Truck drivers, cyclists and taxi drivers are suffering from a lack of worker power
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:
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.