The high stakes of the Deliveroo Strike

12 August saw Deliveroo couriers, on day two of their strike, protesting outside management’s offices. Joe Hayns asks what’s at stake.

Thronging a street in central London – shouting together at a management that’s gone from smug to terrified in 72 hours – were around 150 Deliveroo couriers. During a sit-down discussion the most recent offer from management – the second in three days – was unanimously rejected: they’d already told one manager what they think of the company.

Having organised face-to-face – and via WhatsApp – something of a double-edged sword, all these smart phones – and without initial union support, the striking workers are now demanding a London Living Wage. Deliveroo’s business model of short-termism, ‘independence’ and encouraging competition among workers is under attack. Why?

Photo credit: Steve Eason

Photo credit: Steve Eason

Deliveroo management want to alter the pay structure. Currently, workers get £7 p/h, plus £1 per delivery, but the company are ‘trialling’ – that is, seeing if they can get away with – paying workers £3.75 per delivery with nothing per hour: no base rate whatsoever. Over a busy hour, some workers might get three or four or deliveries: over a quiet one, nothing. Putting it formally, Deliveroo want their workers to move from time-wages to piecework (‘which enables the capitalist to raise more easily the normal degree of intensity of labour’, amongst other freebies for bosses).

One driver I spoke to said that on a quiet day he gets one delivery every hour over twelve hours; under the proposed regime, he’d get just over £40 for 12 hours work: “that’s like pocket money, isn’t it?” Notice that even the current pay regimes can leave with couriers getting below the minimum wage, let alone a London Living Wage. How do the company get away with it?

Technically, Deliveroo workers are ‘self-employed’: they’re independent contractors, and so the company isn’t obliged to treat them in anything like the way it would regular employees, including paying minimum wage (the same is true for Uber drivers). Why only ‘technically’? Deliveroo drivers have to wear the company uniform, have to be available during their shift, and can’t work for another delivery company whilst also taking order from Deliveroo. They’re working for them, not with them, in every sense but name.

The company’s model is part of much wider tendency towards ‘cost-shifting’, or making workers bear more and more of the cost of doing business. Unless we force them to, our bosses – capital – will maximise profit by making things we need to work (in this case, bikes, mopeds, phones, etc) ‘external’ to their costs. As one Deliveroo driver yesterday said:

I fell off my 125cc ‘ped, and spent days in hospital. I didn’t get any sick pay, no compensation, and I had to borrow money to pay my rent. Now I’m thousands in debt.

And that is how Deliveroo make their money, by forcing the costs of doing business onto their workers, at a time when they’re valued at roughly £1 billion, having turned over £130 million in the last financial year.

Deliveroo workers ready to confront management. Photo credit: Steve Eason.

Deliveroo couriers ready to confront management. Photo credit: Steve Eason.

So, what does the company actually do? Deliveroo – like Uber, like AirBnB – are classic ‘rentiers’: all they’ve done is (1) patent the simple software that powers the app that links buyer and seller, (2) double-ticked and then copyrighted a logo, and then, crucially, (3) bullshitted journalists and politicians about how innovative they are: actually, they’re simply monopolising, via patents and branding, the ability of sellers and buyers to find each other. The fact that they’ve got a lot of investment behind them is in a sense irrelevant: they’re ‘paper tigers’, owning, in fact, very little.

There is of course a temptation to see all this as ‘inevitable’: doesn’t technology make all this necessary, however unpleasant?

No.

Technological change is assured; what’s less certain is who will benefit from it. It doesn’t have to mean workers getting chucked on the heap, anymore that it requires abysmal wages and working conditions. Ex-Uber drivers have already developed an app that gives them, as workers, greater control over their conditions of labour and – key, this – that pools profits amongst them. ‘Swift’, as it’s called, shows Uber et al for what they are: less employers than highly-leveraged parasites.

The striking workers’ immediate demands are for a London Living Wage; £1 for every delivery; keeping all their tips; and the company’s covering of costs. The fact that Deliveroo is unusually dependent on its reputation – they don’t have much else – makes them especially vulnerable to workers’ sound and fury: they can win, especially with the support of the IWGB – a small, militant, fighting union – who have been very solid in their support of couriers historically, and of Deliveroo couriers now.

A feckless Deliveroo boss tries to explain to workers that he wants to discuss their issues individually, not collectively. Source: Novara Media

A feckless Deliveroo boss tries to explain to workers that he wants to discuss their issues individually, not collectively. Source: Novara Media

Finally, ‘their fight is our fight’: always, but in the case of striking Deliveroo workers, this is perhaps more true than usual. And, as Ursula Huws writes, ‘it appears a new kind of working life is emerging’: Deliveroo couriers are on the frontline against it.

What kind of new? Let’s extend Deliveroo et al’s model: Imagine an app that allows nurses to bid to care for an elderly person in their home (and what effect that would have on nurses wages, not to mention ‘difficult’ – as in, really ill – patients). Or, think of a company that allows schools to hire a teacher on a weekly basis (and what that would do to students). In supporting Deliveroo workers today, we’re defending ourselves against an economy that’s increasingly based on ultra short-term, ultra precarious, ultra underpaid jobs, all in the name of ‘innovation’: their profiting from easy-to-make software, branding, and super-exploitation, that is.

Deliveroo couriers are fighting against an atrocious employer: we need to do everything we can to support them in this struggle.

IWGB have got a strike fund: donate here. Soon enough, they might be donating to yours.

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