Research among Brussels food couriers maps out precarious working conditions

On Thursday, the long-awaited court case against Deliveroo starts in Brussels. The central question is whether the e-commerce company allows its couriers to work as self-employed workers unjustly, which means they have hardly any access to social rights. Research by VUB researcher Elief Vandevenne has shown that in many cases, working conditions are precarious and uncertain. In the context of her doctoral study she examined the degree of precariousness and the relationship with well-being among 170 Brussels food couriers.

Vandevenne: "The results show that food couriers on average do have more precarious jobs than other workers, namely because of their precarious contracts, the long and irregular working hours, the lack of social security and the generally low and unstable wages. We also found a relationship with their general well-being. Couriers with very precarious jobs, tend to have a poorer general wellbeing. The research also gave us insight into a number of work-related practices. For example, the renting of courier accounts turns out to be a common practice, especially among undocumented couriers and minors."

The higher their score on precarity, the worse couriers’ mental well-being

Based on the scientifically validated measurement method used by the researchers, it appears that couriers do score higher on precarity compared to other employee groups. This is also true in comparison with employees in the transport sector who do similar work without the intervention of a digital platform. Within the group of couriers, however, there is also variation in the degree of precarity, meaning not all couriers are in an equally precarious situation. For example, the context of a student working as a courier to earn some extra money clearly differs from that of someone who has to do the job to make ends meet. The researchers found a strong relationship between the most precarious courier jobs and well-being. This is the first study to demonstrate this link for couriers.

Couriers are often young men from migrant backgrounds, sometimes undocumented and sometimes underage

The study provides insight into the sociodemographic profile of couriers. The sample for this study consists mainly of young men. Furthermore, many Brussels couriers were not born in Belgium (43%) or have parents with a migrant background (22%). 16.3% of couriers is looking for a job and 9.8% work exclusively as couriers. Finally, the fieldwork also led to a number of additional findings. For example, renting accounts seems to be a common practice in Brussels. Couriers who cannot create an account (for example, because they do not have valid residence permits) then rent an account and work under a different name. This is usually done via online courier groups on social media. Vandevenne: "During the fieldwork we also had contact with a number of undocumented couriers who work with such a rented account. Some of them were also minors. It doesn’t make the unions’ ambition to combat precarity in the couriers’ jobs any easier. After all, suppose it turns out on Thursday that couriers are employees. What happens then to the undocumented couriers?" For people who do not have access to the regular labour market, these kinds of jobs - despite the often precarious working conditions - offer a chance for a much-needed income.


Precarity refers to a work situation that is characterised to a greater or lesser extent by uncertainty in many areas. It concerns jobs that break with standard expectations about ’a good job’: a permanent contract, full-time employment, sufficient paid work and traditional 9 to 5 working hours. Theoretically, these jobs could be called precarious and this is how they are described by trade unions and other interest groups. However, it is important to also test whether these jobs are actually precarious on the basis of a clear set of criteria. That is what Vandevenne, under the supervision of Prof Christophe Vanroelen of the Interface Demography research group, has investigated in this study. With the help of numerous interviews with couriers and the completion of a questionnaire, couriers’ working conditions and terms of employment were studied. To reach this group, she spoke directly to couriers on the street. Vandevenne: "The number of couriers surveyed may seem few, but it is, even internationally, a relatively large number, mainly due to the general lack of numerical data on this hard-to-reach group."

Contact: Elief Vandevenne: Onderzoeksgroep Interface Demography 0470/06.46.74 Christophe Vanroelen: Onderzoeksgroep Interface Demography 0497/404828 Lies Feron Persrelaties Vrije Universiteit Brussel Vrije Universiteit Brussel is an internationally oriented university in Brussels, the heart of Europe. By providing excellent research and education on a human scale, VUB wants to make an active and committed contribution to a better society.

The World Needs You The Vrije Universiteit Brussel assumes its scientific and social responsibility with love and decisiveness. That’s why VUB launched the platform De Wereld Heeft Je Nodig - The World Needs You, which brings together ideas, actions and projects based on six Ps. The first P stands for People , because that’s what it’s all about: giving people equal opportunities, prosperity, welfare, respect. Peace is about fighting injustice, big and small, in the world. Prosperity combats poverty and inequality. Planet stands for actions on biodiversity, climate, air quality, animal rights... With Partnership , VUB is looking for joint actions to make the world a better place. The sixth and last P is for Poincaré , the French philosopher Henri Poincaré, from whom VUB derives its motto that thinking should submit to nothing except the facts themselves. VUB is an ’urban engaged university’, strongly anchored in Brussels and Europe and working according to the principles of free research.­eftjenodig

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