Don’t shoot the bike messenger

The precarious existence of bike messengers in the gig economy

Katia Innes, A&E Editor

The streets of Montreal are notoriously difficult to navigate. What might begin as a simple walk down a few blocks can spiral into an Odyssey through a dystopic landscape of potholes, puddles, and decades-old construction sites. One-way streets abruptly end at public parks, only to reappear ten blocks north. The steep slopes that crawl up the craggly face of Mont-Royal are made all the more treacherous by ice, proving to be a headache for pedestrians and drivers. From an outsider's perspective, donning ski goggles and long johns to bike 25 km per hour up these unplowed boulevards seems like the last thing anyone would ever want to do. For the bike messengers who operate in Montreal, every shift involves another jostle through traffic, rain, snow, or shine. Yet, couriers have formed a warm kinship, founded upon mutual desires for improved working conditions and the world of alleycats—non-sanctioned courier races —that foster a sense of community.

Though the average Montrealer may only interact with bike messengers when shamefully receiving a late-night Uber Eats delivery from McDonald’s, their cargo is not restricted to the food service industry; they transport everything from legal documents to Amazon packages. Within a metropolitan city such as Montreal, bikes allow for quicker delivery times than cars or foot couriers, largely due to a cyclist’s ability to weave through obstacles and traffic jams that would impede a motorized vehicle. The job itself is tough, requiring physical stamina and determination, but getting hired is as easy as riding a bike.

“And one of my friends was a messenger and he was like, ‘Look, you just show up.' The interview is basically like, ‘Do you have a bike? Do you have a phone?'”

“I basically had a huge life change, and wound up in a position where I was trying to finish my studies and had no money,” David DelaCrevaison, an independent courier, said. “And one of my friends was a messenger and he was like, ‘Look, you just show up.' The interview is basically like, ‘Do you have a bike? Do you have a phone?'”

Bike messengers generally fit into one of two fields: Food or paper, the latter of which primarily concerns ferrying legal documents between businesses. Traditionally, paper couriers operate for delivery companies, such as Quality Assurance Courier (QA), and Chasseurs Courrier, that service a specific area, and their shifts are scheduled during working business hours. These jobs predominated the courier world until the rise of online food delivery services such as Foodora, Uber Eats, and SkipTheDishes in the last decade. For those looking for part-time employment, those app-based companies offer low-commitment scheduling. Adam Burton, U1 History, had previously worked in the summer as a full-time paper courier but found himself in need of part-time employment come fall.

“My reasoning for choosing Uber Eats was that my scheduling could be flexible,” Burton said. “You just pick up a three-hour shift whenever you want, that way you can choose at 2 a.m. or at peak hours and get boosts.”

Although bike messenger jobs are becoming more commonplace, job security in the field remains precarious. The majority of bike messengers are considered independent contractors by the province of Quebec, instead of dependent employees, leaving them vulnerable to the wills of their employer. As contractors, messengers are not subjected to work weeks dictated by their employer, nor can the employer determine how a contractor will execute their work. A full-time employee, on the other hand, has their work schedule dictated by their employer and is obligated to follow the working rules laid out by the employer but also receives benefits such as guaranteed hours, sick leave, vacation pay, and employment insurance.

While bike messengers may not be recognized as employees of a specific delivery company, they usually have to sign a contract that dictates the terms of their payment to start working. The majority of these contracts are commission-based, which means that couriers are compensated a certain percentage of each delivery they make, rather than by the hour. If one is lucky, some companies will offer a guarantee, meaning that if the courier fails to meet a certain profit margin, they will match that amount to ensure that all couriers are receiving the same pay. They are allowed to keep any extra commission they make if it surpasses the guarantee. On contracts that don’t have guarantees, such commission-based agreements lead to great discrepancies in pay: A heavier delivery at a longer distance during rush hour will pay more than a standard delivery.

“Some couriers can make $40-60 a day because of the commission,” Felix-Antoine Tessier, a courier for QA, said. “Some days you'll make $150, but some days you'll make way below minimum wage. It's such a variable.”

This puts many potential couriers in a bind: In order to get shifts, they must agree to the stipulations in a contract that may or may not function to provide a liveable wage. The autonomous nature of the work complements the freedoms the independent contractor status allows, yet by keeping the same couriers working for one company, which is frequently the case, the definition becomes murky. While a company may not consider a courier to be a dependent employee, for many couriers, this job is their primary source of income, albeit without the benefits an employee is traditionally ascribed.

“If you've had the same client for over X number of hours a year, it's hard to be labelled as truly independent,” Tessier said.

Although couriers may technically be considered independent contractors, there have been many cases in which they are essentially treated as full-time employees, minus the benefits. Simon Petley, currently employed at the co-op-based Chasseurs Couriers, began working as a contract courier four years ago with FreshMint, a Montreal-based delivery startup.

“They were giving us $13/hour, but we had no vacation pay, [and] they didn't have to pay us for three hours at a time, so their whole thing was that we'd work the lunch rush,” Petley said. “We'd be scheduled for three-hour shifts, but they'd cut us off after 1.5 hours and tell us we had to clock out.”

Although couriers may technically be considered independent contractors, there have been many cases in which they are essentially treated as full-time employees, minus the benefits.

The situation escalated as a ‘no-tipping’ policy was implemented, as well as a dress and hygiene policy that was difficult for couriers to follow considering the physically demanding nature of their work. These policies contradicted the very definition of an independent contractor. Frustrated by the situation, Petley eventually left. Petley’s situation is not unique; since companies hold so much control, it has become the industry standard to hire couriers simply as contractors, while simultaneously demanding a full-time commitment so that couriers can receive a livable wage.

Though couriers generally still work as independent contractors, they have continued fighting to achieve full employment status within their companies. Often, companies will find loopholes to keep couriers on as contractors, as opposed to full-time employees. In one case, Quick Messenger Service (QMS) had their couriers working on the payroll of seven different companies, all registered to the owners of QMS. All seven companies were registered to the same office space, and provided the same delivery service. Couriers were paid as contractors for these pseudo-delivery companies via cheques instead of direct deposit. This created the illusion of couriers who were picking up short-term contract work at different delivery companies, when, in reality, the couriers were reliant on QMS as a source of income. With the help of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the couriers at QMS applied for employment status. The Canada Industrial Relations Board eventually ruled that the couriers were, in fact, working for a single employer, and their application for employment certification was approved.

The bike messenger community in Montreal demonstrates the necessity of worker organization in securing better working conditions. Exploitation has become the norm in their field, and couriers have taken it upon themselves to advocate for their co-workers. Tessier, with support from l’Association des messagers et messagères à vélo de Montréal, helped develop a working conditions committee to encourage messengers in the city to achieve this status. Through direct-action tactics, such as negotiations with supervisors and the organization of a strike fund, Tessier helped oversee the transition of couriers at QA from contractors to employees.

The labour rights that couriers have achieved are largely a consequence of community-driven initiatives. Though many couriers cannot receive employment insurance, they can apply for financial aid through the Bicycle Messenger Emergency Fund (BMEF), a registered charity established in 2000, which allocates $500 to an injured courier. Since a devastating injury can put a courier out of commission and render them unable to earn an income, this fund has been well-received in the messenger community and lauded for its accessibility.

“I crashed two years ago and broke my collarbone, and I was unable to go to work for a month and a half,” Petley said. “There [are] specific companies recognized by the BMEF, and a delegate from one of those companies and Chasseurs [Couriers] came to say, like, 'Yes, they are an employee or a contractor of ours and they were working when this happened.' It was a pretty simple process.”

On a local level, smaller initiatives have also assisted bike messengers. When a co-worker fell ill at QA, Tessier explained, their guarantee was cut. Tessier and other couriers rallied, all sending messages to the administration at QA to reinstate their co-worker’s guarantee.

The bike messenger community’s solidarity extends well beyond organizing for labour rights. Locally and internationally, the popularity of unsanctioned bicycle races between couriers, known as alleycats, helps to foster a sense of community in what can be an isolating job. Alleycats follow roughly the same outline: Participants gather at a predetermined meeting point where organizers distribute ‘manifests’ which, essentially, mimic a delivery schedule, outlining a list of locations, or checkpoints, that participants must reach in order to finish. Participants have not seen the manifest prior to the race. Most races begin Le Mans style, where participants begin at a start line on foot, and must run to embark on their bikes once they receive their manifests. Alleycats stress participation rather than competition.

“Alleycats are often presented as these really dangerous, illegal things, but everyone's choosing what they want to do, and we're all out there to have fun,” DelaCrevaison, who is also an alleycat organizer, said. “I don't know of any messenger who would purposefully choose to do something that they were uncomfortable with or put themselves unnecessarily in danger just to win an alleycat.”

DelaCrevaison has organized larger-scale alleycats such as La Cours des Morts, which drew roughly 300 participants, as well as smaller tournaments such as Coupe IceCat Cup, which drew smaller crowds. An alleycat is designed to test not only a courier’s speed, but their wit and intelligence. A manifest may be as simple as biking to locations and taking a selfie, and more complicated alleycats may even have multiple manifestos or ‘rush deliveries’ that can run parallel to the original manifest.

“It's not speed that counts for everything. It's important, but if you think things through, and plan out your route really well, you can easily overcome people who are just racing through,” DelaCrevaison said.

Alleycats also serve to strengthen the international community of bike messengers. Just two years ago, Montreal hosted the 25th Annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC), an event organized by the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations (IFBMA) to celebrate couriers worldwide. Kelly Pennington, co-founder and co-owner of Chasseurs Courrier, was one of the main organizers for the 2017 CMWC. The process of securing Montreal as host city was similar to securing a bid for the Olympics: Organizers had to pitch event ideas and explain what their city would offer as hosts. Over 400 couriers participated in a week of events, including smaller alleycat tournaments, pub crawls, and conferences, culminating in a final race at the Olympic Stadium.

Recently, couriers like Pennington have been working toward creating a more inclusive environment within the messenger community, using alleycats as a visible platform to achieve this. Most alleycats have two categories: One that is open to all genders and another which encompasses anyone without cis male privilege. The Star Bike Messenger Association (*BMA), which exists to support women/trans/non-binary messengers, has used the CMWC as an opportunity to strengthen the visibility of non-cis male cyclists. The *BMA has also created guidelines on how to run inclusive events, offering recommendations on how to show representation on social media, and even how to give out prizes in a conscientious manner. The success of such events demonstrates the strange and sweet kinship that has emerged in the field of bike messengers.

It can be lonely on the streets of this subarctic wasteland. In any job, anxieties surrounding isolation and security are almost inevitable. Yet, the bike messenger community has used informal channels to achieve better working conditions. Something as simple as procuring a cargo bike to make heavier deliveries, to something more complex like securing a wage guarantee, goes a long way in making the day-to-day lives of couriers easier.