GMB’s deal with Uber shows how unions can push back on insecure work

Tim Sharp
© Lutsenko_Oleksandr/Shutterstock.com

Last night’s announcement that the GMB, one of the TUC member unions, has signed a recognition deal with Uber is a major milestone for workers’ rights in the gig economy. For the first time drivers, through their union, will be able to negotiate key terms and conditions with the company. It has been a long, hard journey to get to this point; years of tireless campaigning and repeated victories in the courts were what brought Uber to the table.

Uber has realised that it needs to build a constructive relationship with its drivers and those who represent them. As a market leader in a sector notorious for anti-union activity, where Uber goes hopefully others will now follow. My message to other platform companies today is simple: unions will not rest until employers across the gig economy work with their staff to improve pay and conditions.

The deal struck between Uber and the GMB shows that there is a real opportunity for workers, organised collectively, to push back against a business model that is deeply unbalanced. Underneath the glossy veneer of tech innovation, the gig economy is painfully old-fashioned. Risks that we normally expect employers to bear have been shifted to the worker.

A downturn in work? Workers simply earn less, or nothing. Want to get food quicker to customers? Just hire more riders and pay them nothing while they wait for jobs. Sick pay, holiday pay, maternity? The bare minimum employers can get away with. The sector still has a long way to go before it can claim to offer decent work.

This matters because, as our research has shown, growing numbers of workers have been turning to gig work in recent years. In 2019, one in ten workers did platform work at least once a week. And this has likely risen during the pandemic as demand for food and other deliveries increased.

Often, this is to make ends meet because their other work pays so badly. For too long these workers have been denied their rights and treated like disposable labour. The government, for its part, continues to sit on its hands. It promised in successive election manifestos and in the 2019 Queen’s Speech that it would act to protect insecure workers.

There are major holes in the law that platform companies and its lawyers can, and do, exploit. The UK has a two-tier workforce. Those with ‘worker’ status – who often work in the gig economy – get some rights such as the minimum wage and holiday pay. But they miss out on other vital safeguards granted to those deemed ’employees’, including a minimum notice period if their employment ends, protection against unfair dismissal and the right to request flexible working.

There are currently no consequences for employers who mislead their workers about their employment status to fool them into thinking they have few or even no rights. And unions in the UK don’t have the sorts of rights they have in New Zealand to visit a workplace to tell workers about the benefits of trade union membership.

Yet, despite these huge flaws in labour regulation, ministers have yet to present their long-awaited employment bill to parliament – even though there is huge public appetite for action to improve employment standards. TUC polling published last month revealed that eight in ten (84%) working people want all workers to have the same basic rights.

A similar figure (80%) think big companies should be held responsible for all the workers in their supply chain. That would give workers the right to take action on unpaid wages, unpaid holiday pay or unpaid sick pay against the commissioning company or ultimate buyer as well as their immediate employer. And a clear majority want zero-hours contracts banned once and for all.

But whether the government works with us or against us, unions will continue fighting for workers’ rights in the gig economy and beyond. Getting union recognition at Uber is just the start. We know that collective bargaining is the best way to deliver a better deal for everyone. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect at work.

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