job I ran late on last Tuesday.
Maybe it’s because I’m no good.
Maybe it’s because I’m too slow.
Maybe it’s because I’m a girl.
Maybe it’s a conspiracy…

Of course, there is no conspiracy, and it’s not anything you’ve done wrong. As my controller regularly reiterates, he can only give out work if the clients are booking it.

You wonder briefly about all the random and miscellaneous factors (a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world, a volcano erupting in Iceland, half-term, the global recession, the internet, the weather, the football, the Royal wedding, the beginning of a new tax year, a malicious god) that might be causing clients not to book work.

And then comes the anger.

Last Thursday was my first really bad day for a while (and I suppose I should at least be grateful for that). Between 8am and 5pm I did 10 jobs. We make £2.75 per job, so that’s – well, you work it out. I think a couple of them were specials, which pay slightly more, so if I’m lucky I might have hit £30. I hope you realize how embarrassed I am to admit this.

Wouldn’t that make you angry? It makes me fucking furious. Here I am, young, fit, strong, energetic, ambitious, resourceful, creative, reasonably intelligent, full of potential, and I’m wasting my life sitting around in parks, not even making any money. Think of all the things I could be doing with this time! When I was a receptionist I made £18k sitting on my arse doing nothing – as, no doubt, thousands of people all around me are doing, every day, while I sit in the park outside their office, not making any money, and panicking about how I’m going to pay the rent and afford new tyres.

What made last Thursday even worse was that I had turned down around £100 of editing work, out of some sort of misplaced loyalty to… to what exactly? To the people I work with? To my company? To my own work ethic? But £30 a day isn’t enough to buy anyone’s loyalty. Or it shouldn’t be. The trouble is, if I did decide to call in sick a few days a fortnight (to do other work), or tell my controllers where to stick it when they keep me out till 6.30 when I’m meant to finish at 5, I’ll be labelled ‘unreliable’, and given even less work than I already am.

So I come in, dutifully, every day, rain or shine, and do the work they give me without complaining about how little of it there is, and stay out late if they decide to give me a last-minute job that takes me up into Camden, even though I live in south London, and try to forget, when I’ve only done two jobs by 11am, that I’ve barely paid for my morning coffee.

Whatever happened to my self-respect?

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking – why don’t the couriers make a stand? Go on strike, or form a union, or hassle our companies for a regular wage, or anything that might make people sit up and pay attention to how precarious our situation is? It’s been tried in the past, and it’s constantly being discussed, and debated, and turned over obsessively in the minds of couriers who’ve been sitting on the same bench for 90 minutes. It won’t work. We’re too replaceable. If I start biting the hand that feeds me (however infrequently), I’ll eventually be sacked, or given so little work that I leave of my own accord. If I go so far as to rally the troops and start a revolution, I might gain so much notoriety that no courier company in London would employ me.

(For a detailed account of an actual uprising – and a fascinating piece of courier history – I refer you to 24Tee’s blog.)

And now comes the sticking point.

Why don’t I just find another job?

It always comes down to this. And it’s a question I really can’t answer. Why do I stick around when I’m paid a pittance, and given no benefits, perks, pensions, expenses, annual leave, sick pay, guaranteed minimum wage, or even recognition? Could it be because I genuinely love the job? That doesn’t sound like a good enough reason.

But I do. I’ve never loved a job so much. I look forward to Monday mornings. Today was my birthday, and also my day off, but I went into work anyway, because I’d rather be riding my bike around town than sitting at home on my own. Surely that should count for something?

Yesterday was another bad day, and I had this same conversation with three different colleagues – in Fitzroy Square, at Creative Corner, on Lower Thames Street. We didn’t reach any real conclusions, beyond that, as we all know, things as they stand are intolerable, and something has to change. No one really knows what.

And I can’t quite understand this. All three of the men I talked to are friendly, presentable, articulate, conscientious, intelligent, and well-qualified. All of them are known to be excellent and reliable couriers – the cream of the crop. And surely, with all the current focus on low carbon footprints and small local businesses, and with more and more people coming round to the bicycle as a viable mode of transport, these three in particular should be making a fortune.

Why isn’t it happening? What’s wrong with our industry?

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3 Responses to “Has anyone seen my self-respect?”

  1. Bassjunkieuk Says:

    Happy Birthday! Fwiw this post does remind me of a saying I heard once “find a job you love and you’ll never do a day’s work in your life”

  2. Emmy Says:

    Very, very well said. I spent all of the (very slow, but aren’t most days like that?) today basically thinking this, but in a much less articulate manner. And I came to no conclusion. Just a resounding ‘WHY?!?!?! Why do I find this job so addictive when I sometimes have trouble just feeding myself?’. So I dunno.

  3. Brice Says:

    *Sigh…huge sigh* …. I don’t especially want to got there, and I’m sighing because, yes, it has been tried and battled before. Well, anyway, in my search for the whys and hows did french couriers take so long to join the messengering culture I found this: http://www.cgt-coursiers.com/coursiers.html#debut But the french are not the only ones who rely on their trade unions, I don’t know how good trade unions are in other countries where their messengers are hoooo! Bad word coming up, “Licensed” or”Employees”, but they have employment rights, holidays and sick pay. Maybe we should ask them for help? (I still use the WE as if I was still a messenger, but someone once said “Once a messenger, always a messenger” or was it “Once you’re a member of the LBMA, you’re always a member of the LBMA”) In any case, if we were to succeed in getting the same employment rights as employees, would that not kill the “romanesque” edge to couriering in London? Someone’s gonna get well effed off with what I’m saying here, but to be honest it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that it’s been discussed before and nothing has ever happened…so what if you don’t agree with what I say (not directed at you TMC). It’s getting late, another reason for me to get off the subject and let it slide.

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