Precarious Labour Strikes Back protest in central London speaks to wider problems with the so-called gig economy
Text: Anna Freeman Photographs: Joe Magowan
‘Today is an important day not just for all minicab drivers, but for all workers,’ says James Farrar, co-claimant in the UK’s landmark tribunal case against Uber, to crowds standing outside Transport for London’s (TfL) office in central London. ‘We have been denied justice,’ he adds.
It’s eight in the morning. Hundreds of workers and protesters have gathered in the capital’s Southwark area. Grey, foggy air makes way for red flags and protest banners outside Palestra House. The usual busy morning commute is soundtracked by chants and afrobeat tunes booming from a stereo. Precarious workers from different sectors line the streets to march against unfair labour conditions and exploitation by fat-cat companies. The City’s towering, glass-plated buildings feel in stark contrast to a rallying call for basic workers’ rights.
Today is tech giant Uber’s appeal against a pivotal ruling in 2016 that deemed drivers as workers rather than self-employed contractors. Farrar and Yaseen Aslam, two Uber drivers, took the San Francisco-based company to court on behalf of 19 others to claim access to minimum wage, sick pay and paid holiday. They argued that they were employed by Uber, rather than working for themselves. The app’s appeal also comes after TfL’s shock announcement on Friday that it would not renew Uber’s licence to operate in London, potentially leaving 40,000 drivers jobless. Today’s protest through the City of London is prescient.
Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and its Couriers and Logistics Branch have organised the seemingly ‘un-organisable’. Gig economy workers, cleaners, drivers and cinema staff are just some of the people marching at IWGB’s Precarious Workers Strike Back protest. ‘We are all workers, Uber drivers, Deliveroo drivers, couriers, foster care workers, fast food workers and together we will make it (workers rights) happen,’ Aslam tells a hyped-up crowd, before walking down Fleet Street to today’s Employment Appeal Tribunal.
The on-demand economy has assaulted the rights of its workers through legal loopholes and misclassification. All the while companies tout the benefits of freedom within a micro-job structure. Firms like Uber defend less-than-subsistence wages as a trade-off for hyperflexibility in a job ‘not intended’ as a primary source of income. But the reality can be far graver. Often drivers work longer hours for little pay, they can be discarded by their employer with the click of a button, and workers are not granted collective representation through a union. One driver, who asked not to be named, claims he habitually earns less than minimum wage with the current business model. He even struggles to keep up with the costs of running his car some months.
This has made the role of grassroots unions throughout the country invaluable assets. IWGB’s president, Henry Chango Lopez, says more traditional unions have done little to represent the struggles of precarious and gig economy workers. Technology and a fragmented labour force has made workplace exploitation more difficult, not to mention expensive, to navigate. But IWGB hasn’t shied away. The union took Uber to court with Farrar and Aslam, and won. ‘We are a very small trade union,’ Lopez tells me, ‘Bigger unions don’t want to spend the money and see it as much more work. We formed because of the failure of the big unions to do anything about precarious workers’ rights. We managed to take Uber to court and win and we have few resources. Imagine what they could do.’
IWGB has defied trends in declining union membership too. Young people and migrant workers are increasingly signing up in a bid for greater employment status and protections. The worker-led union has also backed Deliveroo riders in strike action, and has brought a key case relating to the gig economy to the Central Arbitration Committee for investigation. Like with Uber, the food-delivery app argues that riders are self-contractors. Even though they wear Deliveroo-branded uniforms, they don’t have the freedom to take on other clients and only deliver food and drink for Deliveroo. It’s like saying McDonald’s simply matches workers with Big Mac consumers by letting them use their restaurant equipment.
Deliveroo rider and secretary of the Couriers and Logistics Branch, Jim Benfield, is cycling with a huge stereo system in tow during today’s protest. He argues there is a lot of energy and commitment among riders to organise and protest, but people are afraid they will lose their jobs or be penalised. Since the company changed the pay structure from £7 per hour plus £1 for each delivery to only £3.75 per delivery in some areas of London, workers strikes, protests and legal action have plagued Deliveroo. According to Benfield, the company has made malicious attempts to spread misinformation and curtail unionisation.
‘Deliveroo have led a campaign of intimidation and fear,’ he says, ‘A lot of work has been done by Deliveroo to convince workers everything is fine as it is. The problem is Deliveroo has a lot more resources to spread misinformation. They are much more happy to behave unilaterally and don’t want to lose their position as power holder. They know that when workers organise they have more room to say no to contracts and payment structures.’
What the march today has done is make the invisible workforce at the heart of the gig economy visible. App-based platforms advertise themselves as a liminal space between products and consumers: Uber is a taxi-hailing company but owns no cars; Deliveroo and UberEATS deliver food but have no chefs or kitchens. This makes us, as consumers, fail to fully comprehend the unequal distribution of wealth and power at the industry’s core. Hardly anyone stops to think about why, and how, it’s now so easy to have everything just one click away.
London School of Economics fellow Jamie Woodcock, whose recent research has focused on digital labour, says outsourcing jobs and manipulation is the key to the gig economy’s success. ‘These companies outsource their jobs and therefore have low labour costs,’ he explains, ‘This makes the business look very attractive and pulls in a huge amount of investment. Companies like Uber have been manipulating people and making drivers take on self-employment status to keep investment high.’ After the financial crisis in the late 2000s, unemployment rates had soared globally. Start-ups were the exciting rejuvenation of a broken economy. But their growth has gone unchecked for too long – until now.
The fractured, individualistic nature of gig economy work is slowly being chipped away by collective action such as today’s. Workers are organising on the streets. Leaflets are handed out as they wait for their next ‘gig’. Union participation is on the increase. Three significant legal cases have been taken to court in the past two years, with each bearing huge influence on the future of on-demand businesses. Today’s demonstration was a loud and confident show of force which resulted in the Senate House being shut down. If Silicon Valley’s start-ups assumed organisation wasn’t possible, they were wrong. In the immortal words of Bob Marley, cited by Uber tribunal co-claimant Aslam at today’s march, ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights. Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!’