'I’m always delivering food while hungry': how undocumented migrants find work as substitute couriers in the UK

Luca* had not been working long as an online food courier when we met him on a cold winter’s day in a square in the city centre. This was where many food couriers waited for orders to “drop” into their mobile phones.

The 42-year-old husband and father of one was a recently arrived migrant but not qualified to work in the UK. Luca spoke little English, rented a room with three other people, and earned some money by informally renting food delivery accounts from other couriers as a “substitute” rider. He said this was his first chance of regular paid work since arriving in the UK, adding:

In this square, I could point you to who is renting an account from other people because they cannot register using their own details.

Opportunities to rent someone else’s official account can arise through word of mouth, family members, social media and other community websites. Mario, another undocumented migrant in his late 20s, explained that he would constantly browse different social media platforms to identify new courier accounts to rent, in case his existing ones suddenly became inoperable:

The way I started working was to search on Facebook for ads offering accounts – it’s pretty impressive how these people have all this set up. They asked me if I needed a bike, gear and helmet for an extra fee.

Our research into food couriers in one English city highlights the daily challenges facing undocumented migrant workers in this sector. Despite past news reports highlighting this issue, it was not hard to find and talk to such people about their experiences.

During 2021 and 2022, we got to know seven undocumented migrants who worked as food delivery riders by renting accounts from other riders. We also interviewed 25 documented account holders, of whom three rented their accounts to undocumented couriers for anything from a few hours to weeks at a time.

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This is by no means a representative sample – undocumented riders represent a tiny fraction of the UK’s rapidly expanding food courier population. But their experiences are important to understand. Often desperate to secure waged work but with no options for lawful employment, they are willing to accept pay standards well below the UK’s national minimum wage and put up with stressful working conditions.

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The undocumented couriers we spoke to typically said they struggled to make enough money to pay off their debts and support their families, despite often working seven days a week. Mario, who was single and lived with friends, linked his long hours and the physical nature of his work with sustaining various injuries as well as mental stress:

I can take some money home but at very high costs: long hours on the bike, aching knees and joints, back problems from carrying the thermal bag – [and then] dealing with the account broker … They are such a pain, and you are always like: “Yes, sir.”

Some couriers also described receiving abuse from other riders on social media – for example, in response to their posts looking for accounts to rent. The documented couriers regard this activity as harming their prospects of securing decent pay and working hours.

‘A choice between eating or getting documents’

The undocumented couriers we interviewed were aged between 20 and 40, and possessed little or no English. They had arrived from different parts of the world, incurring loans and other debts to enter the UK – which were then added to by the need to buy or rent the bicycles, helmets, thermal bags and other gear to start working as a food delivery rider.

Edu, who was in his mid-30s, told us that before making any money for himself or his family back home, he first had to put money aside to pay off the debts he had incurred to get to the UK. He had arrived with a tourist visa nearly a year earlier, helped by an “agency” back in his home country. He said:

I earn money for me and my family, but first and foremost to pay off any debt … I work every day to try to earn as much as possible. Money is tight, but somehow I am managing.

Poignantly, he told us that he often goes short of food himself while working as a delivery rider:

I’m always delivering food while hungry … I will only bring my family [to the UK] when I’m debt-free and I get my documents – but this day may never come. Until then, I work and work and work.

Edu said he relied on other couriers to rent him food delivery account details for a weekly fee that was deducted directly from his wages. Social media and chat groups are ripe with posts offering accounts for rent. Typically, they ask for weekly fees of between £55 and £100.

Edu no longer had his tourist visa and was in the process of securing approval for his right-to-work documentation when we spoke. This presented a daily dilemma for him:

I am dealing with the paperwork and on the phone trying to sort things out, or I am out on the bike trying to earn some money. It’s a choice between eating or getting the [legal] documents.

On average, our undocumented interviewees earned between £900 and £1,500 a month, after deducting their account and gear rental costs. Working weeks of 80 to 115 hours were common, meaning that they earned well below the UK’s national minimum wage (at the time of our interviews, £9.50 per hour for workers aged 23 and over).

The insecure and informal nature of this work results in hyper-precarious lives. The prohibitive costs of city accommodation in the UK, for example, are often minimised by renting rooms with other migrants. Interviewees described sharing a single bedroom with up to three other people.

Body aches and extreme fatigue were part of life for Edu as he tried to overcome the low pay by working long hours every day:

The way I see it is, on weekdays I work to pay off my debts from back home, plus the bike and account rental. Weekends, when I work the most hours, are for me and my family … On Fridays and weekends, I sometimes work over 15 hours each day to compensate for the little money I take home during the week.

‘Easy to cut through the red tape’

The UK online food ordering and delivery industry is currently valued at £2.75 billion, having grown almost 30% each year since 2018. The number of public users of these food delivery services is currently put at 12.7 million – equating to almost one in four UK adults.

Riders who deliver for online food platforms are self-employed, with flexibility a key selling-point for these “gig economy” jobs. This includes the ability to ask a substitute to deliver on the rider’s behalf if he or she is unavailable. But our research confirms that some people, usually couriers themselves, use the substitution rule to rent out multiple accounts in different food delivery apps to supplement their income. As Anthony, a 30-something “courier-broker”, observed:

I know that some [account holders] run real businesses here by renting multiple accounts, gear, the lot … This means that the demand [for accounts] is there … but it also tells you how easy it is to cut through the red tape.

The online food platforms all have strict regulations regarding who is allowed to work as a delivery courier. For example, both Deliveroo and Uber Eats – two of the UK’s largest food delivery companies – make clear on their websites that all couriers must be able to prove their right to work in the UK, including as a substitute rider. When approached for comment about the issues raised in this article, both companies stressed that this policy is strictly enforced at all times.

However, responsibility for checking that substitute riders are qualified to work ultimately lies with the account holders themselves, and our research found multiple examples of undocumented migrant workers, as well as other documented but ineligible or banned riders, working informally as substitute couriers.

Sam, another courier who was renting out his accounts, told us he was “constantly looking out for potential new rentals” (individuals who are looking to rent accounts), but that “where I dedicate more time is in setting up new accounts”. These may come via friends and family members who are willing to register new accounts on multiple platforms for him, so he can rent them out to other couriers.

Sam, in his late 30s, had been renting out accounts to both documented and undocumented workers for three years, charging a weekly fee of £70. He added:

It’s not like I’m expecting to get rich from this. But it gives me some pocket money to be more comfortable.

One of the documented couriers we met during an earlier round of interviews also worked for a union that supports food couriers. Mark, who was in his mid-20s, said it was increasingly common to see undocumented couriers engaging in food delivery because platform companies were “pretty much passing the legal responsibility and costs on to the rider who is renting out the account”.

If you are a legitimate account holder, Mark explained:

You’re supposed to do a criminal record, right-to-work check on whoever you’re handing the account to. But we all know that is not going to happen because it’s too much hassle.

As well as the initial checks, couriers then receive regular prompts to submit a selfie through the account app to verify their identity. Sam explained how he gets round this identity-checking system when renting the account to an undocumented or disqualified rider:

If you’re using the account and the photo [prompt] comes up, you can message me, and I will log in [to the app] and take a selfie … I just need to verify my identity this way. Then you log back in, and that’s it.

Deliveroo stressed that it operates a zero-tolerance policy towards riders who fail to meet their obligations when they appoint another person to complete orders. It added that it conducts regular sweeps of its riders to search for any indication of suspicious or illegal activity, and is rolling out new identity verification technology to further strengthen its system of ID checks. A spokesperson said:

Deliveroo riders are self-employed and those who work with us must have the right to work in the UK. Riders have these checks completed before signing up with Deliveroo, and riders who engage substitutes – for example lending accounts to friends or family to do deliveries – are contractually responsible for doing the same. Should a rider subcontract to an individual without right-to-work status, Deliveroo would end their contract immediately. These obligations are clearly and consistently communicated to all riders.

Uber Eats stated that it takes immediate steps to deactivate an account if any breach is found to have taken place, and that it carries out regular identity verification on account holders to ensure that the owner retains control of their account. A spokesperson said:

All couriers who use the Uber Eats app are required to pass a criminal background check, be over the age of 18, and hold a valid right to work in the UK. Any courier that fails to meet these criteria will have their access to the app removed.

Living ‘in constant anxiety’

The nature of food courier work, with pay per delivery and high workforce competition, means the riders – whether using bicycles, ebikes or mopeds – can be exposed to health hazards and safety risks, in some cases resulting in serious injury.

As well as accidents with cars and road rage incidents with drivers, our interviewees also highlighted the dangers from “cutting corners” – for example, running red lights and riding on pavements. However, both Deliveroo and Uber Eats stressed that they do not have strict delivery deadlines, and that riders are encouraged to adhere to the rules of the road at all times.

While some food platform companies, including both Deliveroo and Uber Eats, offer their riders insurance while delivering, many documented couriers feel the need to buy more comprehensive coverage.

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But this option is not available to undocumented riders. Accidents can make them “visible”, jeopardising both their immediate ability to work and any future prospect of securing legitimate right-to-work status. This may lead them to avoid seeking treatment if an injury is sustained, instead continuing to work and thereby risking doing further damage to their physical and mental health.

Undocumented riders must also deal with the constant stress of being “shopped” for their lack of qualifications, or of losing their income stream if an account owner suddenly stops renting it to them or the food platform shuts it down. As a result, these riders usually access accounts from multiple sources to protect their income stream – including renting from family members or tight networks they may have built up before arriving in the UK.

Mario talked of living “in constant anxiety” about suddenly finding he cannot access his rented account:

I get so distressed because then I have to spend hours looking for a new [account], which obviously means I’m not making any money … It can be that the account expired, or simply that the broker rented to someone else who’s willing to pay more money.

Another hurdle can be how undocumented migrants receive their wages, since all payments go to the account holder in the first place. Money exchanges rely on a high degree of trust, as Sam explained:

All details associated with the account are mine, apart from the mobile number. I just transfer the money but keep the [account rental] fee. They can cash out daily or weekly.

Deliveroo highlighted that it carries out “systemic bank account checks” to verify the account holder is also the owner of the bank account.

Our interviewees told us that the account brokering system can, in some cases, lead to abusive and coercive behaviour towards undocumented couriers. Some described working in a perpetually hostile environment amid the twin threats of not being paid and of being exposed for their undocumented activity. We also saw numerous social media posts and chat rooms in which documented food couriers threatened to expose undocumented couriers.

A spokesperson for Deliveroo stressed that all forms of harassment or discriminatory behaviour are completely unacceptable, and that specific harassment claims are immediately investigated.

Food couriers outside a McDonald's restaurant

Informal work across the UK

The number of undocumented couriers working in app-based food delivery throughout the UK is unclear. But studies show there has been a recent increase in informal work and employment practices in many UK sectors. Since 2016, businesses using undocumented workers – those without residence status or visas – are estimated to have generated between 10% and 12% of the UK’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

We know from our wider research that undocumented workers are a growing presence in a number of UK sectors. For example, at hand car washes, undocumented labour from Albania, sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, and Kurdistan now competes with documented workers from eastern Europe. This has pushed day wage rates down to subsistence levels, with workers in some cases forgoing wages in favour of food and shelter.

In cash-only nail bars, a sector that has witnessed exponential growth in England and Wales, most workers are inappropriately documented. For example, they may be students who have remained in the UK beyond the terms of their student visa, or undocumented migrants who have entered the UK with the help of a “travel courier” – more commonly referred to as a trafficker. If you look in a nail bar you will typically see generous staff levels, but there are few, if any, adverts for technician jobs.

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Both cash-only nail bars and hand car washes frequently fail to comply with regulations regarding health and safety and planning permission. Because they are unregulated, the status of those engaged (workers, contractors, or employees) is invisible to enforcement agencies, which our research found are typically more interested in patterns of ownership, the potential for money laundering, and migrant dissemination than labour rights.

In contrast, online food platform companies such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats abide by all UK laws and regulations. But our research supports previous reports that have shown the sector’s rider substitutes system is being misused by some account holders, putting undocumented migrants who take advantage of this system at risk of harm and abuse. We believe stronger oversight on the part of the UK authorities is needed, if informal working in the food delivery sector is not to grow further and put more vulnerable people at risk.

In its response, Deliveroo stressed that it is constantly working to improve oversight of its riders, including by introducing new technology and working collaboratively with the relevant authorities. It added that riders’ use of substitutes is a legitimate right of the self-employed workforce, and rejected any comparison with other labour markets.

*All names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities

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Pedro Mendonça receives funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Ian Clark receives funding from The Art's and Humanities Research Council/Modern Slavery Policy and Evidence Centre, the Home Office Modern Slavery fund and the National Crime Agency.

Nadia Kougiannou does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.