It’s 7.30pm on a Thursday evening in late March and I get a phone call from an unknown number. It turns out to be a van courier who’s read about our union activity online, and wants to know what the union could do for him and his colleagues. He tells me that all of them work in extremely precarious conditions, due to the huge costs imposed on them by the major courier company they work for. “People have to realise they have a lot of power” he says. He’s right: they are a multi-million pound business that very profitably employs thousands of couriers.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ‘gig economy’ then here’s a brief summary. Corporations set up their business model in such a way that they have a minimum number of formal employees, while ‘engaging services’ from a large pool of casualized, self-employed people. Even though their staff often can’t choose their hours, or realistically take work from multiple employers, these companies refuse to employ staff like the van courier in conventional ways. In other words, people who work in the gig economy tend to be:
· Working on bogus ‘independent contractor’ contracts, which ensure they have no employment rights of any kind.
· Controlled and/or managed through an app or software.
· Working remotely without a formal workplace, which might be on the roads as a delivery driver, at home as a technical engineer or sales rep, or in multiple workplaces such as a travelling repair person.
· Paid per task, such as paid per delivery or job completed.
The cornerstone of the gig economy is the first point about independent contracting. This fact systematically removes almost every single one of our workers’ rights that have been won in the UK. If you’ve ever had to sign up to one of these contracts, you’ll already be familiar with some the legal clauses that are included to effect this.
For example, the contract is not called a contract of employment. Typically, it’s called a ‘contract for services’, or a ‘tender agreement’. This implies that we carry out multiple individual contracts, rather than the reality that we can work for long and continuous periods, and often with just one employer. And although these terms were entirely drafted by one party (the employer), it seems to suggest the terms were negotiated between two commercial enterprises engaging in a trading relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Another term might read: ‘the supplier [that’s you] is under no obligation to provide services, and the company is under no obligation to offer services’. This is an even weirder one when you start to work in the gig economy, and you ultimately come to understand that it’s a flat-out lie. Of course you’re meant to work and they are meant to give you work. That’s why you want a job and that’s
why they’re hiring people to provide their product, right? But again, it serves to break down the level of obligation between the parties in order to prevent one party being seen as the employer. If that were the case then they’d have to meet a number of minimum standards, such as ensuring that they pay at least the national minimum wage and a pension. Both of these are undesirable inconveniences for the average gig economy business.
Finally—and this the big stinger that all the gig economy corporations now want: ‘the supplier [that’s you] have the right to send anyone on your behalf to perform the services and are responsible for paying that person’. Why? Because it’s a way of saying you are no longer a worker, with worker’s rights. Instead, you’re an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs take risks (and suffer them too). And so suddenly, because you have the right to subcontract your job, you’re no longer entitled to any other rights.
Luckily, clauses like this one have rarely been used against the worker so far, and courts will likely find in your favour—if you can fight it. But clauses like this have been inserted into the contracts of thousands of workers by corporate lawyers in order to attempt to deprive them of basic employment rights. The gig economy is littered with such false contracts—and that’s without mentioning the convoluted procedures, arm’s length management, automated email disciplinaries or dismissals, and the almost complete transfer of risk onto thousands of individual workers!
All of this might sound totally bonkers, and you’d be right, but the situation is commonplace for the thousands of people who have been forced to become ‘entrepreneurs’ just to get a job. And in the process giving up any rights as a worker. The result? Modern day exploitation by courier companies that might put you £250 in debt for the privilege of your first week at work—through dispatch fees, rental charges or (often well-hidden) insurance costs. One van driver I know spent £43,000 over three years on van hire through his employer—because he lacked the capital or ability to seek credit elsewhere—and another got hit with unexpected compulsory charges like a £89 windscreen insurance bill. Many others have the price of a company uniform deducted from their first week’s wages—but yet are supposed to be 'independent contractors'!
In none of these situations did the worker really have much option but to hand over the cash—and the company falsely reiterates that this is an ‘opportunity’ to start a business. Workers around the world are being hit with these conditions, alongside no guaranteed hours, earning less than minimum wage and not getting a pension or paid holiday leave. You might have to deliver 40 takeaways per month just to cover your insurance. Or be forced to work multiple jobs because you can’t survive on one without guaranteed hours or pay. I know couriers desperately trying to juggle two or three apps at a time, as they try to feed their kids or pay rent. This situation is unsustainable, un-just and urgent. But what options are left? Carry on being exploited? Wake up in a trap in five years’ time? No, we have to fight it now. And we have to fight it because we are workers, not entrepreneurs!
This is what we are doing at the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union—and if you work in the gig economy then join us! The process we are undertaking at the Couriers and Logistics Branch is two-fold: we’re organizing the workers who work on these bogus contracts, while also engaging in the long and drawn out legal processes needed to challenge and deconstruct these ridiculous clauses. This involves identifying workers with similar problems who share the same employer and trying to achieve the required union representation of 50%. Then we can bargain collectively to try and challenge such exploitation. But this is often very difficult to achieve because the workers are vulnerable, scared and often misinformed of their legal rights by their employer. So first we have to do our best to protect their identity and security, and second we have to help educate them on what can be done—including by helping them bring about a legal case if possible.
It is extremely difficult to unionise in this industry. Yet, what we are doing is a start, and we are welcoming new members every day. We need to do this now because it will take years to fully expose the damage already done by companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, CitySprint, eCourier, Stuart, Jinn, Quiqup and others. This is mainly because people don’t yet fully understand how these businesses so thoroughly exploit their workers, but it’s also because the workers themselves do not understand what rights they have left. It’s not the flexibility and freedom promised by their marketing and legal departments; it’s dirty old tricks using fancy new shiny tech. And these tricks mostly revolve around pretending that workers are entrepreneurs. This is what we have to fight for as a union: to educate people in this basic truth and to set out our claims for recognition. We are workers, not entrepreneurs; and this means that we will not stop fighting for our protections, rights, and agency to act collectively.
More on IWGB Couriers & Logistics Branch:
iwgbclb.wordpress.com | @iwgb_clb | fb.me/couriersandlogisticsbranch
This article is from a larger collection 'Towards a Fairer Gig Economy'
edited by Mark Graham and Joe Shaw. Available for free download as pdf
or e-book at meatspacepress.org