by Dan Hitchens
Tuesday, 24
August 2021

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.

Join the discussion

  • 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.

  • 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

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

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