Uber tribunal: Building unions and collective action among casualised workers

Nilu discusses why the ruling that Uber drivers are ‘workers’, rather than being ‘self-employed’ is a cause for celebration for all workers, especially others in the gig economy.  

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

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

Workers and trade unionists in sectors renowned for low pay and insecurity have been celebrating a recent landmark court ruling that has effectively changed the status of Uber drivers from being ‘self employed’ to ‘worker’. The recent verdict means that the app-based company Uber, worth approximately £26 billion and the employer of 15,000 drivers in London, could be forced to give its workers basic employment rights, including being paid the national minimum wage.

For many workers who are struggling for the very basics within the so-called ‘gig economy’ this opens up the way for legal action against bogus claims of ‘self employment’ across all sectors. At the same time it poses a fundamental threat to the very core of a particularly pernicious business model.

The ruling will not only inevitably have a knock on effect for other Uber drivers but also on Deliveroo drivers, courier workers for the likes of City Sprint E-couriers and anyone else falsely considered as a contractor, for example construction workers, who can now contest their employment status and improve their working conditions.

In terms of the impact on wider layers of the movement, the deconstruction of the ‘self employment’ myth – of being ‘your own boss’- could be the starting point of a much broader discussion around processes through which more is being taken from us for less. Whether it’s an increase in the rooms housekeepers in hotels must clean, larger class sizes for each teacher or longer more unsociable working hours for doctors, we’re doing more for the money we’re given, working longer hours, picking up duties we previously wouldn’t have had to do and essentially working for free.

What is at stake for Uber and its drivers?

In the case of Uber and many other platform capitalist ventures, the use of ‘self employed’ workers is a central part of the way they operate. Uber and many like it are incredibly unprofitable, which makes hyper exploitation almost an existential necessity. Unlike traditional Fordist models, it doesn’t receive its income by selling a product, which is mass produced by its workers and sold for a profit. Uber collects data about what users are doing so that businesses and clients may find one another – locations, best routes, timings. The majority of their funding comes from big finance. Consequently, the main appeal of Uber for its financers is firstly the ability to monopolise the market as a platform, and secondly to be able to do this as efficiently as possible by keeping all costs down – especially labour.

This is why the status of ‘self employed’ is so important – it keeps the cost of labour way below usual standards. Uber is given considerable freedom to dodge any responsibility as an employer. For example, Uber is not obliged to adhere to the national minimum wage, to give paid breaks, holiday pay and statutory sick pay. As one of the drivers stated in the tribunal, on some days he could earn as little as £5 per hour on these terms. The driver therefore absorbs the cost and risk of low business. On top of this Uber drivers are responsible for providing the vehicle, for paying for fuel, insurance for the vehicle, any damage that may be inflicted on vehicles or any kind of theft. This is the same situation for those working for Uber EATS and Deliveroo, where bike theft is common – almost every day a bike is stolen and the workers must get a new one. When you add all the expenses into this equation what you find is a situation where people are paying to work. This translates into a relationship of dependency, and as a result a higher intensity of work for less pay: as the judge summarised – longer time spent at the wheel.

The formal status of self-employment is coupled with a seemingly neutral presentation of the ‘app’ as a ‘platform’ – essentially a service for individual drivers, defined by Uber as ‘businesses’, to meet consumers. This functions to mask the very tightly controlled conditions that drivers must work in, whereby an algorithm behaves very much like the old fashioned abusive controller. The app tracks the speed and location of their drivers. If they are late too many times they can receive a penalty or even ‘deactivation’. Deliveroo uses the same methods – one driver mentioned that in the event of a road accident workers would have to ignore any physical harm they may have endured, lock up their bike, pick up their delivery and run to the drop off point. Without formal employment, casual workers are tracked, instructed and disciplined into delivering a seamless, responsive service. This is algorithmic management geared towards making “transportation as reliable as running water”.

One of the successes of the judgement was its ability to articulate and formalise the disparity between the conditions of work for drivers and the self-employment ‘fiction’. There is, however, still a lot of work that needs doing on the part of unions to make sure the success is felt on a collectivised level. Uber have written to all drivers arguing that the ruling will only be affecting the two drivers involved in the case. Drivers need to be made aware that this isn’t true. This is just one way union membership and strong collectivised structures can play an important role to engage with drivers, preparing them for management tactics. However, union membership is still low and many drivers are still uncertain about whether it’s possible to raise their expectations.

Beyond Uber

While workers in the ‘gig economy’ experience these conditions in a way that’s particularly acute, many of the conditions described above are not exclusive to this area of work, and are spreading to other industries. Processes of responsibilisation – whereby workers are exposed to more risk and a greater burden of duties – are taking place no matter what kind of contract they’re on.

Harsher managerial techniques ensure that we speed up, that our work is standardised – for example, through the wider use of biometric and electronic methods of surveillance, measuring and evaluation, the use of ‘bench marking’, ‘performance indicators’ and ‘performance related pay’. There is greater use of tempory workers, part-timers, and contract workers, particularly prevalent in UK higher education. At the same time, the roles of those who retire or are absent are on many occasions eliminated or at least not replaced. All in all, this translates into shorter breaks, longer working hours. and lower income in real terms: all features of the modern day workplace and the product of creating conditions more favourable for capital.

Furthermore, much of the work we perform takes place outside the delegated work time- take for example, writing emails, marking papers, speaking to clients or using social media, giving management more flexibility in setting hours and tasks. Outside of spaces traditionally seen within the points of production, in spheres of reproduction, the working class is picking up the burden of an ever leaner welfare state and public sector. In a sense, capital has invaded every aspect of our lives.

This is why the struggle led by drivers in Uber and Deliveroo is so relevant to us as a whole. A victory for these workers could trigger a much bigger conversation and critique of what is now deemed to be socially necessary labour time and the mechanisms, which put that in place.

Where to go from here?

The legal battle is just one dimension of this struggle. The Uber ruling only directly benefits the two drivers involved and Uber is determined to appeal against the decision. Other drivers will have to follow the case up their selves.

As well as seeking support from the GMB to fund the tribunal the two Uber drivers, Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar, are also the founding members of a union for taxi drivers – The United Private Hire Drivers. The new union has now got branches in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Leeds and Bradford amongst other areas.

Meanwhile, other parts of the gig economy are riding this wave of success. Unions like the IWGB whose major successes have been around City Sprint and E-Couriers are now committing to a major recruitment drive in one of Deliveroo’s key areas – London Borough of Camden – with the aim of gaining union recognition and worker status for all the drivers there. The media spotlight from both the Deliveroo and Uber EATs wildcat strike action and the Uber tribunal has undoubtedly created a climate that is more open to organisation than before and a situation where victimisation could bring some unfriendly press to these increasingly sensitive digital platforms.

There are no shortcuts here. It’s some of the most exploited, often workers of colour such as those in Deliveroo, catering and cleaning staff, who are leading the way and starting the conversation by building their unions afresh and taking collective action. In the context of an increasingly racist state, with bigots like Theresa May as PM and the election of Trump in the US, this is something for revolutionaries to be very excited about.

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