Amazon strikes: why ethical delivery service Packfleet is the employer we need in 2023

“People are saying enough is enough” declares the founder of Packfleet, the firm that lets small merchants compete with Amazon's delivery model, while keeping the focus on worker rights.

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Helena Young

This Wednesday, for the first time ever, Amazon workers will walk out in the UK. Protesting a 50p per hour pay rise offer, staff at the ecommerce megalith will join the not-so-exclusive group of public and private sector workers that have elected to go on strike this winter.

But while many support the action, for consumers ordering last-minute birthday celebration outfits, or merchants needing to satisfy customer demand, what is the solution?

Responding to the nation’s collective bat-signal is Packfleet. This Startups 100-listed, fully-renewable delivery provider is leaving behind the gig economy model to put employee protection in the front seat.

We sat down with Packfleet cofounder and CEO, Tristan Thomas, to find out more about how the company plans to support its drivers and reroute the industry narrative to find success in 2023.

An industry car crash

It’s a difficult landscape for today’s couriers. Supply chains have been severely weakened by labour shortages, higher wages, and increased freight and shipping costs. Still, this does not excuse the many staffing horror stories emerging from legacy couriers.

Cost-saving measures by brands like Amazon, Evri, and Royal Mail have generated rage-inducing headlines over the past few months. At best, reports detail anti-competitive practices. At worst, direct violations of employee rights.

Drivers have allegedly been paid below minimum wage, as well as being made to fork out for their fuel and vehicle costs. Health and safety claims have been made against Evri, whilst Amazon whistleblowers have described warehouse teams being unable to take toilet breaks.

Clearly, the strategy is failing. Amazon has confirmed it will close three UK warehouses, making 1,200 people redundant. Meanwhile, Royal Mail CEO Simon Thompson has been grilled by MPs for accepting a £140,000 bonus while cutting member pay by up to £7,000.

How to dethrone the competition

Paying your staff a proper wage shouldn’t be a radical position. But that’s the USP that Packfleet prides itself on, after CEO Thomas saw the poor and exploitative service that rivals were providing.

“For a long time, consumers have been able to take advantage of very low pay and poor working conditions for drivers and warehouse staff,” says Thomas. “But that's now starting to change.”

Packfleet grew from Thomas’ personal qualms with the courier industry. While working at Monzo in early 2020, the company went into lockdown. Bored, he decided to launch what he describes as a “hobby wine subscription business.

“Doing that gave me this view into the world of logistics from the business side,” he recalls. “I'd always seen it as a consumer, as a recipient. Seeing it from the business side was eye-opening. It wasn't any better.”

Thomas tells Startups that Packfleet has built from the ground up to ensure a more innovative approach to delivery. The startup has moved away from the “outdated, 1990s technology” that legacy couriers use. Then, there’s the operational side.

“We wanted to start the right way,” Thomas explains. “That starts with fully employing drivers, and paying them above the real living wage. We have ended up building out an employment system that works really well for all our employees.”

Your benefits package has been delivered

One of the biggest HR challenges of the past few months has been figuring out how to keep employees engaged. In the current poor economy, employee satisfaction has been torpedoed by record-high inflation that’s led to a fall in global monthly wage growth for the first time this century.

Large-scale, profit-driven businesses, in particular, have struggled to understand their workforce or the importance of a positive company culture. Thomas points to Amazon’s warehouse closures as proof.

For workers to be told they are losing their jobs, he says, “when they have just spent all of Christmas doing crazy hours and crazy amounts of work – that's where it really starts to hit home, how disconnected [employers] are.”

Bye-bye gig economy

Currently, many of Amazon’s drivers are classed as self-employed. That means they aren’t given access to standards like holiday pay, National Minimum Wage, and even an employment contract.

Rejecting this premise, Thomas tells Startups that Packfleet has made a conscious effort to move away from the gig economy mindset. “It works in very certain specific situations, like for students,” he allows. “But for the people involved, it's hard to make it a long-term career.”

We wanted to start the right way. That means fully employing drivers and paying them above the living wage.

All drivers are given access to health insurance and life insurance that is paid for by the company, “just like it is for office-based employees”, he says.

Thomas is convinced this attitude also directly benefits customers. “If you are paying someone just 50p to deliver a package, you're not going to have any kind of quality,” he explains. “Our SMEs are looking for a partner that aligns with them from an ethical employment perspective. We get lots of positive feedback on it.”

Understanding the workforce

The company has also made an effort to find benefits that are specific to its drivers, such as buying sandwiches from the local bakery to send out with drivers as a free lunch.

Such an empathetic operational style is supported by one of Packfleet’s most impressive policies. Every employee, regardless of ranking, will complete a day of deliveries each month.

Accordingly, the idea is to show office workers what it’s like to be a driver, and vice versa. “The closer we can bring those two groups together, the better,” Thomas reasons. “That feedback mechanism reduces the divide that you normally get in these sorts of businesses.”

So how does the CEO enjoy stepping behind the wheel of a Packfleet van?

“I love it,” he grins. “Everyone's happy when they're getting a parcel. I've had people run out of the house because they're so excited about the meal dinner kit that they are getting for date night. Things like that are really fun.”

Tech tools for workers

Another asset that Packfleet boasts is its embracement of tech as a supportive tool for drivers.

During market research, Thomas found that technology “was seen as an added cost” by competitors, rather than something that could really drive innovation. “You could see that in the amount of work that I would need to do as a small business just to get parcels uploaded onto a legacy courier system.”

Technology, Thomas proposes, prevents Packfleet drivers from being forced to complete 100 deliveries an hour. Instead, they can deliver quickly but efficiently while also “not being rushed and feeling stressed”.

This strategy has also helped to secure more positives for merchants. Earlier this month, Packfleet announced a new partnership with the web-based automation platform Zapier, enabling sellers to complete tasks like download a sales report directly from the app.

Packfleet Tech photo

In fact, Packfleet is doing so much for ecommerce sellers that, in this year's Startups 100 Index, guest judge Deann Evans from Shopify made it the winner of our Ecommerce Award for 2023.

Praising the Packfleet mission, Evans said: “Independent retailers need to meet consumers' delivery expectations which is difficult to do without scale. Packfleet is giving them this advantage.”

Putting the pedal down in 2023

Currently, Packfleet covers all of London and is aiming to expand to the whole of the M25 over the next month.

With bold targets to serve another “three or four major UK cities”, as well as cross-border delivery between London and Paris, Thomas is confident that Packfleet can help small businesses to deliver further and further afield, and prove that local supplier networks can scale fast without sacrificing worker wellbeing.

Not even the topic of Brexit can strike fear into his heart. “I'm optimistic about the steady progress of improvement,” he asserts. “I’m very glad that when Brexit happened, I wasn't involved in cross-border shipping. But over time, people learn how systems work. I'm excited about being able to try and solve the problem.

Delivering on an international scale naturally brings comparisons to the market leaders. Thomas has previously declared in interviews that Packfleet “is never going to challenge Royal Mail”.

With the string of recent controversies that have impacted the business, we ask: does he now feel differently?

“On parcels, I think there's a huge opportunity,” he nods. “There are four or five large UK parcel brands, and they dominate the market and I want to hopefully get to the top. That means taking on Royal Mail, definitely.”

Is it easy being green?

Packfleet has made its job slightly harder for itself by committing to an all-electric fleet of delivery vans. Government discounts like the Workplace Charging Scheme can provide some support, but the mission is not without challenges. How does Thomas think that will affect Packfleet’s scale-up plans?

I want to hopefully get to the top. That means taking on Royal Mail, definitely.

“Making sure that we have a good supply for our growth of electric vans is a challenge,” he admits. “On top of that, we need to ensure we have charging infrastructure. That is an ongoing challenge. But by 2030, every new car will be electric. It’s the right thing for us to do.”

Startups’ suggests Coventry as Packfleet’s next target for expansion. Our research into the top cities to start a business in 2022 found it is the best location for EV charging points.

“I’m open to it,” Thomas laughs. “I’ve never been to Coventry. This could be a good chance to check it out.”

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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