Labour Germany recently held a well attended session on the gig economy with guest speaker Callum Cant, who worked for Deliveroo and is currently writing a book on the subject. Speaking from Brighton, Callum outlined the business model of firms like Deliveroo – app-based algorithmic management of the workflow instead of human supervisors, independent contractor status of employees who have to finance themselves (bikes, smartphones, internet costs etc.) plus piece rates and precarious working conditions without accident cover, holiday or sick pay or pensions. The relentless intensification of the capital accumulation process pursued by firms in the gig economy means that highly casualised workers are often competing for work and face continual downward pressure on wages with opaque algorithmic remuneration that varies according to location, time of day and many other factors kept secret by the company.
From Paris Arthur and Jean-Daniel told listeners about a 3-week strike there with no satisfactory outcome. Turnover rates are very high with an average employment duration of just three months. Those who lead unions or attempt to organize solidarity are frequently fired. Without a legal organization to lead the struggle and with the feeling that political leaders tacitly encourage the tactics of the gig economy, it can feel like an uphill struggle.
But there are certainly rays of hope. Ecourier agreed to a 28% pay rise following a union campaign. In London there was a strike to protest the switch to a pure piece-rate model, with established workers winning the right to stay on the old remuneration system, and in Brighton a hiring freeze was achieved, restricting competition among riders for orders. Casualised workers tend to be more militant!
Callum outlined some interesting historical parallels with casual labour and wildcat strikes at the docks and elsewhere in post-war Britain. The strike-breaking tactics of the oft-lauded Attlee Labour government included a recognition that decasualised labour organized in formal trade unions is generally less militant. Harold Wilson’s Labour government in the 1960s attempted to combat the “lump” in the building trade, which was a lump-sum payment for self-employed, casualised builders to pay all their tax and other outgoings. Nowadays the lack of formal bargaining power at trade union level and the sense of having nothing to lose means that casual workers in the gig economy are more likely to strike – so a defeat one day can be followed by a victory the next.
Jean-Daniel opposed consumer boycotts of gig economy firms because this directly impacts the wages of the workers, who are paid per order: consumers can better express solidarity with a decent tip. But the real way forward is organizing collective resistance, for example, by “salting the floor” – encouraging young workers such as students to get a gig economy job in order to unionize – and taking direct action led by radical, agile unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), which led the first UK national strike.
International solidarity in the form of sharing information and linking resistance in different countries also helps to oppose corporations with a transnational reach. Since laws are now being drafted, it is also important to influence the legislative process and not leave this to the corporate lawyers of the gig economy. Arthur pointed out that co-ops with fair terms and conditions run by the workers themselves are a good approach though they will struggle to match the size of the conventional competitors.
Be warned that casualisation is likely to spread, even reaching the middle class: today the bike riders, tomorrow the lawyers!
Web:: I’m a Deliveroo rider. Collective action is the only way we’ll get a fair deal, https://notesfrombelow.org/, Striking the Startups, Sacked at Christmas: Uber Eats Fires Workers for Objecting to Pay Cut