Who will protect delivers riders from acid attacks?

THE plight of delivery riders in London might seem far removed from the politics of Scotland, but the protest staged by hundreds of them outside Parliament last week was important for several reasons. There are implications for both workers’ rights, which are reserved to Westminster; and criminal justice responses, which Scotland decides for itself.

The protest served to highlight the precarious and downright dangerous side to the “gig economy” that underpins so many consumer choices in the 21st century, just days after the publication of a much-derided report from the Work and Pensions Committee. It was also a forum for various demands for action to halt the alarming rise of acid attacks.

You may be confused about how these two areas are linked. Yes, we’ve been hearing for months about the increase in crimes involving acid, but criminologists have suggested this reflects a change of tactics by organised gangs that would previously have used knives. So what has gang violence got to do with the moped and motorbike riders delivering meals for the likes of UberEats and Deliveroo? And is this problem likely to spread from London to the rest of the UK?

When we read of alarming events, it’s only natural that we seek straightforward explanations. After all, if we understand the nature of the problem then we can take action to stop it. But there is no obvious answer to the question posed on a placard held aloft at Tuesday’s protest: “Who will give us security at work?”

The delivery companies have responded with warm words, arranging meetings about safety and setting up phone lines for riders to report concerns. They have emphasised that no-one is obliged to make deliveries in area where they feel unsafe. Which sounds good until you remember that the firms are not obliged to pay them, either.

On-demand delivery riders are free agents, who can accept or refuse work as they wish. The firms may say there will be no repercussions for those who avoid dangerous areas or decline late-night jobs, but it’s debatable whether they can be held to this promise. These riders are self-employed, and use their own vehicles, and it’s an arrangement that Deliveroo says suits everyone just fine – or rather it would be if the law could be tweaked a wee bit, so it could have the best of both worlds. It says it wants to provide both security and flexibility to those doing its deliveries, but God forbid it should give workers employee status, and risk having to pay the minimum wage to someone who sits still for five minutes in the hour.

Matthew Taylor’s review was supposed to come up with ways to protect these workers and many thousands of others, but to say it was met with disappointment is an understatement. Len McCluskey of Unite said its recommendations “spectacularly failed to deliver” and would do nothing to curb what he called “the rampaging growth in forced self-employment”. Tim Roache of the GMB observed that firms were unlikely to start playing fair “just because they’re asked nicely”.

So for now it seems job security is a distant dream for those at the bottom of the delivery food-chain, but what of their physical safety? The non-employment approach of these firms may encourage risk-taking by riders, but they can hardly be blamed for the appalling actions of those who blind, scar and terrify other human beings by spraying acid.

There are flaws with the two main responses to the problem suggested so far: restricting sales of acid and increasing sentences for those caught with it. The first is tricky because acid products include drain cleaner and household bleach, and the second would be unlikely to deter those who are confident of getting away with their crimes. A possession ban would be difficult to implement given the many legitimate uses for acidic liquid, and the fact that it can be easily concealed in innocuous-looking containers presents yet more problems. Not only might a crackdown on acid possession push knife-carrying rates back up again – increasing the risk of more serious injuries and deaths – but it might also lead to concealed acid being unwittingly drunk or spilled.

So if we cannot realistically remove the means, or restrict the opportunity, we must look at motive, and the profile of those carrying out acid attacks. When delivery riders are targeted they sometimes have their bikes or mopeds stolen – but these are low-value vehicles, and in many case nothing is taken at all. In the recent past the majority of UK acid victims were women known to their male attackers. Now the majority of victims are male, many are randomly selected, and acid has even become the weapon of choice in some playgrounds.

Following five attacks in London last week in the space of 90 minutes, two boys aged 15 and 16 were arrested. In a disturbing case in Scotland last year, a 17-year-old schoolgirl target a fellow pupil with acid as an apparent act of revenge. Would attackers be committing different acts of violence if acid was unavailable? Perhaps not – perhaps it is a uniquely dangerous weapon that is all too easily deployed with little understanding of the consequences. But a criminal justice response can only ever be part of the solution. Until we truly understand what lies behind this grim trend, we stand little chance of stopping it.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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