Marc Stears: The battle facing Deliveroo drivers is at the heart of workers’ fight to prevent a truly dystopian future
Deliveroo riders have made an important step towards taking control of their working lives, opening a new front in the battle for basic workplace standards in the gig economy.
A group of food delivery riders are pushing the company, which relies on 8,000 such workers across Britain, for trade union recognition – a first for an app-based employer.
The riders – who are treated as independent contractors – are aiming to get over 50 per cent of their delivery workers in the London borough of Camden signed up to the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) union. Tonight they’ll hold a public meeting inviting wider support for their cause.
It’s a bold approach aimed at overcoming the problem of isolation and division in the workplace. For many workers in the gig economy, their casual, temporary and shift-based work leaves them without the relationships and support so many of us rely on from colleagues.
This isolation makes it more difficult to organise or speak up about shared working experiences and standards. While the recent landmark ruling on the rights of Uber drivers shows momentum is on the riders’ side, tonight’s public meeting must be the start of a wider conversation – with customers on doorsteps and passengers in taxis.
This is a campaign that matters for all of us. What happens in the gig economy over the coming weeks and months is not just a concern to gig economy workers – it will shape the future of the entire UK labour market.
Workers in the UK already experience among the highest sense of job insecurity of any in Europe and work close to the longest hours. It’s the result of a labour market that has systematically stripped us all of control.
A succession of low unemployment figures hides a growing “precariat”: a group of people without the security of a regular wage, a pension or full employment rights. Companies frequently defend such contracts as giving individuals more control over when and how they work, but for most such flexibility is a fiction.
The reality is that the British labour market has been infected by a culture of low pay and poor rights that increasingly extends far beyond the gig economy. Successfully unionising Deliveroo’s fleet of riders will help to halt this progress and put basic workplace rights at the heart of this fast-growing industry.
But there is even more at stake here. The gig economy is powered by our data, and we all have an interest in ensuring those companies with access to it are properly held to account.
Platform employers like Deliveroo and Uber have access to an astonishingly forensic view of their workforce at a group and individual level. Their success means this approach is now becoming the norm across the world of work.
These companies are collecting data on every aspect of their business – who, how, when and where individuals are coming into contact with their complex systems. These data-mining techniques – originally intended to give companies a better understanding of their customers – are now being used to exert greater control over employees.
There is a growing trend of big scale employment data. The gig economy was first off the mark given its roots in the latest digital technology, but other employers are not far behind. A new, bleak reality where managers know precisely where workers are and what they’re doing every moment of the day – all with a view to benefit employers over employees – is no longer the stuff of sci-fi.
We can’t stop the technology that makes this monitoring possible. But even as we embrace digital innovation, we can take steps to make sure it is used fairly and equitably.
Workers on the frontline need our support to gain the power and influence necessary to hold their employers to account. Together we can secure shared control over our working lives, and protect ourselves from what could otherwise be a truly dystopian future.
Marc Stears was chief speechwriter to the Ed Miliband when leader of the Opposition and is now chief executive of the New Economics Foundation.