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Saturday, May 21, 2022

‘Insulting’: how inadequate fuel support may force couriers out of work | Petrol prices

Nicolas, a 36-year-old courier based in a small town in Suffolk, has started to think the unthinkable: spiralling fuel costs may soon force him out of work.

Nicolas (he asked not to use his surname) is one of an 18,000-strong army of self-employed drivers who work for Evri, the company formerly known as Hermes, who is desperate for more financial help to ensure delivering parcels is a viable way to earn a living.

But Nicolas claims the private equity-owned company, who he’s delivered for since 2016, is failing to recognise the value couriers bring. On Thursday Evri struck a deal with drivers and the GMB union on fuel allowance that was labelled “insulting” by some.

“It’s not just a job, you become part of the community,” said Nicolas, who visits about 75 households a day. “I’ve seen babies grow up and start school, families getting bigger, attended customers’ funerals, been invited to a wedding. During the pandemic, sometimes I was the only person elderly people would see for weeks.”

But Nicolas said he’s afraid surging fuel costs will force him out of the job. He now spends roughly £240 a month filling his tank, he said, up from about £180 before the war in Ukraine, but only stands to claw back between £8 and £12 for fuel a month.

“I’ve started having to use credit [to buy fuel], going further into debt just so I can work,” Nicolas said. “I don’t see how this changes things.”

As fuel costs jump, Evri said many self-employed couriers will receive between 35p and 75p a day depending on the delivery radius – which the company claims is an average of 2.3p a mile – backdated to 26 March. That means someone working five-days-a-week on the maximum radius would receive £3.75 a week, or £15 every four weeks, for fuel. It replaces a package earlier this month worth just under 2p a mile.

“My reaction is shock [and] total disappointment, I feel disheartened and disrespected,” said Amy, a 43-year-old courier for eight years based in Worcestershire, who also asked the Guardian not publish her surname over fear of losing her job. “It makes me really want to leave and find a company that shows a little more empathy.”

Packages in the back of Nicola’s van.
Packages in the back of Nicola’s van. Photograph: Nicola

Fuel costs have hit record highs in recent weeks, driven higher by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the west’s attempts to wean itself off Russian oil. Last week the average cost of a litre of petrol at UK forecourts was 167.3p, according to data firm Experian Catalist, while diesel was 179.7p. Despite the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, cutting 5p off fuel duty, many complain that the discount is not being fully passed on.

Further fuel price climbs are expected, piling pressure on courier drivers who are often on gig economy contracts and lack the security of full-time employees.

Nicolas, 36, said working as a courier means becoming part of the community. He sits with a chicken on his shoulder.
Nicolas, 36, said working as a courier means becoming part of the community. Photograph: Nicolas

An organiser for GMB acknowledged the package isn’t perfect but said the allowances were a “step in the right direction”. “It’s a helping hand – it isn’t huge amounts, but it’s at least more than just a token from the company,” said Steve Garelick, GMB’s national lead for Evri, who helped negotiate the agreement.

Garelick added that Evri has no legal obligation to offer a fuel allowance to couriers in its “self-employed plus” category and acknowledged their willingness to “do the right thing”.

“We always want more,” he said. “But we started from zero.” He hailed real progress from the GMB-Evri negotiations, bringing money to couriers’ pockets.

Evri earlier this month offered a fuel allowance scheme of just under 2p a mile – between 30 and 40p a day, which was attacked by couriers – that Thursday’s agreement replaces with immediate effect. Other companies, such as Amazon, provide more generous fuel allowances of over 21p a mile in some cases.

The row underlines the precarious nature of gig economy work, particularly courier driving, which has ballooned during the pandemic amid a surge in online shopping.

Hermes Parcelnet posted a pre-tax profit of £131m in the year to February 2021, more than tripling the £43m the year before, as packages surged during the pandemic. Revenue was almost £1.5bn for the year to February 2021, a roughly 70% jump on £860m the year before. The highest paid director received an aggregate pay package of more than £600,000 last year.

In 2020, American private equity group Advent International partnered with management to acquire a 75% stake in what was then trading as Hermes UK. Advent, which bought the defence company Cobham in 2019, renamed Hermes last month, after coming under fire for mishandling parcels.

James, a 63-year-old courier in Northamptonshire who joined Evri more than two years ago, said he was spending about £45 a month on fuel last year, but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine it has soared to about £65. “The fuel situation is horrendous,” said James, who withheld his surname over fears of his role being terminated.

He said the low fuel allowance is another instance of the company not valuing its couriers for what can be a physically demanding job. “At the end of the week I definitely feel it,” said James, who is on medication for a heart attack a few years ago.

An Evri spokesperson said: “As part of its ongoing review with the GMB union designed to support couriers following the most recent spike in fuel prices, Evri has today announced new payments which … equate to 2.3p per mile on average.”

The allowance is structured in four grades: 35p a day (for couriers with an average delivery radius of less than 1 sq mile); 50p (1-5 sq miles); 65p (5-20 sq miles): and 75p (more than 20 sq miles).

Evri’s spokesperson added it provides access for couriers to the best fuel cards and it will continue to regularly review fuel prices with GMB to ensure people are paid the “national living wage”.

But many couriers are unhappy. “It’s insulting, it feels like a slap in the face,” said Nicola, a 40-year-old courier in South Yorkshire.

Nicola said she has worked as a courier for 12 years. “It takes years to build up the experience – knowing which customers want packages left in their sheds, greenhouses, at the backdoor,” she said.

“I really don’t want to leave this job, but I’m not making ends meet.”

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