'Torture': Just Eat cycle couriers vs Highgate Hill
- Credit: Herbie Russell
Highgate is one of London’s most desirable areas. With its handsome Georgian terraces, leafy green tones and wondrous views over London, it’s obvious why people are desperate to move in.
Why then are some describing the area as “torture”?
Online fast-food delivery is big business in the UK. It all began with Deliveroo, a London-based start-up launched in 2013 with a unique business model which classified couriers as self-employed.
Following the firm’s success, companies like Uber Eats, Quiqup and Stuart burst onto the scene. In 2021, Just Eat shook the market by offering 2,000 couriers employment contracts that included hourly rates, holiday and sick pay.
I spent several months working as a Just Eat cycle courier in Highgate and quickly learned the area had a fearsome reputation among my colleagues. It soon became clear why.
Although its undulating hills make for pretty pictures, they are a nightmare for delivery riders. Most dreaded of all is Highgate Hill. With a 328ft elevation, it’s an exhausting ascent, especially when climbed several times a day.
Dragan Slipper, a 25-year-old law student, has worked for Just Eat for four months. Asked about Highgate Hill, he said: “It’s soul-destroying. I walk it quite often because I’m still going to get paid one way or the other.
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“Sisyphus might have had to roll a boulder up a hill repeatedly, but he didn’t have to deliver it covered in coffee to a hungover city boy afterwards.”
Another courier, Andrei Paraun, 28, from Romania, said: “It was too hard for me. I got halfway up the hill and had to push it. It’s exhausting.”
Recognizable by their bright orange uniforms, Just Eat riders may benefit from stable employment contracts, but there’s a catch.
Unlike at other companies, when a delivery job flashes up on your device, you can’t reject it if it doesn’t suit you.
This lottery means you could be invited on a leisurely jaunt along a flat road, or forced to undertake a gruelling slog up a hill.
Sometimes, you’ll hear a phone notification followed by a tortured groan. You’ll turn to see a courier, staring at his phone with disbelieving eyes.
You know, in that moment, exactly where they’re headed - up Highgate Hill.
The first 30ft takes you past The Whittington Stone pub and Whittington Hospital, the gradual slope offering little clue as to the suffering ahead.
After 150ft, you’re feeling philosophical. Is this the future? Humans toiling away on the orders of an algorithm?
You feel yourself coming up with the plot of a dystopian sci-fi novel, probably a modern classic, but forget all about it when your bike chain falls off.
Further up, you often pass children returning from school. To them, you’re fascinating, the bright orange uniform and obscenely large bag making you look like a cartoon character.
So when they realise that you’re not a Teletubbie, but a sweaty human, deranged with exhaustion, cursing in-between gulps of air, their terror is palpable.
Children cry as their parents hurry them away, covering their eyes from the approaching orange spector.
Finally, you reach Highgate Village and deliver somebody their, by now stone-cold, Big Mac. Asked to describe Highgate Hill in one word, Dragan was candid: “Torture.”
It’s not all bad and for some, courier jobs are ideal. Sonia, a 28-year-old from Paris, said: “I really like it. It meant I could find a job quickly. It’s healthy and good for your stamina.”
Whatever your thoughts on this section of the gig economy, it’s strange that such a huge industry receives disproportionately little media attention. After all, bicycle couriers are everywhere.
Flick through a set of vintage London photographs, black-and-white images of smoky factories, frilly umbrellas, and bloated steamboats, you half-expect to see a Just Eat courier, clad in reflective clothes, weaving precariously through the horses and carts.
Despite their omnipresence, there’s little reliable information available on how many bicycle couriers work in the UK. The fact that Deliveroo alone employs over 30,000 couriers globally indicates the scale of the industry.
In 2020, the UK food delivery market increased by £3.7 billion to £11.4 billion, according to Lumina Intelligence. Time will tell if this pandemic-induced growth sustains or decreases. But, for the time being, expect to see bicycle couriers battling their way up the Highgate Hill ascent.