Campaigners against low pay are hoping that a victory for Deliveroo couriers this week will encourage further action by gig economy workers. One of the biggest barriers to a repeat, however, is the very nature of the work Britain’s part-time, self-employed army carries out.
Workers at Deliveroo, the online food delivery firm, won a rare victory in seeing off an attempt to force them to sign up to new pay terms. Deliveroo’s change of heart followed several days of protests by its drivers.
The protests, in which more than 100 moped riders and cyclists took to the streets after being told they would have to move from an hourly rate to payment per delivery, marked a new assertiveness among workers in the UK’s so-called gig economy.
Dr Alex Wood, a sociologist at Oxford University who is studying the gig economy and collective action, said the success of the Deliveroo strike could motivate other workers. “One of the most important elements for any action is that they believe there is a chance of it being successful,” he said. “That fact that the workers have got some concessions out of it will inspire other workers to think it is worthwhile.”
The Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh, who has been campaigning for better treatment of low-paid workers, is less optimistic. She said it was hard for those employed in the gig economy – the term for temporary, self-employed work – to organise and agitate for better pay and conditions.
“They are not in the same workplace and there is not the same unity of cause. There is always somebody who will do it if you don’t want to. There is a big role for unions in this area, but they will have to change the way they are working and offer different services,” she said.
Mags Dewhurst, the chair of the couriers and logistics branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) helped the Deliveroo drivers draw up a list of demands. She said she had tried to recruit workers before the recent pay protests, but without much luck.
“The difficulty we faced had been accessing them. How do you reach thousands of people when they are spread around London? I was literally chasing them down the street if I saw a blue jacket.”
Several major trade unions are considering how they can adapt to the fast-growing gig economy. Wood raises the possibility of a move towards something similar to “worker centres” in the US, where volunteers offer resources and advice to those on low pay.
Legal test cases also have a role to play. The GMB union is backing a court case taken by 19 drivers for taxi-hailing app Uber, who say they are employees rather than self-employed. A ruling in their favour could have far-reaching implications for gig economy businesses. The GMB became involved after existing members began working for Uber and asked for advice. The IWGB is backing action by cycle couriers at four firms starting later this year.
Alice Martin, a unions expert at the New Economics Foundation thinktank, said: “Major unions can play a really important role as they have the clout needed to take on these big cases, that strong presence, resources and expertise.”
There are challenges, however, for unions that consider the cost of engaging with self-employed workers in the gig economy to be too high, according to Wood. “There’s a high turnover of people and there’s low market bargaining power. If they go on strike it’s not going to bring the economy to a halt, unlike coal miners or rail workers,” he said.
Social media and digital technology will probably play a key role in low-pay campaigns, he added. “Even amongst the workers who are working around the world from home we find most of them join online social networks through Facebook, forums and blogs,” he said.
“There’s not much formal training in the gig economy so the only way they can make it work for them is to get support from other workers. They need to learn from each other. They’ll find ways to meet up and exchange information. These networks form the basis for people to share dissatisfactions.”
The use of social media has taken employers by surprise. Workers for Deliveroo and the parcel firm Hermes have used closed social media groups to exchange information about things they are unhappy about, and messages about the protests were spread on open Facebook group pages and on Twitter.
Dewhurst said firms’ reliance on digital technology for their business models also laid them open to the possibility of workers’ action.
Although this kind of tech has been designed to isolate individuals and atomise work, deskilling the industry and driving down wages, the very platform it uses to do that is hugely vulnerable to ad-hoc collective action by groups of individuals,” she said.
“It’s now very easy for Deliveroo to hire and fire people, but equally easy for drivers to decide not to work, and when they decide do to it altogether, can garner huge leverage against their would-be employer. All they need to do is log out.”
Whether traditional unions are ready and able to engage with workers in the digital world remains to be seen.
Martin said: “A lot needs to be done in terms of [traditional unions’] digital capacity.” Referring to digital voting, she said: “Traditional unions have found it notoriously hard as some technological changes have to be written into law.”
The TUC has spent several years campaigning for the right to conduct digital ballots, but was only able to win the right to a review of the concept and a pilot scheme in the controversial Trade Union Act brought in this year.
Martin said it was possible new unions and staff-led groups might have to fill the void if traditional unions were unable to.
Dewhurst said the events of the past 10 days were “just a taste of what could happen” when low-paid workers campaign together.
“The biggest problem people face is getting in contact with each other. Once they are in contact and they have decided to work with one voice, they have effectively unionised and the company is screwed,” she said.