“What, it’s not even 7pm and you’re getting tired?” Shaf Hussain barks, flashing a devilish grin to me on a dreary Waterloo Bridge as we steam towards Soho for our twelfth Deliveroo pick-up of the shift.
“It’s not that I’m tired, it’s just my eyelids are closing on their own,” I explain to an uproar of incredulous laughter.
It is certainly not helping me that we are cycling at breakneck speeds through Soho, slipping between mothers cajoling their children in Piccadilly Circus or swerving to avoid bankers stumbling out of bars in their red chinos.
I remember praying for the first time in years as he led me through a tiny gap only he could see between a bus and a huge chugging lorry stuck in traffic.
Shaf doesn’t need a bell – his signature Cockney “Oi-oi-oi!” is enough to make sure tourists leap out of his path in time.
Kissing lovers recoil, squeal and break apart as Shaf bowls through, followed seconds later by this exhausted reporter desperately trying to get a chicken wrap to its new home in time.
The outspoken 29-year-old has worked as a food courier for seven years, racking up thousands of miles across central London but never quite earning enough to go on holiday.
He says he used to be able to do six 12-hour days a week but the toll on his physical and mental health means he has had to scale back the hours.
Shaf suffers from lower back pain, his muscles are in a constant state of tension even when he tries to sleep and he has joint issues with his left knee from a previous accident.
His battered body makes a mockery of Conservative work and pensions secretary Mel Stride’s insistence that over-50s looking for work should consider delivering takeaways.
Recently, an 18-year-old courier was left with life-changing injuries after being hit by a bus in Tottenham while another courier was knifed repeatedly for his e-bike in Sheffield.
One of Shaf’s friends was stabbed for his e-bike in east London, one of the reasons he prefers a cheaper model. He points to his battered single-gear bike that’s worth £200 at most – it is light and gets the job done.
He had two pricy mountain bikes snatched from him before. Another acquaintance had acid thrown over him in another violent London robbery.
Shaf leaves his trusty bike unlocked balancing it on glass windows of any takeaways to prove his point – it is invisible to thieves.
We fly past Buckingham Palace, Savile Row, Lamborghini dealerships, the bright lights of Burberry, Balenciaga and Versace. The former estate agent trainee points at the sky telling me which penthouse flats have exchanged for £20m or more before sharing morsels about some of his more high-profile clientele.
He tells me No 10 Downing Street loves Byron and Five Guys burgers but they don’t love tipping.
The King’s horse guards are very polite, always on time and love McDonald’s cheeseburgers, he says, much like the officers at New Scotland Yard.
As a younger man, he says he could do 50 drop-offs in a day. He knows precisely when the lights change on Bond Street, he looks at his destination once on his phone and then Sherlock Holmes-style mind palaces his way through the route.
One woman hosting an event in Mayfair asks him to come up past the concierge and climb to the seventh floor.
He bluntly texts her back “If you are not down here in seven minutes I will leave your food on the floor outside.”
“That usually works,” he laughs to me as she appears like clockwork, apologising profusely.
“I used to love this job but then the adrenaline has fizzled out for me,” he says. “If my children ever wanted to be a courier I would strongly advise them against it.
“People say I don’t have a boss but I still have to work every day at the rush hour times or I make nothing.”
Shaf was cagey about reports that undocumented migrants barred from working in the country rent Deliveroo accounts, typically for around £50 a week, from holders who have the correct passport or right to work.
Deliveroo insists it cancels the account of anyone who doesn’t have right-to-work status.
The Home Office announced a series of crackdowns, and immigration officers have been circling Deliveroo hotspots in Chinatown demanding riders hand over documentation.
Shaf says if they do not have it to hand, their bikes are impounded, riders are detained and face the threat of deportation.
He recalled being caught up in an immigration raid on a dark kitchen run by a Chinese chef. Despite being London-born he was detained until he showed his provisional licence.
“I wasn’t scared, I was so p***ed off,” he said. “I was caught in the net. They couldn’t tell by my London accent. They wouldn’t let me leave until I could prove I was born in this country.
“I felt insulted. I was born here, why should I have to prove my legality? Do I have to walk around draped in a Union Jack?”
Shaf says that on a good day, a rider might earn £60 to £80 for working 12 hours – amounting to no more than half the hourly minimum wage. However, Deliveroo stresses that riders do not have hourly shift patterns and are able to work as much or as little as they like. Riders are also able to work with multiple companies in the same hour, including competitors.
“Some restaurants are just blacklisted in my head. They treat you like s***, don’t look you in the eye. It goes around the couriers very quickly and everyone skips them so they have to pay more for delivery.”
Shaf is also a union leader. Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has 1,000 members paying £10 a month fees which helps provide legal support for accidents and immigration issues.
He has a manifesto too: “I want the government to regulate the industry. Regulate how much you earn, the minimum they have to pay us. If they give us an hourly wage we are employees and some people don’t want to be employees.
“Currently we are misclassified. We are called self-employed workers but we are not.
“There needs to be a limit to how many riders each company can have on the street. I want security – holiday pay, sick pay that is easy to access – and real flexibility.”
Changing tack, I tell him he must know all the capital’s best date spots as he bundles into every posh restaurant in town and can suss out the romantic vibes.
He replies melancholically that he hasn’t been on a date in the seven years since he started the job.
“My social life is non-existent at this point,” he says. “I am too tired. I get home from work, have family dinner, watch some anime and fall straight asleep.”
After the gruelling noon to 9pm shift he goes home with not much more than £50. I couldn’t believe it. We had delivered £60 steaks to city traders, Zizzis to the stage door of Mamma Mia, and pricey sushi to rich overseas students in plush skyscrapers.
He worked non-stop, accepting jobs on top of jobs all over central and west London, switching expertly between swearing loudly about the state of capitalism to a beaming smile on his face for the customers.
With rain due all day tomorrow, he will take a well-earned rest and is looking forward to his uncle’s wedding on Sunday before the rat race begins again.
He cashes out at just over £55, after taking a 50p hit in the form of a surcharge for not waiting until the end of the week. He needs the money now.
Our last delivery sees us finally go our separate ways with Shaf getting a train back to Custom House where he will grab a snack and a drink before joining his family for pasta.
Strung out and with his last big order cancelled by the customer he finally released me from his care. “Your legs will be f***ed tomorrow,” he laughs at me. “They are already,” I complain bitterly.
Wheeling my way, head lolloping down, all the way back to drizzly north London I’m flummoxed as to how he has kept this intensity up for so long.
Then I remember a moment as we took a well-earned breather in an overcast Hanover Square Shaf showing me a Kickstarter robot he wants to buy with his hard-earned money for the young nephews he clearly adores – maybe it is for him too.
As we part ways, one last piece of advice. Remember to always tip your rider – it goes straight to them.
The Independent cycled 19.5 miles for eight Deliveroo orders earning £36.07 and seven Uber Eats orders worth £20.67.
A Deliveroo spokesperson said: “Deliveroo offers flexible work to more than 80,000 self-employed riders across the UK. We receive thousands of applications each week and retention is strong, underlining the popularity of the work we provide. Alongside flexibility, we want to offer riders more security.
“Deliveroo was amongst the first platforms to offer riders free insurance, which we have extended to cover periods of illness and financial support for new parents.
“Riders’ earning potential with Deliveroo is high - but they are in control of the work they do and don’t do. In the rider app, riders can see how busy it is in nearby areas, in order to make informed decisions on whether to work or not. There is never an obligation for riders to work.
“Every rider is guaranteed to earn at least the National Living Wage plus costs while working with us, though the majority earn more than this, and through our landmark agreement with the GMB union we will collective bargain on pay and consult on benefits and other issues, including riders’ health, safety and wellbeing.”