The debate on the so-called ‘gig economy’ is ignoring the voices of workers. But, says EMILIANO MELLINO of the IWGB, we're changing that
EVERYDAY, it seems, there are new stories in the media about the so-called “gig-economy,” the Silicon Valley buzzword that is being used to describe the business models of companies such as taxi operator Uber or food delivery service Deliveroo.
In the worst cases you get spin from the companies and their backers who try to sell themselves as a hip, new form of doing business that is “disrupting” the empires built up by old, stuffed shirts in the City of London.
In an article from 2015, Deliveroo founder William Shu talked about how he also did deliveries for the company.
“Not every week, but I do it for fitness and because it’s fun,” the CEO who earns north of £100,000 a year was quoted as saying.
The main goal of this spin is to extol the virtues of a business model that they claim gives workers flexibility to work as many or as few hours as they want.
What they ignore is that flexibility can also be given while respecting employment rights and that classifying workers as independent contractors, one of the most common features of “gig-economy” companies, strips workers of virtually all these rights.
But even those who are covering the other side of the story — the number of independent and government reports that reveal the shocking conditions these workers face, or the court cases that confirm that bogusly classifying these workers as independent contractors is not only immoral but illegal — tend to miss a key component, the voices of the workers themselves.
It is only when you hear it in their own words that you can not only understand but also feel what they are going through — I have decided to keep secret the identities of the following workers in order to protect them from any potential retaliation from their employers.
The 48-year-old Deliveroo rider I spoke to, who far from fitting the stereotype of the “gig-economy” worker, is concerned about how he is going to keep up with his national insurance contributions.
“My last pay for two weeks was £400 but it is not enough because I pay £300 for a small room,” he said.
“I started using my life savings and it is also scaring me because I am not making national insurance contributions any more. When you are older you start thinking about these things.”
Like all the riders I spoke to in Brighton, he gets paid £4 per delivery but often fails to earn even the national minimum wage of £7.20 an hour.
The riders — who are now campaigning with the help of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) for an increase in the drop rate — paid per delivery— to £5 and a guarantee of earning the living wage after costs — said that as a result of their employers over-hiring, they occasionally have to wait up to three or four hours before receiving an order.
The irony is that, in sharp contrast to the caricature sometimes bandied around of unionised workers being skivers, these workers are asking for more work.
This desperation to get jobs is pushing riders to work to breaking point on the days and times when orders come in to try to secure as much cash as possible before those small windows of opportunity close.
A man in his twenties spoke of how he pushed himself to go out to work in January on one of the coldest and rainiest days of the year because that way he could be sure to get work.
After two deliveries, he ended up in bed diagnosed with a mild case of hypothermia. His body temperature had fallen below 35.4°C.
“Basically, the worse the weather, the more likely we are to get the job because we don’t get any jobs when the weather is good.
“Deliveroo doesn’t prioritise cyclists when it isn’t busy,” he said, referring to a feeling many riders have that the company prefers giving orders to motorcycle and scooter riders rather than cyclists.
This echoes the story of one of his colleagues who regularly pushed himself to do 11-hour shifts on the weekend when it was busier in order to supplement the meagre income he would get during the week when it was quieter.
This was until New Year’s Day when he pushed himself to do a 10-hour shift after a period of rest and the strain of riding for that long resulted in him getting petella tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendons that meant he wasn’t able to cycle, and consequently work, for several months.
“Deliveroo doesn’t do compensation; they don’t do sick pay for things like that because of the official status of being self-employed,” he said.
“Along with being self-employed they expect you to be self-sufficient.”
He said many of his friends had gotten injured and had to stop working for the company, with some going back to shift work and those in the worst conditions applying for employment and support allowance.
He now supports himself by doing odd jobs his friends throw his way.
We can’t understand the reality of the so-called “gig economy” without hearing what these people have to say.
That is why in recent weeks I have been working with the IWGB, to gather the stories of some of these riders for an upcoming series of podcasts examining different aspects of the gig economy and the world of work.
What we hope to create is a vehicle for those voices to be heard, so we can understand the workers’ fears, their resilience and how they are navigating these terrains.
Equipped with what they tell us, we will then open the discussion to lawyers, organisers and researchers to try to get a global view of how these experiences reflect a wider reality in our economy.
Emiliano Mellino is the press officer for the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. The IWGB podcasts on the gig economy will be published starting on March 31. More information will soon be available at iwgb.org.uk and on twitter @IWGBunion.