How platform-based meal delivery services play a role in young people’s migration projects

Deliveroo bike couriers

The working conditions of freelancers delivering food through online platforms such as Deliveroo or Uber Eats have been in the news a lot lately. Dr Roy Huijsmans, Associate Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies, conducts research on people working through such platforms based on the idea of 'participant observation'.

Rather than interviewing people over a cup of coffee, he prefers to conduct interviews while riding along: 'By cycling together with the delivery workers, we were able to talk a lot. And as a researcher, you see things in context.'

It sounds innovative, the way you conduct this research.

‘Actually, it is not very innovative. Participant observation is standard in ethnography. The trick as a researcher is to find a form in which you participate to some extent in the phenomenon you are studying, and to be able to observe from that role.’

Your other research concentrates on young people’s experience with development and change, privileging the perspectives of those who are rarely heard, in Laos for example. How does this Deliveroo-research fit within this?

‘Many young people working as freelancers for food delivery platforms are migrants. This includes international students, people with a refugee status and various other migrants. The role freelance platform work plays in these young people’s diverse migration projects differs. This research has taught me that The Hague is also a very good place to conduct development related research. And importantly, I can do it without polluting the environment. Though of course, I would love to conduct a similar study in Laos.’

Why do ISS students want to work as meal delivery drivers?

‘Some international students conduct this work alongside their studies. For them the work is attractive because they can do it part-time and it combines well with the primary objective of their migration: working on an MA degree or PhD.

The advantage of working on a freelance basis for non-EU students is that the number of hours they can work legally is not restricted, as is the case for employment contracts. And it is easy to take a break from the work if needed. Lack of Dutch language skills combined with discriminatory practices in the regular Dutch labour market also make platform work an accessible alternative for non-Dutch speaking migrants.

At the same time, if platform work is done in order to realize other migration aspirations, for example getting a job in line with one’s education or writing a PhD proposal, there is the risk of platform work getting into the way of these initial objectives.’

Why did you start delivering yourself?

‘How can you research something that is essentially mobile? I started just cycling along. Too often in social science research we are interviewing people over a cup of coffee. I tried that too, but these conversations finished quickly and I I didn’t get the full story. By cycling along the conversations became much richer and more specific. Sometimes we were on the road for three hours. As a researcher you can observe things in context and as they unfold. And it was fun too!

It is only later that I also signed up as a food delivery rider myself. This way I experienced first-hand the way the work is organized and the improvisation riders have to do in order to complete orders. That being said, it is important to remember that my experience is different because I don’t depend on it financially.’

‘The interests of migrants involved in platform-based food delivery is different than what the union advocates for. International students, for example, appreciate the flexibility’

What did you learn from doing food delivery work yourself?

‘It is a field that constantly changes. The technical design of the application can change overnight. Riders will just be updated through an email, even though the implication on their work can be profound. For example, Deliveroo used to work with a self-booking system. Those with the best statistics could first book their sessions for the week ahead. In March last year the company moved to a free login model in The Hague. Riders could just login whenever they wanted. It had the effect that business could get really slow if there were too many riders logged in and too few orders coming through. Experiencing such shifts first-hand allows for asking more informed questions.’

The research is ongoing. Can you share preliminary findings already?

‘The interests of platform workers with a migrant background may well be different from what labour unions are advocating for. International students have different interests; for example, they like the fact that they can work as much - or as little - as they want. They also like the flexibility. The freelance model allows for all this and the employment model advocated by the labour unions would take that away. Furthermore, if your perspective is not to stay in the Netherlands for more than a few years, building up a pension may not be priority. This does not mean that they have nothing to complain about. There is concern for example about the fees going down.’

Why is this research relevant for society?

‘We all know about meal delivery workers and the newspaper reports about the erosion of working conditions. But we only see the outside, we do not see the role this work plays in people’s diverse migration projects. And what it means exactly for these riders to cycle through a foreign city and at the same time engage with it very intimately.

When we have ordered a meal, we read on our screen that ‘it is on its way’ and that the rider is named, say, Fabio. We often only focus on the first part of the message, but who is Fabio? Why is he doing this work? What is the work like for him? I hope my research will make people wonder: about the Fabio’s, the human stories that are woven into your platform meal and the role of migration in that.’

Associate professor
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