14.04.21 Is Work Working?

‘A blueprint for investigative journalism’: how the Bureau worked with riders to investigate Deliveroo

When we set out to investigate insecure work, we knew we could not do it alone. People in our collaborative network had told us of their concerns over the growing gig economy, an increase in zero-hours contracts, and “key workers” left without workers’ rights and unable to earn a living wage.

We wanted to ask and answer a seemingly simple question: is work working? But to do so, we needed to investigate in a way that put workers themselves at the heart of our journalism.

We launched our Is Work Working? project in collaboration with ITV News and The Mirror in November 2020 with an open call, inviting ideas from anyone with a story to tell about insecure work. Applicants only needed to submit a 250 word outline about an issue they had experienced, researched or noticed and that they thought merited further investigation.

This process yielded almost 70 responses covering workplaces from microbreweries to care homes, and issues including pay and sick leave, toilet access and the experiences of mothers in the gig economy.

Working with our partners at ITV and The Mirror, we identified key themes from the ideas we had collected, and invited ten applicants to an “Ideas Lab” to develop these further in a collaborative environment. Among these ten were three that concerned app-based courier and delivery rider work, and specifically a lack of transparency around pay and terminations.

The ground rules for the Ideas Lab

These ideas came from those with a deep knowledge of this issue: Ethan Bradley, a Deliveroo rider; Fran Scaife, a driver for Stuart logistics company; and Polly Bindman, a freelance journalist who had previously reported on couriers’ working conditions. At the Ideas Lab, Ethan, Fran and Polly worked through exercises designed to combine their initial ideas into one investigative pitch. Their suggestion to investigate the company’s opaque algorithm stood out to our editorial team and, after internal discussions, we ultimately decided to focus on pay.

To put this investigation into action, we established an investigative working group made up of relevant Bureau Local team members alongside Ethan, Fran and Polly, our “participant journalists”, who were paid for their time working on this project. The group met weekly to allocate reporting tasks, share updates on the progress of the investigation and flag any potential issues.

The Bureau team also worked to put in place a package of support for the group based on what they told us they needed: this included guidelines for evidence gathering and recording, training in case study interviews, and ad-hoc support and guidance throughout the investigation process. Participant journalists worked alongside the Bureau team on all aspects of the investigation, from crowdsourcing rider pay data to identifying and interviewing case studies, shaping the copy, and developing a plan to get the findings back to riders themselves.

In the end, we gathered data from more than 300 riders across the country, and interviewed more than ten on the record – something that would probably not have been possible without the involvement of riders themselves, who brought with them ready-made networks and trust from their co-workers. In collaboration with our partners, the final investigation ran in The Mirror and led the ITV lunchtime and evening news on the day of publication.

The Bureau's story brought together data from more than 300 riders

The strength of an investigation carried out by, for and with riders has been clear in the impact our story has had since we published. Local partners from Aberdeen to Yorkshire and Lincoln to Exeter published versions of the investigation, interviewing riders in their own areas to build a comprehensive picture of the Deliveroo experience across the UK. Our findings were cited in national and international media, from specialist employment law publications and the Financial Times to Bloomberg and the The New York Times. Marcus Rashford, whose End Child Food Poverty Task Force had partnered with Deliveroo, said he would raise the findings with the company’s senior team urgently.

Since our reporting, the company has been in the spotlight. Several potential investors pulled out of Deliveroo’s debut on the London Stock Exchange, with the company’s share price on the day of listing closing 14% lower than the initial offer. Deliveroo riders have also taken strike action over a range of issues including pay.

We are really grateful to riders for bringing us this story, and trusting us to tell it alongside them. Doing so required us to think differently about some of the most basic elements of our journalism, but together we published a story which is stronger and with more impact as a result. This model of participant journalism is one we hope to develop further as we continue to dig into the realities of insecure work in the UK.

To come with us on this journey and to support our mission of people-powered journalism which sparks change from the ground up, join our network today.

Polly Bindman, freelance journalist

When I responded to the Is Work Working? call-out I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect; at the time I was working on a story about app-based delivery services, and I’d observed just how many people were voicing concerns about flaws in this system of working. I wanted to investigate further, but I felt that I didn’t have the resources or practical knowledge of the industry to do so alone.

During the initial Ideas Lab, I was grouped with Ethan and Fran, who were both working as couriers. The potential of this collaboration was immediately clear – they both offered a technical knowledge of their industries as well as a lived experience that no amount of research could match, and the Bureau offered expertise and a breadth of resources.

The Bureau’s approach of paying us to share initial ideas in a secure environment, with the aim of developing a collaborative pitch for an investigation, was radically different from anything I’d encountered before. As a freelance journalist, pitching can feel a frenzied process in which nuances get lost in the scramble for a scoop. The Bureau turned that process on its head by paying us to discuss ideas and supporting a conversation between journalists and workers, which resulted in a pitch that seemed to speak to the true experiences of those working in the industry.

After our pitch was accepted, we had four weeks to build the investigation, meeting every week online to share our findings and discuss what we hoped would come of them. What felt so unique about this investigation was the intense focus on its potential impact: the entire investigation was shaped around discussions of how we could reach and impact as many people as possible. The Bureau’s expansive network of local partnerships facilitated a broad scope of engagement, as did the fact that we were each working remotely from across the UK, meaning we could individually spread the word about the investigation on the ground as well as online.

I felt galvanised by the sense that a broad group of people, many of whom have been voicing concerns about app-based working conditions for years, was able to come together for this investigation. I think that this way of working, which aims to best serve the communities whose stories are being told, should be seen as a blueprint for investigative journalism.

Fran Scaife, driver for Stuart logistics company

I think the Ideas Lab was really good, because it brought to light things I wasn’t aware of, and it was really well co-ordinated. If I had just been left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have known exactly the best ways to approach the story or co-ordinate the investigation, but as a result of the collaboration it’s been really solid and watertight.

Ethan and I are both really grateful that we were even given a chance to do it –I don’t think we would have quite got the story to this scale if it was just us alone. I felt very involved in this, whereas with a lot of the press I’ve done in the past, it can feel like I give an interview, and they can chop and change it and do what they like with it. This just felt very involved and very honest.

I think the fact they’re paying two delivery couriers to take part is important because you’re not going to get this level of insight or knowledge unless you involve the actual industries themselves.

I’ve definitely felt pressure while working on the investigation, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing – you’re going to feel pressure when you’re doing a story of this magnitude, and when you’re putting your name to it, but I’ve felt really supported the whole way through with the Bureau, so it’s been excellent.

We both went into it not really grasping how big it was going to be. It’s all encompassing – I realised in the last two weeks how big it was going to end up and that we were doing really important work. When it came out, Ethan and I were really emotional, because this is something that riders have been talking about for a very long time, and to get us in the spotlight for once, and to get people actually listening to our story, has been overwhelming in a way – in a good way – I’ve been bowled over by the response.

One of the main things for me was feeling like it’s not just a journalist that’s talking about our issues and putting their spin on it, it’s actually lived experiences from riders that we’ve interviewed – that we know and work with. It’s definitely felt way more involved than any of the news stories I’ve been involved with in the past, which has been a really nice change.

Fran's tweet the day the investigation went live

Ethan Bradley, Deliveroo rider

I really enjoyed the whole process – this was a real opportunity for workers to tell their own stories rather than second-hand by a journalist who might not have experience of this industry. It was really good for us to convey ourselves what’s happening, and that’s something you can’t replicate without having the workers directly involved.

I think the process remained pretty faithful to the initial pitch – my pitch was on riders’ pay, and it was highlighting the fact that this tool exists, which we can utilise to do a real deep dive investigation.

So while we had the tech, we just didn't have all the experience and the storytelling resources to develop the cold hard data into a story that weaves in the lives that us riders lead. I thought the process really brought it to life – the meetings were very productive and we explored a number of avenues. I think this has really shown the best side of what journalism can be: the whole process has been laser focused on what this means to us and what it means to our lives.

The impact has been larger than I ever could have imagined, even in my wildest dreams. I knew this was a big story that was worth telling, but we've got such a history in the gig economy of being at the margins of society that you don't imagine people – and certainly not major news organisations – would be interested in our story.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this process be taken to other industries – I'm sure there are many more stories to tell in sectors that we couldn't even conceive of as having an underbelly of exploitation, and such a contrast between the lowest paid workers and the CEOs and shareholders of those companies.

It's very easy to get swept up in bigger narratives about shareholders, CEOs, and investment firms, but as long as the story is primarily about the workers, you're going to get a good story, and one that people are going to want to read and tell others about.

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Header image: Reece Lloyd, who spoke to the Bureau and ITV about life as a Deliveroo Rider. Credit: The Mirror

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