Around 200 workers at Deliveroo in London stopped the imposition of a new unfair work contract in August after six days of strikes.
Their victory showed that even workers in the new so-called “gig economy” can still organise collectively to fight back.
The “gig economy” is being fuelled by the rise of companies like Uber, where workers hire themselves out for individual contracts or “gigs”, such as driving a passenger around or cleaning someone’s home. Many argue that it has fragmented the working class and made organising at work almost impossible.
Deliveroo tried to force their couriers from hourly wages, at an already measly base rate of $12 (plus $2 per delivery), onto piecework, paying just $7 per delivery. After paying for their own petrol, some workers would have earnt as little as $53 for a 12-hour shift. Piecework is a disciplinary tool bosses use to make individual workers compete against one another and hence raise productivity. The workforce has a high proportion of migrants and students.
The company insisted that drivers would welcome the new contract because they are “entrepreneurs” and prefer flexibility. The workers disputed this, with the majority of them saying they would be worse off. And in a coup for the strikers, even the few that stood to benefit decided to support the strike out of solidarity.
Deliveroo has a very high turnover of couriers, with the average staying only three months. This turnover makes union organising in the sector quite difficult.
When the strike broke out management attempted to isolate workers and “negotiate” with them individually but the workers rejected this and began booing the spokesperson sent out to calm them down, chasing him back into the company’s offices.
Eventually the company caved in and said the new rates would be optional.
Although strikers made use of a smartphone messaging application to help organise, it was face-to-face meetings that were crucial in building the strike.
This shows the weak points that still remain in the workplace even where technology, flexibility and decentralisation of workers is the norm. Deliveroo workers were able to meet and discuss the new contract on a regular basis because their work required them to assemble together in designated zones while they wait for jobs.
Uber Eats strike
Buoyed by the successful Deliveroo strike, drivers at Uber Eats, Uber’s food delivery service, also took strike action at the end of August. They are demanding the London living wage and rejecting the measly piecework rates that the company offers them.
The company announced it was cutting the payment drivers receive per delivery and in response about 150 couriers, mostly migrants, walked off the job and joined a lively demonstration at the company’s head office, where they chanted “shame Uber shame”. The workers set up a group on a messaging application to discuss tactics. They elected a small committee to have discussions with the bosses.
The bosses tried the familiar tactic of isolating the individuals on the committee by asking to speak to them separately. But they refused, and the strikers supported the decision to fight for collective bargaining.
The rally was addressed by a cleaner from the Thames Cleaning strike, where migrant workers had struck for over two months and won the living wage. Despite the win, they are still fighting to force the company to drop its plans of sacking almost half of the workforce. Speaking through a Spanish translator, he told the couriers:
“Comrades we fight for a principle here. We started this fight and we’re going to take this fight to victory. We’re never going to give up. We’re going to raise our fists until we win. The main thing is to stay united.”
Late in the day Uber Eats workers found out that one of the main organisers of the strike had had his online account deactivated, effectively meaning that the company had sacked him without even telling him.
“They told me nothing,” he said to the crowd. “Without giving me any reason they have victimised me and they’ve sacked me. Because I can’t log into my account, I can’t see my last week’s earnings.”
The strikers vowed to fight on, and decided to begin targeting the major restaurants that are clients of Uber Eats. They organised a contingent of motorcycle drivers to drive down in front of a restaurant and set up a speak-out, denouncing businesses that collaborated with the exploitative company.
At the time of writing, couriers were deliberating on whether to extend this.
The fact that many of the strikers involved are migrants who are willing to fight also shows that it is not migrants that drive down wages—it is greedy profiteering bosses.
By Miro Sandev