Striking against the “gig” economy

August 23, 2016

Will Searby looks at what "sharing economy" workers can learn from the victory of Deliveroo couriers, in an article published at the revolution in the 21st century website.

IN MID-August, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) announced a victory. For six days Torrington Place had been filled with couriers and supporters from the Deliveroo strike, and Bloomsbury, of all places, was a primary node of class struggle.

Of course, we can take heart from an inspiring win today, but it would be a mistake not to try and take a lot more from this; the Deliveroo strike gives us an invaluable insight into how "independent" workforces are managed in the modern economy, and how we can build class power in these new conditions.

Deliveroo had been trying to move their couriers from hourly paid wages, at an already measly rate of £7 an hour (about $9), onto piecework, paying just £3.75 per order. Some workers would then be earning as little as £30 (about $40) for a 12-hour shift.

The business model Deliveroo operates on really just relies on brand recognition, given that the constant capital employed is really very little more than an app and a brand name. This makes them very sensitive to publicity campaigns and boycotts. Earlier in the strike the company had tried to address this by publicizing an offer that the workers had already rejected as a victory for the strike, thereby sapping momentum from the boycott campaign.

Deliveroo workers at a strike rally in central London
Deliveroo workers at a strike rally in central London (Steve Eason)

Much of the dispute hung on the interpretation of the contract that Deliveroo couriers are employed on. The company insists that all of its staff are "self-employed." This allows the company to outsource costs and risks to the individual drivers, who don't receive sick pay, holiday pay or national insurance contributions.

Most importantly, the management insist that since each of their drivers are "entrepreneurs," they are not legally entitled to the minimum wage. The payment scheme that was ostensibly being "trialed" in London is already in place across the country.

This is one-half of the disciplinary structure of these forms of business; by isolating workers the business structure forces increased competition between them, and in turn increases overall productivity.

This is also, however, an age-old strategy in the form of piecework and overtime pay, where, rather than being managed collectively in relation to a production process, workers are isolated and rewarded based on their output and individual productivity; either through the amount of "pieces" they can get through on a shift, or how much overtime they can contribute above their fellow workers. The reality of these methods of pay is the reduction of gross labor costs as workers strive to outcompete each other.

THE ONLY response to this form of discipline is solidarity, and that's one of the reasons the couriers won: Mohammed, a part-time worker who'd been with Deliveroo only three weeks, admitted that the new pay structure would actually benefit him, but he told me that that wasn't the point, he was striking and picketing because he said it was a question of solidarity with his fellow workers, and he told me that if management could get away with this, then they could get away with anything. This was his first time taking strike action in any job.

But aside from the attempts that have already been made in unionizing workers in companies like Uber, there's a real novelty to this dispute. On the one hand, it is a simple question about the introduction of piecework wages being used as a disciplinary mechanism to increase exploitation as workers compete for orders.

On the other hand, however, given the business model that Deliveroo and similar companies use, the strike raises far more complex questions about how new technology is being used to enforce coercive employment structures and intensify labor controls.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the expansion of the so-called "gig economy" is how to reconcile an increasingly precarious and spontaneous employment structure with the kind of level of supervision that centralized workplaces allow for. In the case of Deliveroo, the app that couriers use mediates their relationship with the employer, telling them about orders in their vicinity, which they either "accept" or "decline."

More interestingly though, the app also logs the drivers in a ranking which is published regularly, encouraging further competition between workers and therefore increasing the rate of exploitation across the company. Additionally the app logs the ratio of offers that are "accepted" and "declined," and workers face having their contracts terminated if this ratio demonstrates a reluctance to take orders.

Though couriers can log out manually on most shifts, on busy days they are required to call in to end their shift, and Deliveroo's call center workers (also ostensibly self-employed) are required to ask the drivers for the reason they are logging out. The app even sends management data on the battery level of each of the drivers phones, meaning that it's almost impossible for couriers to voluntarily "switch off."

It's easy to see how factory work disciplines workers, both mentally and physically; office work and hospitality or retail work, too, have an entire hierarchy of supervisory positions to maintain a given rate of exploitation. What we see in Deliveroo is a frightening example of the way current technology can take on this supervisory and disciplinary role.

THE STRKE is clearly in this sense a tale about the sophistication of technology in the modern workplace and how it can be used to manage a workforce, but also how workers in turn can employ new technology to resist this kind of coercion. The fact that the strike was predominantly planned through WhatsApp cautions us from retreating into Luddism, and may be an indication of the kind of organization that will become more necessary in an increasingly precarious economy.

However, at the same time, the strike is testament also to the unsophistication of these new disciplinary practices; Deliveroo workers were able to talk face to face on a regular basis because their work requires them to assemble together in their zones whilst they wait for jobs. This is one example of the failure of this disciplinary regime to fully atomize the workforce.

In the past few months it seems to have been a conscious strategy of Deliveroo to attempt to saturate the market (realistically this is the only way such a form of sweated labor could survive). To this end management seem to be running the business either to break even or even make a loss, investing solely in expansion.

Ben, a trainer driver, estimated that the average turnover of drivers was probably around three months, and said that staff frequently weren't paid the wages the company owed them. Apparently Deliveroo was even floating the idea of introducing a commission pay structure to the training.

The short turnaround in these newly precarious sectors is one of the main barriers to union organization and only aids management in isolating workers. However, the recent strike demonstrates how even a relatively new workforce can build a high level of class-consciousness.

A video released by the United Voices of the World Union last week showed the assembled protesters unanimously rejecting offers by management to deal with them individually, and chasing a smarmy city boy back into the offices across the road.

One driver told me that this consensus for collective bargaining wasn't built out of nothing; a few months back around 20 drivers had asked for wage increases, the company had offered to deal with them individually, and then called them into the offices one by one, and sacked them on the spot.

And before we get too lost in innovating class struggle, the strike was clearly having an effect at a more basic level: a Gourmet Burger Kitchen branch in North London, for example, rang the Deliveroo offices on Friday night to ask what was wrong--usually, this branch would make around £1,000 in Deliveroo orders alone; on Friday, they made £160.

The IWGB Couriers And Logistics Branch announced that, following negotiations, management had agreed to withdraw the new contract, and said there would be no victimizations. The full statement can be read here.

First published at the rs21 website.

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