Gig Economy Workers of the World, Unite!

Date: 17 Jul 2018 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In 2016 delivery riders in London, galvanized by the decision of Deliveroo, a food delivery company, to switch from paying an hourly wage plus a bonus per delivery to a straight payment per delivery, went on strike. The strike spread to UberEats in London and then to other cities around the UK where companies were adopting a similar payment regime. That fall, riders employed by another food delivery firm, Foodora went on strike in Turin. Within a year strikes had broken out in Milan and Rome. By early 2018 they had spread to France, Spain, Germany. Belgium and the Netherlands.

The remarkable history and evolution of this gig economy movement have been covered well in Jacobin. The most recent article by Lorenzo Zamponi appeared this June.

In November 2017, the self-organized collectives Deliveroo Strike Raiders, Riders Union Bologna, and Deliverance Milano signed a common list of demands to Deliveroo.

In mid-2018 the Bologna city council negotiated a “Bill of Fundamental Rights of Digital Workers in the Urban Context” with Riders Union Bologna collective. The bill includes right to insurance, to organize, and to be paid hourly salaries in line with national collective bargaining agreements. The newly appointed labor minister of Italy’s new coalition government proposed extending the bill to the national level and as his first official meeting met with the riders’ delegation.

In mid February 2017, 160 people from 40 organizations and 9 countries met in London for the Third Transnational Social Strike Platform Assembly to “discuss, organize and plan around questions on the social strike.”

Workers have won over public opinion by taking to the streets and directly engaging the public. They’ve occupied company offices and distributed leaflets in restaurants while wearing their company’s uniforms.

The workers ultimate goal is to be recognized as workers, not freelancers. Like other companies in the gig economy, delivery firms assert there is no employment relationship and therefore they are not legally required to provide insurance, sick leave, or any other work-related benefits nor to bargain collectively with the riders.  Delivery workers maintain that the firm’s work requirements prove they are traditional employees: riders agree to weekly shifts, wait at pre-established locations for orders, earn a wage set by the company, and wear branded uniforms.

The courts have ruled both ways on the employment issue but for the most part have sided with the workers.  In late 2016 a British court found that Uber taxi drivers were not self-employed. “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our minds faintly ridiculous,” the judges observed.  Uber lost its appeal in 2017.

London Anti-Uber Protest, David Holt via Flickr

In April 2018 an Italian employment tribunal ruled that Deliveroo riders are not employees but in June a Spanish court ruled that Deliveroo riders are employees. This June the UK Supreme Court also unanimously ruled that a heating engineer working for Pimlico Plumbers was an employee and not self-employed. The high court also granted Deliveroo’s riders permission to challenge its opposition to collective bargaining on human rights grounds.

In June an employment tribunal in Leeds also ruled that 65 Hermes couriers were entitled to receive the minimum wage and holiday pay, and to reclaim unlawful deductions from their wages, because they had incorrectly been classified as self-employed.

The GMB, an amalgamation of over 100 unions, helped bring the claim. The ruling is likely to affect 14,500 Hermes couriers engaged under the same contract as the 65 couriers who took the case to the tribunal.

According to Frank Field, the Labour chair of the work and pensions committee, which has begun an inquiry into the pay and conditions of couriers the decision ranked “among the most substantial judicial interventions ever to support vulnerable workers in this country”.

The impressive gig economy workers revolt continues to build in the UK and beyond. This month the GMB took legal action on behalf of couriers against three delivery companies used by Amazon.

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.