Rupert Neate prepares to make a delivery. Photograph: Sarah Gilbert for the Guardian
Signing up is simple enough. I fill out an online form, watch a video explaining how the service works and take a test to make sure Im paying attention. After passing, Im rewarded with a link to download the app, and a flurry of text messages urging me to saddle up and get on with my new career.
Joining companies like Uber is straightforward because workers are not classified as employees but self-employed contractors. This makes it much cheaper for the employer, as they dont have to grant workers rights such as access to healthcare, sickness benefit or holiday pay.
This has led to high-profile strikes on both sides of the Atlantic, including Uber drivers in the US attempting a nationwide strike and repeated strikes by Deliveroo and Uber Eats takeaway delivery drivers in the UK.
Politicians in the UK and the US have criticised gig economy companies for steadfastedly refusing to give workers benefits even if they are working effectively full-time for one employer. A committee of MPs last week criticised Uber for creating gibberish and almost unintelligible contracts to ensure that its drivers remain self-employed.
Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions select committee that is carrying out an investigation into the sector, published full details of contracts at Uber, takeaway courier firm
Deliveroo and Amazon. Quite frankly the Uber contract is gibberish, Field said. The way they work looks in most ways an awful lot like being employed.
These companies parade the flexibility their model offers to drivers but it seems the only real flexibility is enjoyed by the companies themselves. It does seem a marvellous business model if you can get away with it.
My worry is that as a result these companies contribute little to the public purse or our social safety net. They are not paying sick leave, national living wage, or contributing to pensions. Yet it seems likely that their employment practices will lead more people to need taxpayers to pick up these costs.
In the UK, Uber lost a landmark employment tribunal that could effect the status of its 30,000 drivers. In their ruling on the case, brought by two Uber drivers, the tribunal judges turned to Hamlet to criticise Uber for grimly sticking to faintly ridiculous arguments that it is an app and not a taxi service.
The lady doth protest too much, methinks, it said. Uber is appealing the ruling.
It says it is revising its contracts in plainer English and that weve always been clear to drivers who use Uber that they are self-employed and free to choose if, when and where they drive with no shifts, minimum hours or uniforms.
As a courier back in New York, if its going to rain tomorrow I wont find out from the Weather Channel, but from Uber. Rain, snow or particularly cold weather means more profit for the company as demand increases, and it responds with price surges. It also means the potential for more earnings for the more than one million Uber drivers and cyclists around the world. (The cyclist option is currently only available in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and Portland.)
Rain is forecast tomorrow and it will be one of the busiest days of the year so far! reads a text from Uber. We are offering a $25 incentive for completing at least five trips throughout the day tomorrow This is a HUGE opportunity to earn money so dont miss out.
I fire up the app at lunchtime and wait for jobs to come pouring in. Soon my phone pings and a countdown begins, giving me 10 seconds to decide whether or not to accept a job. I accept and rush for the elevator, fearing any delay could jepoardise my five-star rating.
Uber drivers and couriers are rated by each customer, and the company warns that any delays, breakages or perceived rudeness are likely to lead to poor ratings. Couriers and drivers also rate the customers. I give all my customers five stars except Nicholas, who I give one star out of petulance at his laziness.
This job is to collect a Buckaroo burger (beef, aged cheddar, brisket, wild mushroom and smoke sauce on a brioche bun) and fries from the trendy organic chain Bareburger in the Financial District and take it to a university lecturer 0.66 miles away. The delivery takes six minutes, earning me $4. Not bad, but the time to collect goods is unpaid, as is the trip back to the starting point. The jobs arent rolling in either, even though I am in one of Ubers designated busy zones in the financial heart of the city, where it has boosted fares by 1.4 times this lunchtime.
The downtime is OK for me because Im fitting delivery around my day job writing articles, like this one, but for people turning full-time to gig economy jobs, excessive periods of downtime can make earning a consistent living precarious.
Uber price surges. Photograph: Rupert Neate
Just two more jobs come in that day delivering a falafel sandwich to a tech bro working alone in a huge empty office at the tip of Manhattan with views of the Statue of Liberty ($4.12, plus a $2 tip, thanks man), and dispatching a letter from a downtown WeWork co-working space to Gillian at another WeWork in the West Village ($12.10) so I fail to secure the $25 incentive.
My luck appears to be looking up the next day as my phone pings at 10.31am, sending me to Cafe Patoro, a Brazilian bakery famous for its
po de queijo (cheese-flavoured tapioca rolls). I am at the downtown cafe to pick up a half brigadeiro cake (a condensed milk and chocolate truffle, a national icon in Brazil since it was invented during the second world war when it was difficult to source fresh milk).
The cake is for Roberta Freitas, a Brazilian banker working on Lexington Avenue in Midtown who has ordered it for an office holiday party, where the multicultural team have been asked to each bring a delicacy from their home country. I set off cycling up the East River bike path, but soon realise Freitass cake wont survive the journey in my satchel.
Worried that I could ruin her office party and my five-star Uber rating, I lock my bike and take the subway uptown. A very smiley Freitas collects her cake, and I take the subway back downtown, only to find a very lonely lamp post where my bike had been.
My bike is not insured by Uber. When I eventually get hold of a human at Uber, I am told the only insurance cover is up to $1m to cover bodily injury or property damage to third parties where the claim arises out of UberEats and UberRush operations. Note it only pays out if I injure a third party; if an Uber cyclist gets knocked down by a cab, he or she will have to pay for their own ambulance/hearse. Freitass cake doesnt appear to be insured either. A spokeswoman says: In terms of your question about dropping cupcakes (or breaking something during a delivery), this is something we examine on a case-by-case basis.
A very short-lived cycle courier career over before its properly begun, you might think. But not having a bike doesnt appear to phase Uber: with the swipe of a finger I turned from Uber Bicycle to Uber Walker, and with jobs like Nicholass begins the slow attempt to earn enough money to buy a new bike.
At the current rate of roughly one $6 job a day itll take just under a year. But I maintain my five star-rating.