You can’t help but wonder what Uber were thinking when they decided to take on James Farrar – he’s a formidable force, speaking to a crowd of a few hundred protesters and gig economy workers outside the offices of Transport for London (TfL) in Southwark. A few days previously, TfL had stripped Uber of its licence to operate in London in response to a lack of corporate responsibility, and now those turning up to the office – presumably from other forms of transport – looked a tad sheepish as they attempted to avoid James’s voice booming out over the street. “To strip Uber of its licence after five years of laissez-faire regulation is a testament to a systemic failure at TfL,” he said, on a day made more poignant by Uber’s appeal against his and fellow Uber driver Yaseem’s tribunal victory taking place just over the bridge in Fleet Street. So close, in fact, that a march escorted them both there.
James is chair of the United Private Hire Drivers’ branch of our union, the IWGB, which, like our own branch of Couriers & Logistics, is engaged in a seemingly endless legal battle with companies that flout UK employment law without penalty in an attempt to squeeze a little more ‘efficiency’ out of their workers.
The protest – which ended at University of London’s (UoL) offices with ‘We Exploit Workers’ being suffixed to the UoL flag that sits on top of Senate House – focused on low-paid and outsourced workers, representing self-employed couriers, outsourced cleaners, poorly-treated cabin crew and fed-up lecturers alike, all on the streets before work. It turns out that the invisible can really put on a show when it’s needed, and with the majority of the UoL cleaners being of Latin American origin, there was a true carnival vibe to their strike. It’s only thanks to pressure from the trade unions, their members and supporters that an outsourcing climbdown has begun, with cleaners at SOAS being taken in house last month in response to a noisy and public campaign.
The outsourcing of workers at the UK’s universities is a purely exploitative act. With contracts handed out to the lowest bidder, ‘savings’ are made at every opportunity in the chase for profit – in most cases, the biggest savings to be had are in the removal of human cost – and the implementation of zero-hour contracts and sub-living wage employment facilitates this.
At the Couriers & Logistics branch, however, there has been no back-pedalling (excuse the pun). Workers’ rights have been historically continuously poor in the industry, and the advent of the so-called ‘gig economy’ meant wages remaining stagnant, a pay cut in real terms. We have recently been in negotiations with The Doctor’s Laboratory (TDL), an NHS contractor, at ACAS and are hopeful that we will be able to announce a positive result from this in the coming weeks. Victories such as these are of huge benefit not only to TDL couriers, who will enjoy the full rights of being employees, but those of other companies who look on, and see the revolution that is sweeping through the courier and food delivery industries.
Indeed, as we await the result of our June Deliveroo tribunal hearing at the Central Arbitration Committee, their managing director was called once again to Parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee, where he made the ridiculous suggestion that in order to guarantee the minimum wage for Deliveroo riders, they would have to raise the delivery fee by £1. To suggest that this would be untenable for their customers is completely absurd The minimum wage - or better, a living wage - is sacrosanct, and not something that should be tossed to one side in favour of a 25% pay rise for the CEO of the company.
Until there is a significant financial penalty for companies which flout the law and deliberately misclassify their workers for their own benefit, they will continue to do it. Wet-flannel reviews such as the Taylor Report cannot even begin to suggest changes to legislation when there is existing law that, if it ever came to be enforced, would protect the livelihoods and provide stability for those who need it most. From McStrikers to cleaners to couriers, immediate change is needed and organisations such as the IWGB will not rest until this is achieved.