We’ll be asking doctors, nurses, supermarket staff, delivery people etc. what it’s like to be doing their job during a pandemic when doing their job means putting themselves at risk.
In this instalment, we ask an American living in Vienna, Winston Kelly, who’s working as a food delivery rider for Mjam. He’s working every day, from 5 to 11 hours a day throughout the Coronavirus shutdown.
Vienna Würstelstand (VWS): What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing at the moment?
Winston Kelly (WK): I’m facing two challenges at the moment – the first challenge is trying to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus while doing my job during the pandemic, and the other challenge is fighting for the rights of freelancers in the gig economy.
It is no easy thing to be working during the pandemic as a food delivery person. We have a new “contactless” delivery process which has definitely made the delivery procedure more complicated. As riders working during the pandemic, our primary concern is to deliver food without contributing to the spread of the Coronavirus either to our customers, restaurant employees, and to ourselves.
My daily routine now includes picking up the food and handling it in a totally different way than normal, washing my hands and/or using hand sanitizer frequently, disinfecting my equipment and uniform at the end of every shift, finding ways to safely accept tips (when they are offered), and generally trying to stay alert to transmission threats that surround me every day. I take pride in providing an essential service safely to those who cannot obtain food in traditional, pre-pandemic ways.
At the same time, I am currently working to organize the many freelancers who unfortunately must work outside of the amazing social welfare system in Vienna. It was a great victory for the fully employed riders (echte Dienstnehmer) at Mjam when they were to able to join a union (Vida) and negotiate a contract, but the majority of riders (approximately 90%!) in the Mjam fleet are freie Dienstehmer, or ‘freelancers,’ and are still unrepresented, missing out on many of the benefits the social welfare system provides.
VWS: What are people treating you like when you get to their door?
WK: Well, (laughs), if they open the door, people are generally friendly and appreciative of the work we do. I try to always make the brief moments that I interact with customers pleasant by smiling and being polite. It’s a great way to practice my German.
VWS: What’s been the weirdest experience under the new circumstances thus far?
WK: The weirdest experience is seeing virtually no people on the streets and hearing the constant sirens from police and other emergency services. It feels very apocalyptic, especially at night, like the opening scenes of a zombie movie.
VWS: What’s it like riding on near-empty streets?
WK: It’s strange, but also a great pleasure. Our job can be dangerous when drivers are careless, but with so few cars on the street, I can fully appreciate the beauty of the city. No traffic equals more fun.
VWS: Have you got colleagues who have caught the virus?
WK: I am a member of the Transnational Federation of Couriers – it’s an advocacy group fighting for the rights of all couriers around the globe. I consider every messenger to be both a colleague and a brother or sister. Many of my brother and sister couriers in Italy, Spain, and France have unfortunately caught the virus. A few have even died.
The pandemic has only highlighted the precarious nature of our work as messengers/couriers/ and food delivery personnel. It is hard to be neither self-employed nor fully employed, especially during this crisis. My heart goes out to each and every one of them. Many must stay home, sick and without pay. This has to change. Thankfully no one I know in the Mjam fleet has become sick.
VWS: Do you fear catching it yourself?
WK: Of course, I do. With the facts and precautions about the Coronavirus seeming to change daily, I always wonder if the measures I’m taking are enough. But I diligently adhere to government precautions and do everything I can to protect myself, my family, my fellow riders, restaurant employees, and my customers.
VWS: What’s the atmosphere like among the riders?
WK: It’s a strange life sometimes to be a rider. We experience tremendous freedom, freedom of movement, freedom in our schedules. But at the same time, the industry is a precarious one and the job is a precarious job. We live with the danger of being in the streets for hours and hours at a time. We work very hard to earn a meager living. The pandemic only highlights the risks we live with every day. As a result, I feel that my colleagues are mentally tough. We experience much joy in riding, but our daily lives are full of serious concerns. I think we are cautiously optimistic as a whole and I’m proud of how we have stepped up to fulfil a need during this pandemic to safely distribute food to those in need (or those who are just hungry!).
VWS: What would you urge everybody out there to do to help you and riders like you?
WK: First of all, if we do a good job, and if we bring you the food quickly, and the hot food arrives hot, show your appreciation by tipping!!! The tip is not only a sign of appreciation but a sign of respect for the dangerous work we do every day. For many riders, it makes the difference between just scraping by, and earning a decent middle-class living.
Secondly, educate yourselves about the gig economy and how workers around the world are being exploited because of the loopholes created by new business models using technology to circumvent fair labor practices and reasonable compensation of employees.
Thirdly, drivers please respect traffic laws and understand the risks all cyclists must endure while riding in a busy city.
Finally, throw us a smile, or a thank you, if you have food delivered. You’ll get one in return. I guarantee it!