For as long as Anna-Jane Casey can remember she has spent the run-up to Christmas on the stage in the West End. But this year Casey is joining a growing army of workers from Covid-blighted industries to deliver an unprecedented volume of parcels across the UK.
“It’s gone bonkers. Last week both myself and my husband were doing 180 to 200 parcels a day,” she said. “People are so lovely when they get their things but I want to scream in their faces ‘stop ordering stuff’!”
Casey, 48, who has appeared in shows including Chicago and Billy Elliot, and her husband, who is also an actor, were forced to search for work when all the theatres closed in March. “I have a mortgage and two children to support. I have responsibilities,” she said. “What do you do when your earnings have literally gone? We had to find work where we could.”
Home deliveries are one of the few growth sectors of the struggling British economy. The pandemic has accelerated existing trends, with more people than ever ordering goods and groceries online, while delivery companies and supermarkets strain to keep up with demand.
The latest figures collated by internet industry body IMRG show online sales are up by more than a half in the middle of November from the same point last year. “It will be a record-breaking Christmas online – though retail overall will have a tough period,” said Andy Mulcahy, IMRG director. Online groceries sales now account for 13% of all food sales, up from 7.4% in March.
Analysis by Metapack, which provides software linking most of the country’s high-street brands, including John Lewis and M&S, with hundreds of delivery firms, reveals the parcel volumes going through its systems last week are 70% higher than the corresponding week in 2019. “We are having an online Christmas,” says Bruce Fair, Metapack executive. “The combination of another lockdown and a sustained shift in the behaviour of consumers is creating a peak wave.”
He adds the top four carriers in the UK – Yodel, Royal Mail, Hermes and DPD – have already reached capacity and are not taking on new customers.
Delivery companies have responded to the online boom by hiring thousands of new drivers, often from the parts of the economy hardest hit by the pandemic. DPD is recruiting 3,500 new drivers and Hermes is taking on 9,000 new self-employed couriers, who can opt into holiday pay contracts negotiated with the GMB union. “We have seen an increase in couriers from hospitality, aviation, retail and the arts,” said a Hermes spokesperson. “Courier work suits lots of people because it is so flexible, it becomes a great lifestyle choice.”
Recruitment agency, Manpower, has placed 3,000 new drivers in the last few months, with an estimated 30% turning to driving because of the pandemic. Jason Greaves, Manpower’s brand leader, says: “This year, entrants to the driving labour market are from a much broader range of sectors than normal; former cabin crew, publicans, live music support crew to name just a few.”
Delivery firm Yodel has recruited 2,950 drivers and seen a 200% increase in applications for its seasonal jobs. “Demand for our seasonal jobs has always been high but this year we’ve been inundated, says Mike Hancox, boss of Yodel CEO.
However, unions argue that many of these new jobs are self-employed franchises where drivers have to pay for their own vehicles and cannot claim sick pay. Matthew Draper, Unite’s logistics organiser, said the bulk of the new jobs were precarious, with no guarantees about work levels or income in the long term: “It’s great the parcel sector is a growth industry but many of these jobs are insecure. Companies should be creating full-time, secure jobs.”
Mick Rix, GMB organiser, said workers were being cheated. “Apart from those employed by Royal Mail and a few couriers in some companies, 90% are so-called self-employed, either using their own vehicles, providing their own insurance, taking all the risk,” he said. “That is why other companies’ parcel distribution costs are cheaper than Royal Mail. They are not paying employment costs and the rest of the package that would go with employing people.”
Casey and her husband are classed as self-employed. They used the last of their savings to buy a £3,000 second-hand Vauxhall Vivaro van and have been making deliveries across Kent since June. “We are hanging on by our fingernails, covering our costs,” she said. “We get paid £1 per parcel but out of that we’ve got to insure our van, pay for our petrol, put away for tax, as well as provide for our children and keep our house going.”
She is also worried about falling ill. “We’ve been around hundreds and hundreds of people. Thankfully Covid has not got us but if it does and we can’t go to work, then we don’t earn,” she said. “We are praying we don’t get ill.”
According to Equity, which represents people working in the arts, 40% of its members have had no financial support from the government’s furlough or self-employed grant schemes. They have either been forced on to universal credit or taken work outside the industry.
“Those seeking work in other sectors such as logistics are disproportionately more likely to be from working-class backgrounds or marginalised groups. The end result will be an ever more elitist creative industry,” said Paul Fleming, Equity general secretary.
Arts workers are not the only ones dropping off parcels or supermarket shopping. Bill Stephens worked for many years in the oil and gas industry until Covid hit.
“I tested subsea valves. There has been a decline however and the pandemic sealed the future of the company I was working for and sadly they had to let over 70% of the workforce go,” he said. “I do miss it – I miss the salary.”
Stephens, not his real name, is now working full-time as a driver on a minimum 20 hours-a-week contract. “I wanted to be kept busy and it was a job that interested me and was easily available. I also thought it would be something I could always return to in the future [and it] looks like there will always be a need for delivery drivers.”
Wasim Salam teaches English, maths and IT in a private Bristol college helping vulnerable adults and the unemployed gain qualifications but he has been forced to take four other part-time jobs, including delivering for a major supermarket, to support his family during the pandemic.
“Tesco is the only place that is booming at the moment. They just can’t keep up. It is very busy,” he said. “We’ve had a range of people joining the workforce, including builders and actors. Like myself it’s not something any of us wanted to do. It’s not something we see a professional future in but Covid has made us do all kinds of jobs that we wouldn’t otherwise do.”
The relentless routine has left Salam, 44, with barely enough time to see his wife and three children or wider family. “When I was full-time and teaching, I had a better quality of life,” he said. “I’m not able to spend the time I would like with my family. I’m always rushed on the phone.
“Nobody seems to know me any more. I feel completed exhausted and completely out of touch.”