“How does it feel to be a food delivery courier in the middle of a heat wave?” That was the question I posed via WhatsApp to Ashan Ali, a food courier working for Barcelona-based food delivery company Glovo, as temperatures soared across Europe in July.
“I can explain to you today,” he replied. “If you have a helmet, you can come with me for two or three hours over lunch to see what it’s like.”
Next thing I know, I’m leaving the safety of my air-conditioned office and heading out at noon in 35°C heat and 60% humidity with a backpack full of water and a face covered in SPF sunscreen. 50.
Ahsan, who lives a few blocks from my house, meets me on his moped with a smile on his face.
“Ready to get hot?” he asks, laughing. I certainly am not.
While temperatures in Barcelona haven’t quite reached 40°C yet this summer, the humidity can often make you feel like you’re walking through a hammam, even in the shade. Normally, I would avoid strenuous activity at this time of day like the plague.
Ahsan has other plans for me today.
I use an old-fashioned pedal bike to follow him, so I’m thrilled when he tells me we’ll have to go up, to a more affluent part of town, to give us the best chance of getting orders.
As I gasp and work my way up the slope, it isn’t long before sweat starts pouring down my face, mixing with the sunscreen and stinging my eyes.
It should be added here that my experience of two hours following Ahsan through lunch is in no way physically comparable to an actual shift for a food delivery man. Ahsan tells me that couriers usually work at least eight hours a day to try to earn a living wage, while carrying their own water on their backs. There’s also the added weight of the food they’re carrying (orders weigh an average of 800g, according to Glovo, and couriers can ask to share a heavy order with another courier).
That said, it’s always a good opportunity to meet cyclists and hear what they have to say about midday work in the height of summer.
“It’s oppressive and exhausting to work all day under the blazing sun,” said a biker outside a trendy vegetarian restaurant who did not want to be named. “You hear about people love street cleaners dying, people fainting from heat stroke. Thank goodness this hasn’t happened to me, I’m trying to take precautions, but it’s still kind of scary.
Another messenger, Muhammad Juanaid, told me that he had suffered heat stroke and dizziness while returning orders.
“It’s dangerous. There’s a good chance you’ll get heatstroke. Recently, I was delivering an order and I suddenly felt dizzy and almost fell off my bike,” he says. I always come home tired and dizzy after working 14 hours in the heat.”
In response to the comments, Glovo told Sifted that the company takes the health and well-being of its couriers “very seriously”, encouraging them not to work more than 10 hours a day in extreme heat. It also states that riders requiring medical attention are covered by company insurance.
Besides the indecent levels of sweat pouring out of my pores, following Ahsan is a great lesson in another of the harsh realities of working for a gig-saving app: the algorithm.
We are on the road for two hours, passing between the restaurants known to be the busiest at this time of day. At each, there are groups of runners waiting outside on benches, hoping for an order.
“They don’t tell us how the algorithm works. All we can do is try to be in the right place and wait, but it’s not like whoever gets here first gets the job,” he explains.
Another runner, Munawwar Iqbal, feels that the value of drivers’ waiting time is not recognized.
“They take that waiting time away from us,” he says. “They take advantage of our presence here. Without us, there is no service.
After trying our luck while waiting in front of four different restaurants and a “dark kitchen”two hours later, Ahsan has still not received an order.
“Two hours on the road and I’m not making any money,” he says, before suggesting we drive home so he can take a nap before heading out later that evening.
What can platforms do?
Many drivers I have met have suggested that a surcharge be introduced for extreme heat. Drivers are already offered more money in rainy or stormy weather, as an incentive to get out. All said large restaurants with app partnership agreements should, at a minimum, offer to give couriers water during high temperatures.
“We are not animals. We are human beings. Look, you’ve only cycled 2km in this heat and you’re thirsty,” Ashan says, as I chuckle, trying to replace some of the water I’ve sweated out. None of the restaurants we visited offered us a drop. “Why can’t partner restaurants provide us with the essentials?”
In response, Glovo told Sifted that it is working with local partner restaurants to provide water to couriers.
Sifted also asked a number of other biggest food delivery platforms in Europe what they were doing to deal with couriers working in extreme heat. Many repeat the mantra that in most European countries couriers are not their employees and they are not required to work during extreme temperatures.
“Passengers have the freedom to choose their shifts and work during the cooler hours, but we have not seen a drop in passenger numbers during the hottest hours of the day,” said Delivery Hero ( majority shareholder of Glovo) in a press release.
Wolt, headquartered in Helsinki, published tips on the importance of drinking water, wearing sunscreen and taking cold showers for his runners.
Glovo offers similar advice: “We keep couriers informed about the importance of staying hydrated and show the nearest place they can pick up water as well as the locations of public drinking fountains.”
But for workers’ rights activists – and for the couriers themselves – these actions are just the tip of the iceberg of needs.
“Your parents may tell you things like: go take a cool shower or make sure you’re hydrated,” says Oguz Alyanak of FairWork, an activist group that wants to improve the rights of platform workers. “It’s good that this advice is available. But there’s nothing else, nothing we don’t already know that was really provided by the platforms.
He adds that in extreme heat, delivery companies could do much more than provide advice and free water. For starters, they could reduce the radius in which couriers operate to reduce physical exertion and allow them to get paid time off during the hottest hours.
“These are extraordinary circumstances,” adds Alyanak. “When it comes to traditional workspaces, indoor workspaces, there are certain regulations that the workplace cannot exceed, for example, 26C. Do we have those kinds of regulations or do we have a body that really monitors those kinds of regulations in the platform economy? I haven’t met any yet.
He stresses that there should be EU-wide regulations that would ensure the safety of gig economy workers in extreme conditions, such as heat waves.
“We’re not just talking about worker protection,” he adds. “We are talking about the protection of human lives.
Tim Smith is Sifted Iberia’s correspondent. He tweets from @timmpsmith
Zosia Wanat contributed additional reporting. She tweets from @zosiawanat