This is an interesting article which should focus the attention of those of you order food from these organisations. It beggars belief that this can happen.
They are known as “dark kitchens”: cramped boxes, usually plonked in city centres, in which cooks prepare meals that are ordered and sent out via food-delivery apps. Britain is reckoned to have at least 70, most of which are owned and run by the delivery giant Deliveroo under the brand name Deliveroo Editions. The food that comes out of them is sold in the name of established restaurants, and innocent customers might assume it somehow still comes from their high-street premises. But no: this is a new reality of “virtual branding”, in which all that sits behind this or that logo are the bare essentials – a couple of ovens, a handful of chefs and couriers frantically delivering what they cook.
A report last year by my Guardian colleague Sarah Butler focused on a dark kitchen site near Canary Wharf in London, and vividly evoked what went on there: “The boxes have no windows and many of the chefs work with the doors open … Working in the metal boxes is either hot or cold, depending on the weather and whether they are cooking or prepping. In one kitchen, there is only a small fan heater for cold days. Another houses a pizza oven that takes up more than a third of the space and makes it extremely hot.” Online adsfor jobs in such places offer hourly wages of between £8.50 and £9, and roles best suited to people who are “reliable”, “hard working”, and have “two years’ experience in [a] fast paced kitchen”.
Light and dark have always been signifiers for the quality of work and what it can do to people’s psyches
Just to make one thing clear: I have worked in a conventional restaurant kitchen, and I well know that they can be pretty hellish places. But in the apparent absence of human contact, daylight and physical space, these new set-ups look like all the grim aspects of catering taken to their logical conclusions. And make no mistake: it increasingly looks like dark kitchens represent the future.
The food-delivery business is growing fast, highlighted by rumblings about a possible buyout of Deliveroo by Uber, and the likelihood of a battle for business between the latter’s Uber Eats service and the more established Just Eat. Over the summer, the investment bank UBS published a report, Is the Kitchen Dead? It held out the prospect of the global online food-delivery market growing tenfold by 2030, partly thanks to the cost of ordering food online dropping close to that of preparing meals at home.
At the heart of this vision are dark kitchens, whose frantic efficiency and low labour costs may yet power such a huge drop in prices that giving up cooking your own food – particularly for people resident in cramped urban apartments – becomes irresistible. Or, as the report puts it: “Assuming a progressive shift to dark kitchens and declining delivery costs, the economic benefits of one hour spent cooking [relative to ordering a meal via an app] could decline from £13 per hour to £8 per hour … ie lower than the median wage.”
“Dark” is a fascinatingly modern word. Our worries about the internet are embodied by the dark web, that byword for criminality, abuse and nastiness that repeatedly bursts into the news. Fears about what the online world is doing to politics are focused on dark ads, untraceable to the people and parties who place them. And in a different kind of darkness in the real world, as well as dark kitchens, there are dark supermarkets and dark stores: the vast spaces we collapse into the increasingly meaningless category of “distribution centres”, where a mixture of largely low-paid workers and ever-more sophisticated systems of machinery prepare and pack the stuff we buy online.
They are dark in two interlinked senses. One is conceptual: what happens inside them seems to barely intrude on our perception of the companies that own and run them. Whereas a brand name like Tesco, Waterstones or Pizza Express will instantly conjure up a mental image of actual premises, workers and some measure of human activity, the names at the cutting edge of the new economy – Ocado, Deliveroo, Amazon – feel like they signify only the goodies they bring us, and a futuristic kind of efficiency. You click, the doorbell rings and you get your stuff – who gives much thought to the often grim human work that makes it happen?
Which brings us to the second, literal meaning of “dark”, and workplaces that are usually windowless and thereby devoid of natural light. In the book Hired, James Bloodworth describes the reality of working at Amazon’s vast distribution centre in Rugeley, Staffordshire. “The top floor on which I worked was a gloomy place, with the only natural light coming in through small rectangular windows located far above on the high ceiling,” he writes. “Most of the light was provided by grey steel lamps the shape of rugby balls and about the same size. These were dotted about the ceilings on every floor and cast a peculiar yellow glow about the place. During the course of the night … many of the motion-sensitive lights would malfunction, meaning a dozen or so workers would be left scuttling around in the dark on the top floor of a warehouse at three o’clock in the morning. Who, when they purchase an iPhone charger or an Adele album with a click on Amazon’s website, imagines anything like this?”
There are clear echoes here of things always seemingly in-built within capitalism: William Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, pitch-black coalmines, the nocturnal privations of shift work. Light and dark have always been signifiers for the quality of work and what it can do to people’s psyches. What seems remarkable is that in a post-industrial economy, replete with ideas of employment as a means of personal fulfilment, that dichotomy is returning, at speed.
What lurks in those ever-increasing shadows? Last week, researchers at three British universities published the latest results of a five-yearly government-funded skills and employment survey, which highlights exactly the kind of issues the dark economy embodies. Almost a third of those surveyed said they had to work at very high speeds “all” or “almost all” of the time. The share of people who have “a lot of discretion over how they do their job” has crashed from 62% in 1992 to 38% now. Meanwhile 55% of men and 47% of women reported that they either “always” or “often” left work exhausted.
This is no way to run an economy, let alone a society. At the absolute grassroots, it is great to see it being fiercely contested, as evidenced by last week’s one-day strike by people working for a range of catering firms – including not just McDonald’s, Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays, but the delivery services Uber Eats and Deliveroo. The responsibility for their predicament lies not just with corporations who insist on people working at a breakneck pace for impossibly low wages and often living like moles, but those of us who so blithely click and consume. Maybe it is time not just that the darkness receded in workplaces up and down the country, but that the light went on in our own heads.