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The real story behind ‘success’ of delivery apps

Grocery service Getir joins a list of much hyped but unprofitable delivery firms. Sophie Squire and Sam Ord explore the industry’s business model, and speak to Getir riders about their work
Issue 2793
Purple and yellow Getir mopeds

Turkish-based Getir is a growing international grocery delivery company (Picture: Wikicommons/ Donald Trung)

In every major city, it’s easy to spot the blue bags of Deliveroo workers or the orange bags of Just Eat riders on bikes or mopeds. The workers employed face harsh conditions as they are pitched into the latest way for bosses to make money.

But there are also surprising features of these firms that seem to go against the logic of capitalism.

New customers download delivery apps every day, and the number of orders have soared since the pandemic. Yet many of these companies just can’t make a profit. In fact, most aren’t expected to be profitable for years to come.

Fast food delivery companies say one reason they aren’t raking in profits is because outgoings are too high. That’s why, for example, Stuart delivery which works for Just Eat has recently slashed some payments for workers. But the real reason is about how the market pressures firms to innovate ­constantly to beat out their rivals.

The food ­delivery market is highly saturated with hundreds of start-ups looking to cash in. While there are major contenders, none in Britain have ­effectively dominated the market. This means the battle is on to give the ­quickest service, have the best app, ­provide the cheapest delivery and ­accumulate the most users. 

Food delivery companies spend ­millions on advertisements, gimmicks and technological innovations to draw users in. Deliveroo once offered a service where users could enjoy a luxury meal in a helicopter. Just Eat spent £50 ­million on ­advertising during ITV’s dating show Love Island. 

But amassing millions more users annually isn’t solving the industry’s lack of profitability. So, what is ­keeping it going? Instead of going under, companies such as Deliveroo and Just Eat are kept afloat by investments. 

When Deliveroo was founded in 2013 it found a niche. Other food apps advertised ­restaurants and ­provided a way for customers to pay. But it left restaurants to organise their own delivery, and many could not ­provide the service.

As a new innovation Deliveroo received attention from investors who saw potential in the company. Two years after Deliveroo was founded it received over £18 million from several investors. And despite never making any profit, Amazon handed it £421 million for a ­partnership deal in 2019. In total the company has received almost £1 billion, but has lost almost as much. 

Other app-based delivery companies have received similarly large investments as well as recording losses. This is not just a strange aberration of the system—it is built into how it functions

If you were to buy shares in Just Eat the bosses could spend that money on anything from workers’ wages to more innovations. The money would go into something real. 

In return the investors get ­something that isn’t real—a claim to the future profits of the company paid as dividends. Karl Marx coined the term “fictitious capital” to describe this process, which also encompasses the goings-on of the stock market. He explained that the unending ­swapping of fictitious capital between capitalists was “wholly illusory.”

Venture capitalists and other ­investors are awash with the money that has been pumped into the banks by governments across the world. 

After the 2008 financial cash, and during the pandemic, money flooded into the markets to bail the system out. Now they are looking for ways to turn this into profits.  

So long as they can invest in a ­company, and that investment becomes more valuable, investors are not ­interested in how much profit the firm itself makes. 

Of course in the long term there has to be a relation between the value of an investment and the money a company makes. But that doesn’t have to happen immediately.

All this speculation is a product of ­capitalism that constantly lurches into crisis. That’s why competition for service users and investment deals comes first for companies like Deliveroo and Just Eat, rather than the process of ­delivering food. 

Although the actual process of ­delivering food is seen as less important to the bosses, labour still keeps the ­business running. It’s not the bosses or the venture ­capitalists that genuinely create value—it’s the workers. Without them there would be no deliveries, no customers and possibly one day no investors. 

While companies like Deliveroo exist for now, their bubble could pop in the future.


 ‘I hate working here—it’s very dangerous’

Stress, fatigue and dangerous conditions are all part of a normal day for workers employed in the quickly expanding delivery industry.  

Arham is a courier for Getir in London. He told Socialist Worker, “Managers have too much power and treat us like slaves. I get called in on my day off—they want us to keep delivering. I have done hundreds of deliveries and I don’t even get time for food.”

Arham studies and took the job because Getir provides the electric bikes and equipment drivers need. But he is deeply unhappy. “I hate working here. I get tired and am expected to drive down busy roads,” he explained. “Sometimes I can’t even remember making a delivery. It is very dangerous.

“The business is new and growing, so if we turn our devices off we immediately get shouted at by management.  Managers don’t know what they’re doing so they take their frustration out on us. If you stand up for yourself, they just sack you.”

James also works for Getir in London. He told Socialist Worker, “I never get paid on time and sometimes the pay wrong. Then you have to call and email people to try and get your money. If others want to work for Getir it’s okay for a few weeks, it feels stable. But supervisors expect too much from you. I’m always tired and have no time to eat with my family or friends.” 

Jay works for Getir in east London. He told Socialist Worker that couriers have been taken to hospital with broken bones. “One night I swerved around a bus and hit the kerb. I was okay, but it could have been much worse,” he explained. “I have been in many close calls with dangerous drivers. You don’t need a full motorcycle licence to ride these bikes, this is some people’s first time riding.”

Jay is in a group chat with some friends who are also couriers. They have all experienced dangerous situations.  Pointing to a photo on his phone he said, “This guy was dragged from his bike and beaten by people who stole his phone.”

Jay has experience working for Just Eat and other fast food delivery services. He believes it’s better working for Getir. “There are issues, but we aren’t competing with others, we get paid hourly,” he said. “I didn’t have much money and I just wanted to rest. I was working every day before changing. Getir gives new drivers £600 for joining—that was my rent so that was the main factor for me.”

Before working for Getir, Jay was a delivery driver for another company. He said bad treatment of workers is common across the whole industry. “I got Covid twice from having to enter all these different restaurants so people could eat throughout the pandemic,” he said. “Sometimes I’d get paid just a few pounds for such high risk.

“There was no consideration for our safety. We were relied on by millions of people, so we were in a hard situation. People were really scared to deliver and we saw people around us get really sick.”  

Jay also believes that Getir could do more to protect riders. “Head office and our managers see our names on a computer or phone screen. They think we’re robots,” he added. “We only get 30 minute breaks, which isn’t enough if you’ve woken up for a morning shift.

“Some delivery times are hard to meet. Managers stress safety, but if I get hurt I might lose my job. These things are kept quiet when you apply.”

On its website Getir states that it “cares about the people that make all of this possible.” But in the gig economy, exploitation will always reign supreme. 

Names have been changed 


‘Dark stores’ and the speed service to reach new market
Goods outside railway arches in east London

Getir warehouse in east London (Picture: Socialist Worker)

Delivery start-ups that bring hot food to your door may have been the favourite of investors five years ago, but now there’s a new trend in town. 

From taxi services to food service, the latest market is quick delivery of goods. Behind this lies “dark shop companies”. These essentially buy items at wholesale prices and employ workers to collect and deliver them at speed—and at retail prices.

Covid lockdowns meant millions of people turned to delivery services, preferring to order from the safety of their own homes. While major supermarkets have offered delivery services for years, bosses saw an opportunity to provide a much faster service. Companies like Getir, Gorilla and Jiffy offer to deliver your groceries in as little as ten minutes. 

Instead of workers picking food from the aisles of a supermarket, or even a large distribution centre, food is stored in a series of the small “dark shops”. In theory these shops, located in heavily populated urban areas, are close to all potential customers to make delivery times short. 

Costs

They don’t need to be set up in large spaces like a supermarket—they simply need to store groceries. This keeps costs and other outgoings down. Pickers who work in dark shops are rewarded with bonuses for making up the most orders in the shortest amount of time. Delivery drivers at Getir can earn an extra £100 for completing 135 orders in a week. 

But the drive for more speed in the delivery industry comes at the expense of workers. A rider for Getir in Turkey, where the company originated, was recently fired from his job for speaking out. 

He said, “I am working 14 hours a day. I have no purpose, no goal. Did I come to the world just to work? The last time I went on a holiday was in 2017.” The company tried to suggest that his dismissal had nothing to do with the interview. 

Getir and similar companies attempt to distance themselves from the likes of Deliveroo and Uber by employing their workers on full time or part-time contracts. But this doesn’t stop the maltreatment of workers in the industry. 

Workers in Turkey said that they were laid off in 2020 when mandatory lockdowns ended and the demand for Getir decreased.  One worker said, “We formed a WhatsApp group. We wanted to do a strike. But they (the commission) found out about it and dispersed it. They were fine when business was booming, but now they’re kicking us all out.”

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