20.12.07 by Buffalo Bill
‘I hate it’, said one of the riders to me on Tuesday. He meant the power that controllers have over riders. The power to to decide who gets which job, how many jobs (and thus control their earnings) and the power to summarily dismiss, without recourse to any kind of formal disciplinary procedure, a rider without any warning.
Come to the office, and bring your radio. Most riders will know, if they hear that sentence, that a sacking is imminent. This power flows from the nature of the relationship between a courier and his company. An iniquitous relationship.
From the other side of the radio, it’s clear that controllers have little power, or should have little power. In the end, although we coordinate the efficient (or sometimes the totally absurd and nonsensical) distribution of the work, we actually don’t do the work. OK, we can see the big picture, but in the end the work that a courier company does, the service that a company supplies, is moving parcels around the city. Which you can’t do, sat on your backside in an office. You have to be mobile, you need a bike and a bag. You have to be a bicycle messenger.
I might be the friendly (or even the not-so-friendly, harassed) voice on the end of the phone, but the riders are the face, the embodiment of the company. I need my riders to fulfill my promises. When I say ‘it’ll be there in 10 minutes’, it’s not me that will be risking life and limb to get the parcel to the destination, quickly, and accurately, it’s my riders. I can’t do my job without my riders.
But riders could do their job without a company to mediate between themselves and their customers. In theory, any monkey can answer the phone, although it’s better to have well-educated, personable monkeys, that have some grasp of the topography of London, answering the phone. I am lucky enough to work with some very good people (not monkeys), and it makes my job a lot easier. But in the age of mobile telephony, there is no need to have a base, as there was before, when the only way of staying in touch with your customers out on the road was via a fixed telephone line and a two-way radio.
And it’s not so hard to generate and track invoices in these days of computerisation.
The advantages of working for a company are that you share the work around. It means that you don’t have to worry about all the awkward jobs, that it’s not you that has to knock out a Clerkwenwell to Chelsea at 645pm on a Friday night, it’s some other donkey. It’s about being part of a team. But couriering is not football. You don’t have to be part of a team to take part. All you need is a phone and a bike.
Which is why, although it might seem, and often is, the case that the courier companies have all the power, in the end it’s all about the rider.