Things are stirring in the so called gig economy and the precarious, difficult to organise workers, or ‘independent contractors’ as companies such as Deliveroo, Uber, Citysprint, Hermes and others call them, are joining unions, organising and standing up for their rights. There are as many as five million people in the UK employed in this way who are paid per ‘gig’ or piece of work carried out – which may be a taxi ride (Uber) or a restaurant meal delivery (Deliveroo) among other services. But they have very little employment protection, less even than workers on zero hours contracts.
The companies involved call their workers ‘independent contractors’ who they claim are self employed, willingly hiring out their services and having the privilege of working in a completely flexible way, therefore companies can renege on their responsibility to provide job security and full worker rights such as paid holidays and sick leave, not to mention any kind of living or even minimum wage. ‘Independent contractors’ or ‘independent suppliers’ are simply weasel words which do not describe the often very onerous and under paid work such people have to do.
People may have different reasons for hiring out their services in this way, from students needing to pay to cover living costs, to others working part time in other jobs who also need to earn that bit extra, to those who work full time for companies like Deliveroo. Some find it suits them to work in a flexible way, but whatever the need or the wish, it doesn’t hide the fact that this is purely and simply exploitation which pays handsome profits for the CEOs of gig economy companies. The truth about working in this very precarious way is described vividly by those who know it from the inside, it isn’t all terrible and does suit some but overall it is a far from ideal way to earn a living.
In a Guardian article on 28 October 2016 it was reported that “Uber loses right to classify drivers as self employed” other media and newspapers also claimed that Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders now had to be re-classified as ‘workers’ with consequent rights. However that is not the full story, for the judgement referred to here, which was delivered by the London Central Tribunal, was undoubtedly an advance in the long running campaign to provide workers’ rights to the many thousands of people employed in the gig economy of whom Uber and Deliveroo are probably the most well known, but it is still no cause for jubilation. The self employed status of the two drivers who took on their employer – James Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, backed by the GMB trade union was contested by them and the court did concede that “the claimants succeeded to the extent explained in the very lengthy reasoning put before the court”. That judgement came through on the 28th October of last year. However as things stand any other Uber drivers who wish to claim full workers’ rights of sick pay, holiday pay, pensions etc. will need to individually take employment tribunal cases themselves with the right pf course to be assisted and represented by a trade union. The same applies even to class actions taken by groups of workers so employment tribunal rulings apply on a case by case basis, that being so a legislative solution is badly needed.
Meanwhile over at Deliveroo in their news sheet Rebel Roo, after referring to the successful Uber tribunal ruling, they say that “As everyone knows Deliveroo says that we’re self employed to avoid giving us our rights. But we won’t win through the courts, basic rights aren’t enough. In the end we have to rely on ourselves to get shit done.” And indeed they are getting ‘shit done’ by dint of their own solidarity actions and determination to win those rights taken for granted by those of us who don’t have to work in the precarious and often dangerous gig economy. A Deliveroo rider described the conditions he has to work under earlier this year in a Guardian comment piece . With no sick pay and no insurance riders have to bear their own costs when unable to work due to accidents on the streets, a not infrequent occurrence as he reports.
There have been several Deliveroo wild cat strikes between last August and April of this year, they mean business! In fact they did win some concessions from management but more was needed and that was to get fully organised, which they now have with the assistance of two militant independent unions the IWGB (Independent Workers of Great Britain) and the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World). They also have widespread sympathy including by the many cyclists coming out to support the two mass bike rides they have so far held, while on May Day Monday they will take part in the Precarious May Day march through London. They also have the support of John McDonnell and even that of Frank Field who has called for all gig economy workers to be granted full pension rights.
Another twist to this story of gig economy companies and their ‘independent contractors’ was the setting up by Uber of their own food delivery service UberEats in competition with Deliveroo, Amazon has also muscled its way into the market. The first effect of these new companies was the cutting of payments to Deliveroo riders, however because of the very flexibility of the self-employed contracts, workers in these separate sectors have been able to link up during their working hours and pool their organising experience. There is a wonderful kind of irony in this. Some Deliveroo riders have even picked up shifts with UberEats so making connections that the managements of either company neither foresaw nor wanted. It is becoming obvious that connections throughout the gig economy are being forged and with them the eventual forging of an unstoppable impetus towards a solidarity that could transform the conditions of so many precarious workers. A nightmare for the companies and this particular corner of the capitalist economy. It is not only in the UK that things like this are happening, gig economies exist everywhere and last year for example Deliveroo riders in Marseilles held a wild cat strike. The fact that Rebel Roo is published in seven different languages and is available online, is testament to their effectiveness in reaching people from different nationalities working here and also towards meeting the objective of making contact with workers in other countries.
In terms of union organising while the Uber and Deliveroo and now UberEats workers as well, have had successes through their own efforts, the experience and expertise of the IWGB and IWW has been invaluable to them. Deliveroo riders are now organised into their own section of the IWGB. The mainstream unions, despite the successful representation by the GMB in the Uber tribunal, have not engaged with this particular work force. Their bureaucratic and monolithic structure and culture have prevented any kind of ability to connect effectively with the precarious sector.
There is also the tricky question of the differences between a ‘worker’ and an ’employee’. Over all it is better to be an employee but how is that different from being a worker? It’s very complex and even the best legal minds in the field of employment law have to wrestle with the distinction. Employees definitely have more rights such as maternity and parental leave, redundancy payment, fixed term employment, notice of dismissal, which ‘workers’ do not have although they do have certain basic entitlements such as the national minimum wage. The differences go even deeper than that and obviously the law needs to be clarified. Legislation also needs to be introduced to make it possible for all so called ‘independent contractors’ to have full rights at least to ‘worker’ level rather than as seems to be the situation now having to go through tribunals, or relying on the caving in of companies under pressure from the newly unionised gig workers.
So there obviously is still a long, long way to go. Success is not inevitable soon for all workers in all of these companies but the end of the beginning is in sight, and it has so far been an empowering and exhilerating ride, literally, for the Deliveroos the Ubers and others now just starting the process of gaining their rights and the stability and dignity in their working lives that they richly deserve.