March 24. Most days we have a delivery to our house. Apart from one pre-breakfast raid on B&Q in the moment of relative freedom last summer, neither of us have been inside a shop for almost twelve months.
Instead we depend on vans and drivers, for whom we are the most troublesome customers. The final leg of a delivery is up an un-made, un-named, hundred-yard long lane, too narrow for a large vehicle to turn round in. Most drop-offs end with a reverse through puddles lately filled by a series of storms.
There are occasional peaks of business. This week it has been my wife’s birthday. The family has been active on the websites, piles of empty cardboard boxes have accumulated. So when my wife met the same, middle-aged driver coming to the door on consecutive days, in the wind and rain, she apologised for the trouble we had caused him.
“We can’t have you developing a conscience about it, madam”, he replied, with a smile, and returned to his van.
Difficult not to though. Delivery firms normally pay by piece rate, up to £1 an item on completion. If there is no-one home and nowhere to leave a parcel, no fee. If the house is in a distant village where only the postman can find his way around a series of randomly numbered addresses, the fee is the same. Small wonder a recent driver left a parcel at our gate, claiming on the company website that he was deterred by a dog. We have no dog.
The weekly food deliveries pay by the hour – £10 50 in the case of Sainsbury’s – but expect so much more than simply unloading boxes:
“Being a Sainsbury’s Driver isn’t just about delivering goods on time and in great condition. It’s about being yourself, offering a friendly approach and a service that will really wow our customers. We’ll expect you to make every delivery a great experience, always doing the right thing for our customers and keeping them aware of any delays, so they ask us to drop their shopping off again and again.”
In the case of Waitrose (this is an actual job advert for the shop that supplies us):
“This is a really important ‘front line’ role. You represent us with every single customer you meet, and their impression of Waitrose is down to you. So, as well as having a flexible approach and the ability to use your initiative to deal with unexpected situations, you should be passionate about providing the very highest levels of customer service.”
The whole pandemic has been conducted on the basis of an extended class system. Lockdown, particularly for the two million ‘extremely vulnerable’, has been totally dependent on this rapidly expanded proletariat. Their labours lack the frontline drama of nurses and doctors, but in their way have been just as crucial and not without risk to health.
I am currently reading a collection of Mass Observation diaries covering the early weeks of the crisis. Until the online-delivery systems of the major supermarkets caught up with the sudden surge in demand and developed a working algorithm for prioritising the vulnerable, there was widespread apprehension about whether, where, and how it would be possible to obtain basic supplies, let alone the myriad of other goods a household needs to keep itself going over time.
Millions of people have avoided infection and run something like normal lives at the expense of men (just occasionally women) driving from home to home at all hours and in all weathers. It’s not just our material wellbeing. This is Sunday, and there has been a Waitrose delivery to feed us (cheerful, if not passionate), and two other deliveries bringing Mother’s Day presents, uniting us with our children still separated by lockdown.
When this is over, there will be no national pay award of any kind, just redundancies as the shops open.