BRAVE NEW EUROPE has always considered the Gig Economy one of the most important economic developments of our time. Unfortunately it is totally ignored in mainstream media and by much of academia. The Lipman-Miliband Trust has generously financed a pilot project to form an information network on how gig economy workers are organising across Europe, thus supporting them in creating a public voice that up to now has been denied them.
Ben Wray is a freelance journalist leading BRAVE NEW EUROPE’S Gig Economy Project. He also produces a morning newsletter called Source Direct on Scottish politics, which you can sign-up to here: https://sourcenews.scot/mailing-list/
This article was made possible thanks to a generous grant by the Lipman-Miliband Trust
Until the lockdown shut most of us behind our four walls, a new distinct feature of the European urban environment had become apparent to all. The gig economy couriers. Riders buzzing round street corners with Deliveroo back-packs on and Uber bumper stickers on cars, they have become an emblem of an age of precarious, app-driven work.
Those couriers are still out there in now eerily empty boulevards and plazas, operating as the tissue connecting together the bare-bones Covid-19 economy. Indeed, their role is crucial in transporting goods, equipment and people, so much so that many have been officially granted “key worker” status by governments for the duration of the crisis.
In the UK, the gig economy is not a small section of the workforce any longer. A study published in June last year by the Trades Union Congress found that they now number 4.7 million, one in ten employees, doubled from one in 20 as recently as 2016. A significant section of this is couriers and drivers, guided by platform-controlled algorithms to connect efficiently with service-users. There is a reason why the gig economy couriers have become a lot more visible on the city landscape recently – there is a lot more of them.
Thus, the consequences of this section of the UK workforce failing to keep their head above water during this crisis will not just affect them and their families. It is of significance to all of us. Yet there is good reason to think that this crucial group of workers face immediate financial penury, as well as acute health risks.
The majority of these workers have no security of employment, operating as independent contractors on a pay-per-ride/drop basis. A fall in demand for their services means collapsing pay. Most have not received Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) to keep them safe. And if they do become sick, their financial security is immediately at risk, with the UK Government’s self-employed bailout not due to arrive until June. Even then Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) is only £94.25 per week. There is an obvious financial incentive to keep working even if sick, putting others at risk. The brutal reality for the gig economy courier is a gaping chasm between the social necessity of their work, and the individual financial precarity of their lives.
In that context, the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) Couriers and Logistics Branch’s industrial organising work is an essential public service. The table below highlights the platform companies where the branch organises gig economy couriers, and how these companies have responded to the Covid-19 crisis. The firms include the taxi platform Uber, the food delivery company Deliveroo,, and The Doctors Laboratory, the medical courier.
The branch has published a more detailed breakdown to back-up this table. There is a number of aspects of this real-time study which are worth highlighting:
Key worker status: Couriers for five of the 13 platforms have been officially issued ‘key worker status’ by the UK Government. There is no correlation between this status and employment rights or sick pay. For instance, couriers for the same day-delivery logistics platform CitySprint (owned by Lloyds bank) have key worker status, but have no sick pay entitlement, meaning they have a clear economic incentive to work while sick, potentially infecting other people – including other key workers like nurses and doctors – who they may come into contact with.
Differentiation across platforms: There is a noticeably stark differentiation between different platforms in how they have responded to the Covid-19 crisis. Some companies have responded positively to pressure from the IWGB Couriers branch, while others have sought to dismiss or brush off their concerns. The unevenness of the response of platforms to the crisis highlights the need for strong worker regulation and trade union organisation across the sector as the only means of ensuring high standards. The idea that a generalised ‘corporate social responsibility’ exists, and thus platform companies can be relied on to regulate themselves, has been proven to be a sham.
Earnings collapsing: Across every platform where gig economy workers are pay-per-service/drop contractors (which is the vast majority), the IWGB are getting reports of collapsing earnings as demand falls, sometimes by as much as 50 per cent. In normal times, median UK gig economy weekly earnings is just £375, according to a 2018 UK Government report. If those earnings are cut in half during the lockdown, paying rent and bills at the end of the month will suddenly look like a daunting challenge.
Covid-19 corporate PR v reality: Uber and Deliveroo
Two of the largest courier/driver digital platforms in the UK, Uber and Deliveroo, have sought to improve their public relations image in their response to the Covid-19 crisis in the UK by offering use of their platforms for free to government. But the reality for the couriers and drivers that actually do the work, many of whom have been involved in important struggles with these platform companies long before Covid-19, is not such a heart-warming experience.
The UK is the country in Europe with the highest number of Uber app downloads. Uber has pledged 10 million free rides and food deliveries for health care workers, senior citizens and others affected by the outbreak in the UK, a generous offer but it will not be company executives bearing the health risk, it will be Uber drivers. The company has yet to issue Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for drivers, who have asked for protective screens since their taxis are now set to be regularly filled with those most likely to be exposed to Covid-19 infection.
This latest episode comes on the back of a series of struggles between Uber, the wider taxi industry and its drivers in the UK.
In May, hundreds of Uber drivers in the UK joined a global strike over pay and conditions, to coincide with the company’s stock market flotation. Analysis by the IWGB found Uber workers earn on average £5 an hour, well below the legal minimum wage rate. The union called for Uber’s commission on the earnings per journey to be reduced from 23 per cent to 15 per cent.
In November, the London transport authority TfL announced that Uber would be losing its license to operate in the city due to health and safety concerns. That decision came after a long-running dispute since 2017 over its license, with a strong local taxi union/lobby pressuring for Uber to be cut out of the London market.
Deliveroo has grown rapidly in the UK in recent years, now boasting a one-quarter share of the UK take-away delivery market. The UK is by far its largest European market.
Deliveroo has said it will offer up a free-service during the Covid-19 crisis, through delivering 500,000 hot meals to hospitals. The company has also announced a hardship fund for all riders who contracted Covid-19, but the details of the scheme means it appears to be more of a PR stunt than genuine financial provision for contractors.
The company said that riders needed medical proof that they had Coronavirus from a doctor, but those with Covid-19 are being told to stay at home by the NHS unless they develop symptoms which require hospitalisation, so there is no obvious mechanism for securing such proof. The hardship fund payment is a flat £100 per week, far less than what a regular Deliveroo contractor would expect to earn.
2019 saw an uptick in struggles from union-organised Deliveroo riders in the UK, with protests organised across August and September over a sharp cut in pay-per-delivery. There has also been long running safety concerns around training for riders, bike lights and security, with some riders being robbed by gangs.
In the end it all comes down to one thing: The workers
When the Coronavirus outbreak began in the UK, one of the first moves of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, was to invite digital platform companies in for a meeting, including the CEO’s of Uber and Deliveroo. There is a very good reason why these companies were at the top of Cummings’ to-do-list: the platform companies are the data kings. They have control of the infrastructure in which much of our active lives (especially under lockdown) take place upon in the modern world. That makes them hugely powerful, doubly so in a generalised crisis such as this one.
However, the platform giants operating in the physical world of taxis, couriers and logistics do have a weak link in their armoury – workers. These companies may not employ the contractors which use their app, but ultimately without these workers the data which underpins their apps is just that, information. It is the role of workers carrying products, people and equipment to service-users that turns that information into multi-billion pound firms. That truth implies that if platform workers are organised at large-scale both industrially and politically, they could quite quickly garner significant leverage over the data-merchants.
The IWGB’s Couriers and Logistics branch list of Covid-19 demands to the UK Government are:
– Full pay during sickness or self-isolation
– A guaranteed floor in earnings of the living wage plus costs, to protect workers at times of low demand.
– Safety equipment to prevent the spread of the virus, including where necessary hand sanitiser, protective gloves, masks and more comprehensive measures in high-risk areas.
– Regular medical testing. Couriers’ work means that they are regularly in contact with different members of the public so monitoring that they have not caught Covid-19 is essential.
– Enhanced pay for those who continue to work, assuming greater risks and higher workload.
– Social distancing policies wherever possible, including the right for couriers to request no-contact delivery drop offs, where those policies aren’t already in place.
– Temporary leave funded by companies wherever necessary.