by Dan Hitchens
Tuesday, 24
August 2021
Spotted
17:23

Exploitation is on the road again

Truck drivers, cyclists and taxi drivers are suffering from a lack of worker power
by Dan Hitchens
HGV driver salaries have steadily declined over the past 10 years

Earlier this month, a bright new day dawned for Britain’s delivery drivers. Or so you might have thought from the press release issued by Ryde, who supply drivers to companies like Ocado. Ryde, the press release explained, subscribe to “a ‘rider first’ philosophy putting the workforce wellbeing at the heart of all their decision making”. The chief technology officer expressed it more succinctly: “We feel that at the moment, being an on-demand delivery worker sucks!”

True enough. On Sunday, the Observer interviewed Ocado/Ryde drivers including Fabian Bazar — who says he earns an average of £50 for a 10-hour shift, scarcely enough to pay the bills, let alone give his two daughters a day out — and Jakaria Rehman, who claims he gets around £3 an hour and describes Ocado as “disgraceful”.

Ryde and Ocado say none of their drivers are paid below minimum wage and that the Observer’s claims are being investigated, so perhaps we have to reserve judgment for now. But there’s no doubt that Britain’s roads have become places where exploitation thrives. It took a Supreme Court ruling to force Uber to give its drivers worker status, guaranteeing them a measure of employment rights. CEO Dara Khosrowshahi responded that the company had “turned the page” and was now, indeed, campaigning for even stronger protections: “We have been calling for updates to legal frameworks, both in the US and the EU, that would guarantee benefits and protection for independent workers.”

That was a slightly mystifying statement, given that Uber and other taxi apps had just spent over $200m on persuading Californian voters to approve a law which limited drivers’ employment rights. On Friday that law was overturned in court. According to the judgement, a key section of the law “appears only to protect the economic interest of the network companies in having a divided, ununionized workforce.”

The judge had hit on the key point. To become a driver, you only need a vehicle and some relatively easily-gained qualifications. You can work independently. But for just those reasons, companies have found it easy to treat drivers as expendable — there are plenty more out there — and to control their conditions. How can one driver bargain with Uber or Ryde?

The situation for UK lorry drivers has some parallels. As the Financial Times recently covered, the current shortage of truckers makes sense, given how much their pay has dropped:

In 2010, the median HGV driver in the UK earned 51% more per hour than the median supermarket cashier. By 2020, the premium was only 27%… Why would I want to be a truck driver, with all the responsibility, the long, unpredictable hours, if I can go to Aldi and earn £11.30 an hour stacking shelves?” says Tomasz Oryński, a truck driver and journalist based in Scotland.
- Financial Times

Lorry companies are in no position to negotiate for better pay — they have almost nowhere to go except to the big companies. The FT’s Sarah O’Connor quotes one recruiter as saying that giant firms like supermarkets “have enormous purchasing leverage [and] they have nailed down the haulage companies to the tiniest margins.”

The situation in the Netherlands is healthier, O’Connor writes: there, “a collective agreement is negotiated between employer and union groups which sets a floor on pay and conditions across the sector.”

That kind of collective action is probably the best hope of justice. Court rulings and legislation can help; conscientious consumers can try to avoid unethical business models. But the drivers will always be vulnerable as long as the major companies are big enough to throw their weight around, while the workforce is isolated and divided. As in so much of the modern economy, half the problem is simply a matter of size.

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Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
1 year ago

I speak to HGV drivers and work with haulage companies. I can confirm that there is a critical shortage of drivers in the UK, and that haulage companies are raising wages (substantially) to poach drivers from the competition. It turns out you dont need a union for fair wages, just Brexit to (partially) eliminate the infinite supply of cheap foreign labour and covid to paralyse the licence issuing state.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tim Bartlett
Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

Yes this story contradicts numerous other ones I have read about HGV drivers salaries going through the roof.

Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
1 year ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

But…but…I was told EEA immigration didn’t suppress wages.

You don’t mean I was lied to by academics?

Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago

Switched to HGV for Covid paying £3500 (kit and IT on top) to train. Despite high demand youl face high initial and continuing education costs (with state test examiners never available) then low pay, erratic work; long hours in unsociable unhealthy work sector; stroppy road users; high legal liability; agency working under new IR35 tax rules (no self-employment); and low sector image and solidarity. It’s a fuel/wage driven industry avoiding investment, reform and adaptation. May change, but the headline pay rates.are often for weekend/night shifts. In a fickle industry with wage stagnation it’s a miracle anyone wants to do 56 hrs a week. E Europe workers left partly because of tax rules but also Brexit. Hauliers trying to pressure govt to solve problems that it could address by giving people a career with better pay, conditions and prospects.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt B

I actually loaned my truck driver friend his money to go to truck driving school (HGV) in USA, about 6 years ago. It was $14,000, the class was a several weeks, and as you finished you were actively recruited, and every one finishing got a job right out of school. He went right to Over The Road where you live in a truck with a sleeper cab (full micro apartment, pretty amazing – with a generator so climate control and everything but a shower).

These are all those Trucks you see on the USA highways – and the pay is good, I think he makes $70,000 a year now – but all he does is drive, never home, coast to coast and everywhere. He did have to work up to it – but pay was good, he soon paid me off.

Local trucks pay a lot less (Over the road are paid by the Mile, so you drive all the legal hours – but if you get bad scheduling and have a lot of down time it falls fast.) but still the 18 wheeler pay real wages – delivery trucks a lot less.

A quick search shows

“The average salary for a truck driver is $67,524 per year in the United States.” so he is average. But I am sure this is for big rigs.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

PS, a number of the other in his class were developing world students, come up with all that money plus expenses (they do boarding packages as well) because they can get top pay jobs in their countries driving for foreign companies if they hold the USA CDL license – as often the overseas Western companies do not trust their expensive rigs to just anyone.

Matt B
Matt B
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Sounds about right. American trucking is better, and the landscape and open road gives it a better image/allure. Peterbilts look the business too. We don’t have those distances except for EU driving, and accompanying channel crossing paperwork/migrant stowaway prosecution issues

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt B
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Driving an 18 wheel rig in USA pays well – I have a friend who drives over the road, living in this truck. Is it really true the pay is low (I remember UK rigs are 16 wheel – but the big ones) in UK? I cannot understand that as it is essentially a skilled trade. I do understand how car drivers pay low though, as it is not anything like as skilled a trade so the competition is much greater.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The demand is lower as the distances are smaller for internal UK trade. There is a Europe wide haulage market but that faces competition from lower wage countries in a way that doesn’t exist in the US where I suppose the only real competitors are the equally well paid Canadians.

James Joyce
James Joyce
1 year ago

I don’t understand this and share Sanford Artzen’s befuddlement. Pay for lorry drivers in the US is high, and there is supposedly a shortage, which will lead to higher wages, unless the gap is filled by desperate immigrants willing to work for less, as is often the case in the US. The virtually unlimited pressure from immigrants from the Third World is virtually guaranteed to keep wages low or lower than they would be in a free market.
I heard recently on BBC that many lorry drivers had returned to Europe after BREXIT. Is this part of the problem?
And yet again I agree with Sanford Artzen that lorry drivers and Uber/Bolt drivers are very different.

Ben Pattinson
Ben Pattinson
1 year ago

The use of agencies by large distribution companies, for the sakes of convenience, without adequate oversight on what those agencies pay their drivers, is a serious problem here.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
1 year ago

The article has a fundamental misunderstanding about pay and conditions in an economy. Trade unions redistribute income from the unprotected to the protected, or from unemployed to employed; they don’t increase overall earnings. The main reasons workers’ pay has increased over the last 200 years has been increased average productivity, and scarcity of labour.

Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
1 year ago

Hmm.

So unions don’t increase labour’s share of GDP at the share of capital?

And unions don’t (artificially) restrict the supply of labour to increase wages?

And what’s this ‘lump sum of wages’ you seem to cite?