BEN COWLES explores how the Tories’ deliberate refusal to clamp down on exploitative employment practices has given rise to the ‘precariat’ class
PENNIE QUINTIN, a PhD candidate, freelance journalist and co-chair of the London Freelance Branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), contacted me a few weeks ago asking if the Morning Star would be interested in covering an upcoming conference she had helped organise on precarious work and the fight against “the headlong rush by bosses towards making us all freelance — regardless of whether we want to be or not.”
The conference, called Being Freelance in the Age of Precarious Labour comes at a pertinent time as, according to a 2016 TUC report, “3.2 million UK workers are now in precarious work, and the number of workers at risk of missing out on key employment protections has nearly doubled in a decade to 1.5 million.”
The inspiration for putting on the conference, Quintin told me somewhere deep within the labyrinthine corridors of King’s College London, came after she attended a talk by Guy Standing, the economist, professor of development studies at Soas, University of London, and founder of Basic Income Earth Network — a somewhat controversial issue on the left.
“Guy Standing describes how the labour model is changing,” Quintin explained to me. “He thinks what we will see in the future is an older group of people who still have the salaries, the job security. But the young people coming into work will have no security and will be trapped in a permanent state of precarious labour.”
In an essay entitled the Future of Work, Standing writes that globalisation is forcing us to be “habituated to unstable labour, to flitting between activities, to internalising a life of uncertainty,” and he argues that today’s labour patterns must now be seen in terms of a new “global class structure.”
At the very top of this structure, Standing puts a plutocracy of influential billionaires, followed a long way down by a shrinking class known as the “salariat,” which for many years enjoyed things like long-term job security, pensions, paid holidays and sick leave. But these things are, sadly, quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Nestled at the very bottom of the pyramid beneath the well known proletariat, Standing puts a rapidly growing class known as the “precariat,” which he describes as “millions of people living and working without any form of labour security … [with] no occupational identity or narrative to give their lives.”
While the welfare institutions they used to rely on whither away and die due to a lack of proper funding and ruthless privatisation, the proletariat is increasingly finding itself falling into this precariat class.
Exploiting this new state of desperation brought on and sustained by Tory austerity is a new labour model of precarious work known as the “gig” economy, where work is outsourced online among millions of people with no workplaces, no guaranteed hours, no contracts, no holiday or sick pay nor even a minimum wage.
The Tories’ apathy towards the plight of working people has allowed companies like Uber, CitySprint, G1 Group, Deliveroo, McDonald’s, etc to grown insanely wealthy from an exploitative labour model.
Back in my conversation with Quintin, I asked her why she thought this labour model had seen an increase in recent years. And though she admitted to speaking less from a position of knowledge than one of reminiscence, her answer was compelling nonetheless.
“In the ’90s there was this attitude that we can all have flexitime, that we can all go to work when we want, that we can go home when we want and we can have ping-pong tables in our offices because we’re all so cool now.
“When we look at the more recent web platforms for employment, it’s that utopian vision of the ’90s being turned into hard cash and getting as much labour as possible out of the people that, to use an old fashioned term, ‘own the means of production’.
“Although, technically, an Uber driver might be seen to own their means of production, the means of production has gone beyond his taxi. It’s gone into a system of information. The work sits inside an application which is owned by someone else. It’s a piece of software which is exploiting the drivers for as much as it can get out of them.
“Sometimes, there seems to be a frog-boiling mentality where we’re just getting our heads down, going to work, trying to get on with life and things are getting harder and harder. And people just adapt to their daily situation getting tougher and tougher.
“That’s why it’s so great about Mags; she was forced to think about that model because she was being totally exploited by it.”
By Mags, Quintin was referring to Maggie Dewhurst, a cycle courier and chair of the couriers and logistics branch at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), who took four of London’s largest courier businesses — CitySprint, eCourier,
Addison Lee and Excel Group Services — to an employment tribunal and won, setting an important precedent not only for cycle courier but potentially for everyone seeking fairer employment rights.
“The focus of all of the four claims against the four courier companies,” Dewhurst told me over Quintin’s mobile phone, was to “establish that we were bogusly classified as ‘independent contractors’ and that in fact, we should have an employment status of a worker instead.”
Seeing how workers in this model are typically not well paid, afraid to bite the hand that feeds and absolutely shattered from working ridiculous hours, the odds are completely stacked against them should they try to take these companies to an employment tribunal.
“If you can’t work, that is not covered by the company in any shape or form,” Dewhurst said. “Whether it’s because your equipment breaks or you get sick or you get too old, none of that is covered by the company.
“So the pay thing is an issue because if you don’t have enough money, just to live, then you don’t really have enough money to resist. You need time and energy to fight back. And that’s why it’s exploitative.
“CitySprint doesn’t own a single van,” Dewhurst says, explaining a worrying trend emerging in this labour model. “So, if you don’t have your own van, they’ll loan you one and charge £250 a week for it.
“So people start off in debt when they work for these companies, if they’re unlucky enough not to have their own van.
“And then, people will have to do whatever job gets sent to them, because, how do you have any power, to determine your own financial stability if you are locked into a debt repayment system with your boss?
“The whole thing is completely ludicrous and it’s only now that we’re beginning to change the discourse around it. Or effect a discourse because it been so dominated by these companies for so long as a totally justifiable business model and a tool for liberation and personal independence and entrepreneurialism, when it’s just a bloody scam. Nothing about it is entrepreneurial and the tribunals have found that to be so.”
“It was really important to set a precedent in law so that other people could make similar claims and, eventually, change the industry to be established on less exploitative grounds and to insure that couriers, delivery people, logistics workers and food delivery drivers are eventually contracted on fair contracts and not on these bogus contracts anymore.”
• Ben Cowles is deputy features editor at the Morning Star. Being freelance in the age of precarious labour will be held from 5pm to 9pm on Saturday March 11 in the Brockway Room at Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL. For more information and to register see: http://mstar.link/NUJPrecarity.