BEN UPTON reports on the cycle couriers using mobile technology to organise workers
TECHNOLOGY has streamlined casual labour. The surly supervisor has been replaced by a smartphone, and the bosses are sunning themselves in southern California.
Flexibility, companies insist, is what workers want. But for those that want security too, could the smartphone become a union organiser, as well as a supervisor?
Mike Schmidt, 27, worked as a driver for Deliveroo in London for six months while looking for a fulltime job.
“I replied to an ad on Gumtree and heard back from a call centre in California soon after. They asked some basic questions like what type of bike I had and how many hours I could do.”
A keen cyclist, the fast-paced work and ease of getting the job both appealed to him.
“My shift would start at six in the evening. I’d sign into the app when I arrived in my working zone, then wait there for about 15 minutes to get my first order.”
He soon learned the locations of popular restaurants and how to navigate the “maze-like” estates of repeat customers, meaning he could deliver faster.
“We knew the score going in,” Schmidt told me, “because you were freelance you didn’t get any compensation or protection from the company.”
The company’s drivers have become a common sight on the streets of the capital.
“Meeting drivers, even though they’re basically strangers, there is this kind of respect you have for each other; you know what it’s like to do the job,” said Schmidt.
“There wasn’t much contact with the company. Once you were signed up you were left on your own. I think that’s what strengthened the bond between the couriers.”
The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) was only founded in 2012, but has made the gig economy its battleground. Scott Cadman is the secretary of the Couriers and Logistics Branch and is a courier himself.
“The cycle courier community has quite a strong community spirit already, sort of through our hardship, but also the fact we see each other every day on street corners.”
Cadman joined the branch soon after its inception, after the general secretary, another courier, stopped him in the street. He soon started recruiting too.
“We used a lot of social media to gage interest from couriers,” says Cadman, although he says timehonoured methods were important as well.
“It’s all done by getting out there to spread the word. We gave couriers leaflets through their windows while they were in traffic.”
Seamus O’Eachtiarna works for parcel delivery company CitySprint.
“What was affecting me was our rates of pay. I’ve been a courier since 1999 and the rates I was getting paid then hadn’t changed until we started this union.”
CitySprint workers, like most couriers, are paid per item delivered.
Branch secretary Cadman explains how this can put unionised workers in a vulnerable position: “When I first joined IWGB, I was nervous the company would find out. We’re all on tracking for a start. I was nervous that my controller, who feeds me all of my work, would find out and give me less work.”
He says his fears have turned out to be unfounded and members like O’Eachtiarna say they have more reasons than ever to join.
“When we were trying to start a union up before, we didn’t get enough people because they were able to get by. Now people are really struggling.”
In July last year, GMB won a landmark test case against Uber. An employment tribunal in London found that its drivers were entitled to receive holiday pay, a guaranteed minimum wage and an entitlement to breaks.
John Bevan has advised large British unions on their digital strategy but is ambivalent about their potential to innovate. He thinks it may be easier to build something new, rather than for them to embrace the transformation necessary.
Parcel couriers may not share a factory floor, but Cadman highlights the fact that many know each other and are often friends on Facebook. His branch used Facebook events pages to organise protests and share media coverage.
“Everybody got all the information delivered to their mobile phones, they could see exactly what we were doing — that seemed to create a lot of momentum.
“For the food delivery drivers in particular, WhatsApp has been massive,” Cadman says, contrasting Deliveroo drivers with long-serving parcel couriers.
“We’re tight-knit, but when you look at Deliveroo drivers you’ve got guys all over the city, all over the country.”
He points out the difficulty of couriers trying to make it to a meeting on a typical Monday evening: “It’s such a long day or night of work and people may have already been sent home in the wrong direction. WhatsApp opened up a real community platform in that sense.”
Earlier this year, the Commons work and pensions committee heard evidence from workers in the self-employed and the gig sectors. All the gig workers giving evidence praised the freedom of being able to work when they wanted and said they considered themselves self-employed.
In the last quarter of 2016, the number of self-employed people in the UK rose by 125,000 to 4.8 million or 15.1 per cent of all people in work, according to the Office for National Statistics.
A report by the New Economics Foundation shows the number of gig economy workers in London had grown by 72 per cent between 2010 and 2016, and now totals over 65,000.
Think tanks like the Resolution and New Economics Foundations both advocate driver-owned cooperative platforms and technologyenabled collective action to help tip the scales back towards vulnerable workers.
At the work and pensions committee hearing mentioned above, Labour MP Karen Buck noted that many Deliveroo workers are “young” and “in their late teens and early ’20s.”
Speaking to Schmidt, it seems the lack of support from the company can compound the vulnerability of young workers.
“There were a lot of young girls and guys doing it, if they got into an accident or had an altercation with a customer or a chef, if anything happened, they’d be on their own.”
“You can get insured yourself,” he said, “but no one goes into Deliveroo thinking ‘this is my career’.”
While Schmidt was happy with the wages he made, he was less comfortable with the lack of safety net.
“They could’ve reduced the pay to give people coverage if they had an accident; I think that would’ve been a good idea.”
The IWGB submitted evidence to the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy committee for a hearing earlier this week on the future of work and workers’ rights.
With the union’s test cases against delivery firms Excel, Addison Lee and eCourier currently being heard at the London Central Employment tribunal, the battle for the rights of gig workers looks set to continue for a while yet.
The use of popular messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook show how mobile technologies can help previously isolated and inaccessible workers.
With their potential to simplify the heavy-lifting of workforce organisation, perhaps these technologies can be used to empower workers, as well as direct them.