September 20, 2019

How do you get an exploited underclass to feel like a class of plucky entrepreneurs? In today’s gig economy, you bombard them with euphemisms.

Amazon warehouse workers are called ‘Associates’. When they are dismissed they are not sacked, fired or made redundant, but instead ‘released’. Budding Uber drivers are greeted during their ‘onboarding’ (hiring) by a hipster in jeans and t-shirt who talks in the language of a ubiquitous ‘hustle porn’ Instagram post that fetishises excessive overworking. Deliveroo couriers are referred to patronisingly as ‘Roos’ by management.

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John Steinbeck said that socialism never took root in the United States because the American dream encouraged the poor to consider themselves not as a downtrodden proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. Gig employers appear to be attempting to pull a similar trick on their employees – sorry, ‘partners’. “We’re here to make money. If your wheels aren’t turning, you aren’t earning”, I was told by an enthusiastic Uber employee when I drove for the company back in 2017.

I worked as a cab driver – or as an ‘entrepreneur’, if you are to believe Uber’s rhetoric – for around three months while researching my book Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. I also interviewed my fellow drivers as well as couriers who worked for gig employers such as Deliveroo and CitySprint.

One thing that became strikingly apparent was the vast chasm between the rhetoric espoused by companies and the reality endured by those who worked for them. Despite being categorised as self-employed contractors – and as a consequence losing the right to sick pay, annual leave and the minimum wage – Uber tightly controlled much of what we did on the job. “You can’t pick and choose which jobs you do,” we were told during our induction.

There were even restrictions on the subjects we were allowed to talk about with the passengers in the back of the car. Politics, religion and sport were strictly off-limits. If an Uber driver’s customer service rating fell below 4.7 stars, they would be summoned into Uber’s headquarters for a dressing down and potentially ‘deactivated’ – another euphemism for losing your job.

We were induced to take up the job with Uber on the alluring basis of autonomy. “Always wanted to be your own boss and set your own times? This is your chance!” reads the marketing on Uber’s website. And there were positives about the Uber experience. We had the autonomy to log in and out of the Uber app at a time of our own choosing.

Moreover, the Uber algorithm was less capricious and tyrannical than a human line manager. At the very least, Uber’s algorithm was not going to stop you from earning enough to eat simply because it took a personal disliking to you.

Uber isn’t the only company operating in the gig economy of course. Callum Cant’s new book, Riding for Deliveroo: Resistance in the New Economy documents life as one of the food delivery company’s 15,000 UK couriers. As of 2018, there were around five million self-employed people in the United Kingdom, many of whom work in the booming gig economy.

Cant’s book resembles my own in many ways, not least because the author unflinchingly documents the methods used by gig employers to keep workers impoverished and under tight control and supervision. Making consumers aware of what really goes on when they order a taxi or food is an important task. As Cant writes, the reality of the gig economy is an economic landscape where “the worker takes all the risk”, while the company he or she works for “get all the reward”.

In the case of platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo, workers shoulder the cost of doing the job – the car, the petrol, the cost of time taken off through injury or ill health – while the companies themselves avoid the usual burdens associated with having employees. These are passed onto the workers themselves but also to the taxpayer. One Deliveroo courier I interviewed took time off with a ligament injury and ended up signing on for housing benefit because he was not entitled to sick pay.

The biggest difference between my own book and Cant’s, however, is that readers of my book tend to come away depressed after reading it, whereas Cant strikes a more optimistic tone. This is partly a consequence of gig workers making substantial progress in organising themselves (predominantly through the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain) since I wrote my book back in 2016-17. As Cant writes:

“This is not just a sob story about workers being exploited in bad conditions by bosses who get rich off their work, it’s about how workers have squared up and fought back”.

Indeed, several fashionable shibboleths are demolished very effectively in Cant’s book, from the notion that trade unions are irrelevant to those toiling away in the flexible economy, to the idea that migrant workers can’t be unionised.

The book focuses predominantly on London and Brighton, where Deliveroo couriers used WhatsApp group chats to organise workers against exploitative piece-work and a local oversupply of labour which was driving down wages. Initially Deliveroo couriers in London protested against collusion between border enforcement agencies and Deliveroo managers, but the dispute quickly escalated as the company made changes to its payment structure. As Cant writes,

“The system would be changed from a flat hourly rate (£7) with a bonus per completed delivery (£1) plus an additional petrol bonus for moped riders, to a fee-per-delivery piece-wage (£3.75) with no hourly rate. If there were no orders, workers would earn no money.”

This prompted a wave of strike action among Deliveroo’s couriers.

Cant does get carried away. “Deliveroo workers have launched a militant struggle for a better world,” he writes. This is true as far as it goes, but Cant seems to define a better world strictly as one in which socialism has triumphed.

This is quite a philosophical jump, not least because contemporary socialism is spectacularly ill-defined, even by its adherents. “Fundamentally, the socialism movement relies on two parts,” Cant writes. “The first is the struggle of the working class against exploitation, and the second is a critique of capitalism and a socialist programme.”

But what is the socialist programme in 2019? For Cant, socialism entails the lofty idea of workers’ democratic control of every workplace. Yet socialism also requires a centralised plan if markets are to be eliminated. Herein lies the fundamental contradiction at socialism’s heart. As I wrote earlier this year for UnHerd:

“you cannot advocate central planning on the one hand and workplace democracy on the other. As soon as workers rebel against the state’s central plan, their democratic rights are stripped from them”.

I won’t dwell on this aspect of Cant’s work, because the book contains many important lessons about fighting back against exploitative gig employers. My own book was written to lift the lid on an underreported aspect of working-class life in Britain when gig practices – at least in their current guise – were relatively new.

We’ve moved on since then. We are now at a point where workers whom we were told had no time for trade unions –predominantly migrants and students – are getting organised and fighting back. Anyone who cares about social justice, whether you share Cant’s politics or not, should be cheering them on.