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A Sharing Economy Strike

London's striking Deliveroo drivers are in a fight against the worst exploitation and abuse of the sharing economy.

Last Friday, a throng of around 150 couriers for the online food delivery company Deliveroo massed on a street in central London, shouting together at a management that went from smug to terrified in seventy-two hours.

During a sit-down discussion the most recent offer from management — the second in three days — was unanimously rejected. They’d already told one manager what they think of the company.

Having organized face-to-face and via WhatsApp — something of a double-edged sword, all these smart phones — and without initial union support, the striking workers are now demanding a London living wage. Deliveroo’s business model of short-termism, “flexibility,” and encouraging competition among workers is under attack. Why?

Deliveroo management wants to alter the pay structure. Currently, workers get £7 per hour, plus £1 per delivery. Recently the company has been “trialing” — seeing if they can get away with — paying workers in certain parts of London £3.75 per delivery with nothing per hour — no base rate whatsoever.

Over a busy hour, some workers might get three or four or deliveries: over a quiet one, nothing.

In other words, Deliveroo wants their workers to move from time wages to piecework (which, as a smart guy once said, “enables the capitalist to raise more easily the normal degree of intensity of labour,” among other freebies for bosses).

Last Wednesday, riders went on strike against the threat of this new pay structure becoming the new normal.

One driver I spoke to said that on a quiet day, he gets one delivery every hour over twelve hours; under the proposed regime, he’d get just over forty pounds for twelve hours work. “That’s like pocket money, isn’t it?” he said.

Notice that even the current pay regimes can leave riders below the minimum wage, let alone a living wage in London. How does the company get away with it?

Technically, Deliveroo workers are “self-employed”: they’re independent contractors, and so the company isn’t obliged to treat them in anything like the way it would regular employees, including paying minimum wage. (The same is true for Uber drivers).

Why only “technically”? Deliveroo drivers have to wear the company uniform, have to be available during their shift, and can’t work for another delivery company whilst also taking order from Deliveroo. They’re working for them, not with them, in every sense but the name.

Even the Conservative government have felt the need to remind Deliveroo that they need to remain within the law. A Tory spokesperson said on Sunday that “employers cannot simply opt out of the NLW [National Living Wage] by defining their staff as self-employed.”

Except when they can, of course, Deliveroo having operated since 2013. More pugnacious support for the drivers came from Jon Trickett, shadow business secretary and Corbyn ally, who said “the company is offering a return to a Victorian system.”

Tony Blair’s first government introduced a national, statutory lower limit to per-hour wages in 1998, then called the National Minimum Wage (NMW) which stood in contrast to the Living Wage, a figure calculated to reflect the actual cost of living.

Last year, former chancellor George Osborne made a long overdue increase to the minimum. Workers over twenty-five got fifty pence more per hour, after years of increase way below the rising cost of living, and the floor was simply renamed the “National Living Wage.” The current rate is £7.20; the, uh, actual living wage for London is currently calculated at £9.40.

The company’s model is part of much wider tendency towards “cost-shifting,” or making workers bear more and more of the cost of doing business. Unless we force them to, our bosses — capital — will maximize profit by making things we need to work (in this case, bikes, mopeds, phones, etc.) “external” to their costs.

As one Deliveroo driver yesterday said:

I fell off my 125cc ‘ped, and spent days in hospital. I didn’t get any sick pay, no compensation, and I had to borrow money to pay my rent. Now I’m thousands in debt.

And that is how Deliveroo makes money: by forcing the costs of doing business onto their workers, at a time when they’re valued at roughly £1 billion, having turned over £130 million in the last fiscal year.

So what does the company actually do? Deliveroo — like Uber and Airbnb — have to invest and compete against other companies. But there is something of the rentier about them. All they’ve done is 1) patent the simple software that powers the app that links buyer and seller, 2) double-ticked and then copyrighted a logo, and then, crucially, 3) bullshitted journalists and politicians about how innovative they are.

Actually, they’re simply monopolizing, via patents and branding, the ability of sellers and buyers to find each other. The fact that they’ve got a lot of investment behind them is in a sense irrelevant: they’re “paper tigers,” owning, in fact, very little.

There is of course a temptation to see all this as “inevitable”: doesn’t technology make all this necessary, however unpleasant?

No. Technological change is assured; what’s less certain is who will benefit from it.

It doesn’t have to be that workers get chucked on the trash heap. Workers don’t have to make abysmal wages and labor under terrible working conditions. Ex-Uber drivers have already developed an app that gives them, as workers, greater control over their conditions of labor and that pools profits among them. “Swift,” as it’s called, shows Uber et al for what they are: less employers than highly leveraged parasites.

The striking workers’ immediate demands are for a London living wage, one pound for every delivery, keeping all their tips, and the company’s covering of costs. The fact that Deliveroo is unusually dependent on its reputation — in a sense, they don’t have much else — makes them especially vulnerable to workers’ sound and fury. They can win, especially with the support of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) — a small, militant, fighting union — who have been very solid in their support of couriers historically, and of Deliveroo riders now.

Deliveroo management are getting bullied by their workers, parts of the press, and even — if in a most bloodless way — a tenaciously pro-capital government. That is exactly why former investment banker and current Deliveroo CEO William Shu went on Monday’s Today program: to say that he’s “sorry things have gotten to this point.”

Two things in the interview leaped out. Shu said that:

This is a choice for them. If the riders choose to be on the new scheme [£3.75 per delivery], great, and we’re also actually offering guarantees, because we’re so confident that people will prefer it, for a limited time.

You can almost hear Shu attempting to put that obviously rather important last bit in parentheses; what does “limited time” mean? The Guardian reports that riders that submit to the contested pay structure will get at least £11.25 per hour plus tips and gas during peak hours guaranteed . . . for one month.

After that, they’ll be getting £3.75 with no base rate — possibly the cheapest “Golden Hello” going in London today.

This is simple huckstering. What’s odd is Shu’s saying, “but if riders feel like it’s not for them, they can always choose to work on the old scheme as well.” (We’ll put the senseless “as well” down to worker revolt-induced nerves). So, riders can freely choose which of the two pay structures they work within?

Apparently not, with at least one report of riders being told that working in only certain areas would qualify them for the £7 per hour plus £1 per delivery regime.

To cut through management’s Gordian knot, they didn’t count on an organized, pugnacious workforce, and are now hoping that some tricky offer — a monthlong guarantee of above-mimimum wage rates, say — will make workers and the press dampen down. Too late.

Finally, “their fight is our fight.” Always, but in the case of striking Deliveroo workers, this is perhaps truer than usual. As Ursula Huws writes, “it appears a new kind of working life is emerging”; Deliveroo couriers are on the frontline against it.

What kind of new? Let’s extend Deliveroo et al’s model: Imagine an app that allows nurses to bid to care for an elderly person in their home (and what effect that would have on nurses’ wages, not to mention “difficult” — as in, very ill — patients).

Or, think of a company that allows schools to hire a teacher on a weekly basis (and what that would do to students). In supporting Deliveroo workers today, we’re defending ourselves against an economy that’s increasingly based on ultra-short-term, ultra-precarious, ultra-underpaid jobs, all in the name of “innovation.”

Deliveroo couriers are fighting against an atrocious employer. We need to do everything we can to support them in this struggle.