by JAMIE WOODCOCK – researcher at London School of Economics
Across London the gig economy has been rapidly expanding, particularly with the delivery of takeaway food. The largest company is Deliveroo, with thousands of moped drivers and cyclists spread across different zones. Uber has followed with a rival platform, UberEATS, and more recently Amazon has also started a competing service. These food delivery platforms act as a go between restaurants and consumers, providing a service that relies on outsourcing the actual labour needed to transport food. Much like the taxi service Uber, which claims not to directly employ any drivers or own any cars, the workers are falsely categorised as self-employed. This keeps costs down by only providing a wage (whether in the form of hourly payments or piece rate) and not offering holiday pay, sick pay, or other benefits. Keeping the workers off the company books ties in with the marketing of these companies; slick start-ups that are transforming work and “disrupting” old-fashioned industries. However, behind the advertising and investment pitches the reality is quite different.
In August, Deliveroo (arguably in reaction to competition from UberEATS) decided to move workers from the hourly rate of £7 per hour (under the minimum wage in the UK) with £1 per drop to only £3.75 per drop. This removal of the hourly wage significantly shifts the risks of demand onto the workers, meaning if there are less orders, workers will not get paid. Deliveroo sent drivers a text outlining the new pay scheme and this sparked a collective response. Workers mobilised across informal networks, spreading the message across WhatsApp and meet up points across the city. Unlike Uber taxis, Deliveroo sends workers to meet up points during their shifts. These algorithmically determined points are near popular restaurants and are meant to minimise delivery times, but also provide the opportunity for workers to meet each other and begin organising. Deliveroo learnt this lesson the hard way.
The workers autonomously called for a demonstration outside the headquarters of Deliveroo in central London. Hundreds of moped drivers travelled in from the outer zones, later joined by cyclists. The mood quickly built from tense (with many drivers covering their faces) into a loud and confident demonstration. Managers from Deliveroo tried to address the crowd and had to be escorted back into the offices. There was a sense these managers had never had to deal with delivery workers before, seeing them only as data points represented on Google Maps. In a mass meeting across the street, the crowd discussed collective demands, with speeches translated into Portuguese, catering for the large section of Brazilian workers. In collaboration with the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) a «fully independent, worker-led union» there was an attempt to negotiate for higher wages, particularly as the union had recently won a 28% pay rise at eCouriers, 17% at CitySprint, and better pay and conditions at Mach1. The workers rejected the new pay scheme and demanded the London living wage plus costs, which works out at £11.40 per hour, plus an additional £1 per drop.
The strike action itself took off quickly from the first demonstration. Workers stopped taking orders on the Deliveroo app and organised protests outside the headquarters each day. This was followed by driving around the zones in large convoys – both to mobilise other workers and to visit the restaurants that use the service. This new form of flying picket involved workers talking about their pay and conditions to the restaurant workers, seeking to publicise their campaign. As a result, a number of busy restaurants stopped using Deliveroo as workers disabled the app in solidarity. After almost a week of action, Deliveroo announced that they would no longer be enforcing the changes in pay, but move to trial the option in certain zones. As a response the workers organising with the IWGB began planning for a longer campaign to achieve their new demands on pay.
The success of the strike came from the ability of workers to organise in conditions that tried to prevent this. The distribution of work across digital platforms attempts to isolate workers, removing the physical workplace that has previously been an important base of organisation. However, through the meet up points networks have been established for workers to stay in contact. Many of the moped drivers are migrant workers, and their pre-existing networks have been successfully mobilised for the action. Those same networks that helped to find work when migrants arrive were now bringing more people into the campaign. The composition of the workforce is somewhat divided between the moped drivers and cyclists. In general, the moped drivers work much longer shift over a larger distance – and as a result have much higher costs, including the moped itself, petrol, and insurance. On the other hand, the cyclists tend to work shorter shifts around lunch or dinner time, and generally fit this work in around other precarious jobs or studying. The core of the strike was the moped drivers, although as it developed more cyclists became involved.
The action quickly spread to the rival UberEATS. At the Deliveroo demonstrations there were drivers in UberEATS branded clothing that showed up to find out what was going on. Also due to the precarious nature of delivery work, many Deliveroo drivers had also started picking up shifts with UberEATS. This connection between different parts of the gig economy meant that news of the strike and spreading the successful tactics took place very quickly. There were not the meet up points that Deliveroo had used, so instead drivers recruited others on the roads, at traffic lights, or while picking up deliveries. The terms and conditions were already much worse at UberEATS, with workers only paid per delivery. However, like Deliveroo the enforced self-employed contracts meant that workers were able to take strike action much quicker than traditional trade unions would have. Rather than handing in formal notice, balloting members, and navigating the bureaucratic trade union legislation, workers could instead stop delivering orders – just disable the app and take action. By removing the legal rights from workers through the false self-employment status, these gig economy companies have also removed the legal protection that other employers enjoy from militant workplace organisation, turning their precarity from a weakness into a strength.
In October there was an Employment Tribunal ruling, supported by the GMB union, that «a group of Uber drivers are not self-employed but are workers who are entitled to essential workers’ rights including to be paid the National Minimum Wage and receive paid holiday». As Annie Powell (a lawyer who worked on the case) has pointed out: it «is a ground-breaking decision. It will impact not just on the thousands of Uber drivers working in this country, but on all workers in the so-called gig economy whose employers wrongly classify them as self-employed and deny them the rights to which they are entitled». However, despite this first ruling against a gig economy company in the UK, it is important to remember the strikes at Deliveroo and UberEATS. The conditions of these workers will not necessarily be changed by legal ruling; it can force companies to change the way they operated, but this could also involve finding a way to “legally” make the workers self-employed. And no doubt Uber will be appealing the decision. The ruling is a point to add to the demands of the workers’ campaign – like the London living wage it provides another point of contestation that the growing networks of workers can fight for.
There has been an outpouring of public support for the Deliveroo campaign, with almost £13,000 raised in solidarity on a crowdfunding website during the strike. The strike was shared across social media and featured widely in the news. For many people this was the first glimpse behind the marketing of the gig economy, revealing the nature of the work and the bad conditions. While these platforms sought to hide the labour involved in their businesses, the strike action brought these workers into the public eye. For companies that rely heavily on brand image and investor confidence, the risk of bad publicity is another angle that workers can pursue.
In both cases, the action took place entirely outside the structure of the existing trade union movement. While one of the major trade unions, the GMB (a large general union that is affiliated to the Labour party in the UK), has supported the legal campaign of Uber drivers, trade unions have failed to engage with this new section of the workforce. On the other hand, the IWGB now has a branch established by Deliveroo workers and is seeking to organise alongside these precarious workers. While many people previously thought that it was not possible to organise in the gig economy due to the structural barriers, these recent strikes have proven those arguments to be false. The question now is what forms of organisation can be based on this resistance and how can it be generalised into other contexts.
The action by these precarious workers has shown that it is indeed possible to organise and fight back in the gig economy. In the UK many are closely following the actions at Deliveroo and UberEATS, particularly as workers move from a defensive struggle into an offensive campaign. The temporary defeat of Deliveroo is the first sign of these workers exercising their power; the success in winning better pay and conditions could have widespread ramifications. Although the campaigns are still in their early stages, there are important lessons to be learned for what strike action looks like today, and can also point us in the direction of how future struggles could be organised.