Eight years on the road. Eight winters endured. One Beast from the East. One record breaking hottest day. And this year: one global pandemic. Throw in the various crashes, bicycle mechanical failures, and most recently a redundancy, I am still a courier. Word on the street is that some of the more experienced couriers do not acknowledge you until you have done a few winters and earned your stripes. Then again, some couriers just will not acknowledge others no matter how many winters they have done. I guess this is one of the main draws of the job: beyond making sure you respond to calls from control and picking up and dropping off packages at the right time, there are not many rules you have to abide by. The conventional constraints of society do not seem to apply in the courier industry.

This is an important factor that attracts a wider variety of people from all sorts of walks of life to become couriers. You can get by with a very basic understanding of the English language and as a result there are couriers in London from all over the planet. Many have worked in different cities all over the world, moving on as they get bored of the streets or if the weather turns too nasty. Many have pounded the same London roads for decades, yet will tell you they are still finding new places to sit and eat their lunch and get some peace, or new covered alleyways to hide in when the heavens open. Regardless of people’s backgrounds or what paths they have taken, they all share one thing in common: they are couriers.

This means becoming part of a subculture operating outside the conventional parameters. The job also reminds you of this as it takes you into offices all day long; the epitome of rules and regulations. As a courier you are given a free pass to skip in and out of places where people are dressed smartly and bound to desks, while you are clothed in whatever you like. Your desk is your bicycle, your office the streets of London.

Although the job can be quite isolated - often you can spend hours at a time not having a proper conversation with anyone - there is a huge sense of community with others on the road. This sense of community is brought about by a common respect of doing a job that is high risk, precarious, physically tough, and mentally strenuous. There have been times that I have left my house at 8.30am in the morning and had rain streaming down my nose like a waterfall by the time I got to the end of my road. When you are riding into work with a day of torrential rain ahead, you really cannot see yourself making it to the end of the day. Pedalling in, you feel water seeping through your multiple layers and the dread really starts to sink in. But then you suddenly pull up next to a fellow courier at a set of red lights who is in the exact same situation as you and you can’t do anything but laugh at the dire situation. This exchange reminds you that there are hundreds of others just like you who will be enduring these conditions, a lot with less weatherproof equipment, and that sense of solidarity with others on the road is enough to give you strength to push on through. I have had numerous conversations with couriers recounting the “worst ever days” endured on the road, and although even reminiscing about these days can make you shudder, they are always told with pride and a keen sense of gallows humour.

I have been a courier for eight years and I started at the bottom earning just £180 for a 5 day week of 47.5 hours. This £180 was a guaranteed amount that you only got for completing a full week. If you missed a day or turned up late to work on one of the days you would lose this guarantee and drop to a pay per job mode of payment. This could see wages drop drastically and is a method used by courier companies to force couriers to work long hours and full weeks whilst still insisting they utilise a “flexible, self employed” workforce. I chased the pound sign, moving from one company to the next in the pursuit of more money and more stability. I had fallen in love with the job very quickly but just as quickly I had realised that the pay and conditions couriers were subjected to needed to be drastically improved - otherwise it was not a job I could build a future around.

Working for TDL

I ended up at my last job as a medical courier at a multinational, multi million pound private medical company called The Doctors Laboratory (TDL). It is a medically-led laboratory, established in 1987 and has become the largest independent provider of clinical laboratory diagnostic services in the UK. A huge part of TDL’s work comes from the privatisation and consequential dismantling of the NHS. TDL provides their customers with the laboratory information required for diagnosis and treatment of medical disorders. It is the courier’s job to travel to various client locations and deliver test results or collect specimens and bring them back to the laboratory for testing.

TDL is the UK subsidiary of Australian based Sonic Healthcare. They are the world’s third largest provider of pathology/clinical laboratory services and were the first company to do so on a global basis. They employ around 36,000 people and enjoy strong positions in the laboratory markets of eight countries, being the largest private operator in Australia, Germany, Switzerland and the UK; the second largest in Belgium and New Zealand; and the third largest in the USA.

Everyday I call TDL at 8.30am from my house in East London and tell them I am ready to start. As a courier I am working from the moment I make this phone call and jump on my bike. (However, this is something I had to force the company to acknowledge. They believed that despite sending me collections before 9.00am, I was only officially working from that time). As I live fairly centrally, I am often sent the addresses of collections straight away and I start cycling to these places. If there are no immediate jobs I will head to the Liverpool Street area and wait for work to be sent to me. After picking up these first jobs I then cycle to the main laboratories on the Euston Rd to deliver the specimens and await more work. This is the first physical contact I will have with my colleagues and management and will be limited to sporadic passings as we come and go throughout the day.

I work in a fleet of around 150 couriers whose mode of transports ranges from van, motorcycle, pushbikes, walkers, and even railers (people who bring specimens in by train). The courier management consists of a main manager who oversees all operations. There are also several controllers who are responsible for distributing the work amongst the couriers, as well as responding to client queries. The courier department is somewhat segregated from the rest of the 12 storey building as deliveries are made through the loading bay and access to the rest of the building is limited. However couriers do interact with some of the laboratory staff at the specimen reception where they drop off and collect specimens.

Couriers congregate in the loading bay or on the street outside the building when they are waiting for work. This hub for activity and the congregation around it has been vital in organising the workplace. Couriers usually have quite a nomadic existence which poses difficulties for not only having one on one conversations, but makes it nigh on impossible to discuss things in groups. There is only so much you can say in a chance meeting at a red traffic light before it turns green and you whizz off in different directions! The loading bay and the street outside TDL have been the location that brought together many grievances and plenty of group discussions amongst the couriers.

The courier work is distributed by controllers, through an app or over the phone. If you are not getting on well with a controller, or if you have questioned something they have done wrong, they have the power and authority to give you a hard day by distributing awkward work. For example, giving you deliveries with long distances or making sure you have breaks late in the day. This can lead to sycophantic behaviour as couriers attempt to avoid mistreatment. The way the work is allocated through an app or over the phone distances these controllers from the courier. I believe this can, at times, detach them from callous acts that they may not have done if they were face to face with a courier. At the click of a button they can ruin hours of someone’s life. We have managed to move away from a pay per job model, but when this was in place workers’ behaviour was more affected and the chasm between a good and a bad day was even more pronounced. The courier managers themselves are controlled by senior management, often receiving one-way instruction which can be misinformed. Their resentment and frustration is often taken out on the couriers.

Organising at TDL

When I started working for TDL they, like many other courier companies, had adopted an employment model of engaging couriers on sham contracts that asserted they were independent contractors. The reality of this relationship was actually more akin to an employer/employee relationship as couriers were afforded minimal flexibility, punished in the form of wage deductions for not attending work, were fully integrated into the business, and had no say on the rates that were offered for their services. These were the main characteristics that revealed it was a sham relationship. However, there were various other aspects that reinforced that the reality was very different from what TDL claimed. Couriers were treated like employees, but given none of the rights. They were said to be independent contractors, but were neither paid increased rates (that are usual to being self employed) nor given any flexibility as to how they operated. The couriers suffered the worst or both worlds!

This is an employment model that the vast majority of companies within the courier industry use. It never really sat well with me. It was when I became a courier at TDL - a company that was not only making millions per year, but also making a large part of these millions by dismantling the NHS - that I just could not put up with the poor pay, lack of rights, and sheer injustice anymore.

I tried to resolve small issues on my own. Although I had some relative success, I found myself making little progress with the larger issues such as pay, wage deductions and lack of rights. The next natural course of action was to try and resolve the issues of all the push bikes collectively, as not only were they suffering from the same problems I was, I thought that it would be harder for management to deny a group of us as opposed to just an individual. Despite the issues being raised coming from a larger section of the workforce, I was still met with the same excuses and delay tactics I had come up against before. TDL were not taking our concerns seriously and were easily deflecting the pressure we were putting on them.

After an extremely hot summer week in which we were incredibly understaffed, I approached the manager and explained that I thought it was only fair for couriers to receive a bonus. We were having to work twice as hard to cover the work but due to the reduced workforce the company was actually saving money. The manager nodded and agreed, promising that we would receive a bonus on the next pay run. The pay run came and there was no bonus. The manager apologised and said it would be on the next one. This happened another couple of times and eventually I demanded a meeting with the manager. He agreed to meet me at the end of the day to discuss the issue. I went to his office at the end of the day determined to get the money we had been promised for our hard work and pushed the door to his office open. As the door swung open I was met by an empty office and I realised that he had gone home instead of meeting me. The straw had now officially broken the camel’s back!

It was at that moment that I realised these issues were not going to be resolved via the means I was currently using. I decided it was time to call on the help of my union: the IWGB. Until then I had thought that there were so many couriers in London in worse paid, more precarious situations than myself and believed that they deserved more urgent attention. However, having tried various methods to improve my circumstances and being met with the same contemptuous fobbing off that all couriers were, I realised that no level of exploitation was acceptable and it all had to be dealt with urgently.

Along with the other push bikes from TDL, we arranged a meeting with the General Secretary and the Vice President of the IWGB and voted to start a campaign against TDL. The General Secretary sent an email to TDL explaining that the push bikes had decided to unionise and “the chickens were coming home to roost!” It was time to get what was ours from this exploitative company that was making huge amounts of money off the backs of precarious workers like us. The strategy involved continuing to recruit amongst the couriers and push for trade union recognition. At the same time we launched an employment tribunal1 claim against our bogus employment status. The aim was to pressure the company into giving us the rights we should have been legally entitled to.

The next day, I arrived in the loading bay and with the rest of the couriers. I was met with mixed emotions. Some couriers felt elated that someone was finally standing up to their long term abusers, pushing for justice for the courier fleet. Those who felt like this did not take much convincing to join the union. They were ready to start our fight for recognition and rights. It was not so easy with other couriers. Some felt what I had put into motion could cost them wages or even their jobs. At first, their fear manifested as animosity towards me. Couriers who had spoken to me everyday since I started at the company turned away when I walked past them or muttered things under their breath. As you could imagine, these couriers were harder to convince to join the union.

Every day felt like I was on the campaign trail. When I climbed off my bike in the loading bay I was met by couriers with questions about their futures. I was constantly reassuring them that we were only asking what we were legally entitled to and that they should not feel scared to demand this. However, through a combination of the precariousness of the job and never having had these rights before, I was always met with firm resistance to my arguments. I heard the same things many times: “you will ruin it for everyone” or “if you don’t like it you can go and get a job somewhere else” and a personal favourite: “didn’t anyone ever tell you not to bite the hand that feeds you”. There were days where I just wanted to forget about it all, accept the exploitation, and just ride my bike. However, I kept at it, the need for justice always spurned me on.

The tribunal case that ran alongside this push for union recognition kept momentum up. Around the time we were hitting the 50% membership threshold needed to gain statutory recognition, TDL had already backed down in court. They offered the four claimants either employee contracts or limb (b) worker contracts.2 In just under two years we had unionised a workforce, won trade union recognition, and completely changed the way the majority of the fleet were employed by the company. We were the first union to be recognised within the gig economy. Through collective bargaining we won benefits - meaning some of the couriers who had been in the industry for over two decades had paid holiday for the first time. We had set a benchmark for the gig economy.

Now that we had secured paid holidays and pensions we were able to move onto issues of pay. Many of the couriers at TDL were paid on a piece rate and this could be irregular and unpredictable. This was incredibly unfair. Others were paid on a day rate. While this was more reliable, once you subtracted the costs incurred for doing the job, many actually took home less than the living wage. We continued to recruit members to the union and pushed for a more stable and fair pay structure.

The IWGB and workplace representatives attended meetings with senior management to agree on a new pay proposal. It was not long before it became clear that TDL had entered into the recognition agreement with bad intentions. The meetings were plagued with false promises. There were no signs of them actually wanting to listen to the vast injustices that their current pay system produced. If there was any doubt about their lack of good faith, the CEO David Byrne only attended the first one, excusing himself from all further meetings!

After several of these meaningless meetings, we were forced to continue ramping up the pressure. We organised a huge demonstration outside the TDL’s offices in October 2018. Then in December 2018 we staged a protest outside TDL’s Christmas party. This was pitched as a party for all TDL staff, yet most of the couriers were not invited. We donned Christmas hats and brought our own trays of mince pies. We met the other staff with a soundsystem blaring out Christmas tunes as they entered the event. As a result of the Christmas Party demo, a small section of long-serving PAYE van drivers3 received a pay rise of a few thousand pounds that we had been pushing for.

In April 2019, the IWGB officially entered into dispute with TDL and our members were balloted for strike action. In May 2019, over eighty couriers took part in two days of strike action outside TDL’s central London 12 storey building. The first day saw the roads around TDL full of parked, revving motorbikes emblazoned with IWGB flags and the sounds of samba music from a live band. At one point the couriers, supporters, and the samba band stormed the loading bay and occupied it, before spilling back onto the street for a rally. Day two involved the couriers mounting their vehicles and driving in convoy protest to the Harley Street area.4 Many of TDL’s clients are located in the densely populated area and the high paying clients were the perfect target. Making them aware of TDL’s exploitation, especially in the way we would do it, could have caused incredible embarrassment for the company.

After a hugely successful two days of strike action, we planned a further day. Just before this day of action, TDL requested we join them for further negotiations. After two days of negotiating, a deal was agreed and the fleet received improved pay and conditions. The couriers had come together and forced the company to give them what they deserved.

Covid-19 as a medical courier

As the Covid-19 pandemic spread to the UK, we started to see more and more Covid-19 specimens in yellow bags being collected by couriers for testing. There was little warning or preparation from TDL, despite the havok we had seen Covid-19 cause in China and then Italy.

The lockdown announcement saw the streets of London reduced to a ghost town. Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden all empty except for other key workers. The usually bustling streets of Soho were reduced to just homeless people and delivery couriers. The homeless people begging for money with their hands, and the delivery couriers begging through an app.

On one day I rode down Tottenham Court at around midday. Usually the street would be littered with people heading out to buy their lunches, but on this day it was only me. You could hear someone cough from a mile away. The only members of the public I saw were in the long queues outside supermarkets. I felt very overwhelmed at times working during this period and seeing central London like this: to see a deadly virus transform one of the busiest cities in the world so dramatically was an emotional sight. Every day was spent battling against a sense of fear of being out on the streets while so many were safely indoors. I felt a sense of pride in doing the important job of collecting Covid-19 specimens from hospital wards, drive-in testing points, and care homes. There were a few times that I cried riding down an empty street as the emotions became too much.

TDL did very little to support the couriers during this time. We were forced to demand better protection at work. After being approached by many anxious couriers, I wrote to the CEO of TDL listing the various fears people had. These included both hand sanitiser and other basic PPE arriving late and in sparse amounts. Couriers were left feeling scared and unprotected as the risks of doing an already extremely high risk job increased daily. I put forward what I believed were very reasonable solutions. We askedTDL to rectify this immediately and do what they could to make couriers feel safe at work.

The self-employed couriers were only offered £95 per week statutory sick pay if they were forced to self isolate due to showing symptoms. Instead of facilitating the couriers to make the correct decision of self-isolating if showing symptoms, TDL put this burden on the couriers who, in some cases, would find it incredibly hard to make this decision. We demanded full pay for self-isolation to make sure this was not a privilege granted only to those who could afford it.

As couriers collecting Covid-19 specimens we were travelling into places that not only contained people infected with the virus, but also into places in which those considered high risk resided. It was not unusual to collect Covid-19 specimens from a hospital in the morning, then in the afternoon collect other specimens from a care home or a fertility clinic. It was possible that couriers could become super spreaders of the virus. It was therefore incredibly important that we were not infected. For this reason, we demanded that couriers were regularly tested to guarantee we were not spreading it amongst the public.

Government guidance had outlined people with certain underlying health conditions and higher age groups as high risk if infected, recommending the extreme steps of staying at home for three months. We believed that due to the increased chance of infection doing the job, it was not safe for some couriers to continue working. These couriers were either very close to the high risk age group, had underlying health conditions, or lived with people who might be considered high risk. We believed it was dangerous for them to be collecting Covid-19 specimens. We demanded that these people were offered full pay to remain off work while the job was too dangerous to do.

I sent the letter to the CEO David Byrne and received a response saying no to every single one of my requests. In response to the regular testing, he said that “regular testing is of no value.” I found this astounding coming from a company whose vast wealth was built on the value of regular testing. This response in particular epitomised the utter resentment the company had towards us as couriers. They preferred to undermine the claims of their own business, rather than give in to the very reasonable requests of couriers carrying Covid-19 during a pandemic. David Byrne ended the letter asking that “we pull together” during this time. If anything, we had never been further apart as the couriers continued to provide a vital service under increased risk on the streets of London while the CEO sent orders from the comfort of his house.

Throughout the pandemic I was incredibly proud of the service I was providing and the people I worked alongside and the key workers I came into contact with every day. However, I was ashamed of the company I worked for. Despite everything we had achieved at TDL, the lack of respect shown towards the couriers during the pandemic showed just how much resentment the company felt towards us for forcing them to give us what was legally ours. There was still plenty of work to be done at TDL and the rest of the industry to rebalance the power between the employer and the workers.

The road I have travelled as a courier to find myself where I am in now is one that has been signposted by exploitation. I became a courier with the intention of doing a job that I thought suited my needs, however I quickly became aware of the appalling pay and conditions that are rife in the industry. I had little knowledge of trade unions when I started out but the mass mistreatment of couriers led me to the IWGB. As part of a community of riders who were fighting for better conditions I became aware of what can be achieved through collective action. Having felt like I was struggling alone for so long, it was incredible to be part of a group of couriers who were not tolerating exploitative conditions any more. Beyond the couriers branch, I became part of a union that was fighting back in an array of industries and I was inspired by the unity of workers from cleaners to gamesworkers, from security guards to foster carers. Now my eyes have been opened to this way of organising and a collective way of trying to make a difference to so many, there has been no turning back. It was a lonely road that led me to the union, but now I have found it, there is no other way of travelling but in large numbers of people with the same goal: change!


  1. An employment tribunal is a form of labour court: an independent tribunal which makes decisions in legal disputes around employment law. 

  2. Limb (b) worker is an intermediate status in the UK, between employee and self-employed, in which the worker is a ‘dependent contractor’ and gains access to basic employment rights. 

  3. PAYE, or Pay As You Earn, refers to a system in which employers collect taxes and national insurance contributions from employees on behalf of HMRC (HM Revenue & Customs). 

  4. Harley street is famous for its long history of private medical practices. 


author

Alex Marshall

Alex has been a courier for the last 8 years and have gone from not knowing much about trade unions to becoming the chair of the couriers branch of the IWGB.