By Qusai Khwes
I opened my eyes; waking up to my back hurting a bit, and my feet a lot.
The day before, I spent more than fifteen hours in my ‘workplace’. In the summer of 2021, couriers at Thuisbezorgd were not permitted to work more than five hours at a time. In order to be compensated for full time-work like a normal job, bike couriers would return to the hub every five hours to wait a few hours before riding again for another five hours. The lucky ones who live nearby the hub can go home to rest between shifts, however for myself, getting to and from the hub takes two hours, so I would remain nearby. In December 2021, Thuisbezorgd changed their terms, permitting couriers to access full-time contracts and work anywhere between 16 to 40-hour weeks. A number of Dutch news sites have cited the new policy as a “win” for laborers in the gig-economy. However, by amplifying the voices and experiences of delivery riders themselves, there is a lot to learn about the far-reaching abuses that are likely to continue despite the new policy.
Waking up and reflecting on my body’s pain, I decided I wanted to go out for breakfast. This is the feeling you get when you feel overworked in a job you don’t like. It’s a need to consume anything as a hopeless attempt to compensate for the abuse endured by your body and time. After about an hour of killing time in bed, my hunger dragged me to a nearby café at Hoofddorpplein. After placing my order, I sat and began watching the biker-bys racing the streets, many of them couriers. I was in this same area of Nieuw-West a few days earlier, racing against the clock, delivering someone’s food. I recalled having a conversation with a colleague as we waited outside a restaurant for our orders. While chatting, he pointed to a scar on his chin,
“I had an accident once while I was working. I have stitches under my chin now. For months I couldn’t play music or work on my thesis because my hands were hurt so badly.”
I asked, “What did they do?”
“I called them the moment I had the accident, and the first thing they did was end my shift for the day,” he laughed.
It was absurd, even funny. Disregard is the tall shadow of greed when the sun exposes it horizontally. As I recalled this encounter, many more conversations about my colleagues’ experiences working for Thuisbezorgd rushed into my mind. I went inside the café, asked for a pen and a piece of paper, and started writing them down.
Writing, I was transported to a sunny encounter in front of McDonald’s at Rokin, where many couriers gathered waiting for their orders. Some wore headphones, listening to music or podcasts. My ears were tired of the headphones, so my eyes searched for someone to converse with.
An observant Belgian colleague sitting on a concrete ledge offered me a seat. He complained lengthily about his knee injury and how it worsened at the end of each shift, consequently limiting opportunities for his future career in choreography.
“Sometimes I think the only good thing in this job is that you see lots of pretty faces,” he halted upon reflection. “But then I remember that they don’t see us,” he laughed.
I felt that too. People seem to perceive delivery riders as unskilled workers, as if this job is a last resort. Therefore, it is unique that someone pays attention to us on a personal level.
On another day, after finishing my shift, I chatted with a colleague who was a homie from Syria. We spoke about how long we had both been working for Thuisbezorgd and how happy we were with this work. He then lowered his head and proceeded in a calm tone,
“You know it is a big company, and that’s alright, big companies are impersonal. What bugs me is when they pretend to care about you. Like the message they send you at the end of your shift, ‘did you enjoy your shift today?'”.
His voice grew louder, carrying heavier emotions, “They cannot make it personal because it is not. And they cannot pretend to care because they don’t. When it was snowing in February, couriers fell from bikes, bleeding from their heads. The first question they were asked was, ‘did you deliver your order?’” He laughed, and I could feel the frustration circulating in his body.
This frustration was not new to me. Another time, when speaking to a Spanish colleague. He spoke passionately about his love for bikes and his studies at the Conservatory.
I responded, “Well, then you picked the right job next to your study!”
He looked at me with disappointment, “I thought so at first, but after working for a while here, I became much more of an aggressive driver. Do you notice how people tend to oversee you when you are wearing these orange clothes!? They deprive you of your right to the street.”
The passion left his body.
While eating my breakfast, I jotted down a nice analogy once shared with me; we are underpaid. It is not fair to make less than fifteen euros in an hour while doing a physical and dangerous job like this. It’s like drug dealing! We should be paid for the danger and risks involved.
After finishing writing these conversations down, I went to pay my breakfast bill. Thinking about how the price equated to working for three hours, I instantly regretted treating myself.
As the largest food delivery company in Europe, Thuisbezorgd is only expanding by the day, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As they expand, little room is left for smaller services and businesses to breathe– for example restaurants who depend on the delivery service to stay afloat amidst new health measures, are charged high commissions on each order. Furthermore, regardless of new working contracts, the company will continue treating their workers with little regard on a day to day basis and still pay minimum wage despite the risks involved in the job.
Paying attention to the personal experiences of Thuisbezorgd riders sheds light on how companies grow through the normalization of abuse. They are permitting dominant society to remain ignorant about the personhood of workers in the neoliberal market. I am privileged enough to ditch this job whenever I’ve had enough, but I pray for everyone who endures it while feeling ethically torn as they witness their own hands building an empire.
Qusai Khwes is a Bachelors student of Cultural Anthropology and Sociology Development at the VU. His graduation project investigated ‘loneliness from different cultural backgrounds in relation to urbanism.’
Thank you for this fine piece of sensory anthropology (and more than just that). It shows the strength of anthropology; some good observations can tell more about labour conditions than large surveys.
Thanks for your ethnography. I have learned a lot from reading it. I suggest you to send to some news media, it deserves to have more articles out there, for a broad public.
I hope we cross paths in the university, I liked very much reading your work.
Congrats, Barbara Arisi
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