It’s a matter of time: can Deliveroo deliver collective bargaining for the gig economy?

Deliveroo boycott

Last week ‘gig’ workers took to the streets in a show of public discontent. London’s Deliveroo couriers (moped or cycle riding workers who pick up food from restaurants and deliver it to customers) have begun a series of headline grabbing strike and protest actions.

The first strike began at 17:00 on Wednesday 10th August with around 100 workers converging outside the company’s central London headquarters in protest of proposed changes to the payment system. The five o’clock demonstration has now become a daily event with workers also forming a moped cavalcade, which slowly winds its way through the surrounding streets with horns blaring.

On Friday, a strike fund was launched and by Sunday £7000 (and as I type more than £10,000) had  been raised. The next day, the conflict intensified as workers began calling for:

 ‘an immediate and total ‪#‎boycott of ‪#‎slaveroo! Make your own dinner! Donate to the strike fund instead!’

The dispute centres upon Deliveroo’s attempt to alter their payment system whereby workers currently earn an hourly rate of £7 per hour plus £1 for every delivery. Deliveroo want to change this to a task based system whereby workers will be paid £3.50 per delivery. Deliveroo claim that on average each delivery takes 15 minutes, so on average the new system could mean workers earning £14 per hour (£3 more than under the existing system). The problem is that it only takes a short gap between deliveries (something which is very likely outside of the peak times) or for a delivery to take longer than the average 15 minutes and that £14 goes down below the current rate, potentially all the way down to £0!

Redefining working time

The fragmentation of working time and the move to task based pay systems is a central feature of the so called ‘gig economy’, also known as the ‘platform economy’. Advances in digital technology have made it possible for internet apps to operate on wireless mobile devices. These apps provide a cheap and widely available means of accurately monitoring and tracking labour time. Once a job is allocated to a worker a company, whether Uber or Deliveroo, knows the exact time it has taken for that job to be completed. This connectivity enables payment to be focused upon the specific task or ‘gigs’, and labour supply tightly matched to demand.

The use of mobile devices to focus pay onto tasks so tightly represents part of wider process regarding the redefinition of  working time. Other examples of this process include the growth of zero hour contracts and other forms of manager-controlled flexible scheduling. Employers are no longer constrained, technologically, legally, morally or organizationally, to pay for ‘idle’ working time (unprofitable work-related tasks). No longer is a care worker’s travel between clients seen as a necessary part of the job which, as such, should be remunerated by her employer. Nor is the time a Deliveroo courier spends sitting on her bike in her designated patch of the city waiting to be allocated a delivery.

Although often expressed in terms of wages, the struggle over the definition of working time is as old as capitalism itself. Karl Marx dedicated an entire chapter of ‘Capital’ to the struggle over the working day. Why should working time be such a point of contestation? Marx provides the answer by quoting an astute 19th century worker who explains that ‘moments are the elements of profit.’

From the perspective of maximising profit, it is of course logical for Deliveroo to focus pay on the tasks, the collecting and delivering of food, that constitute the service for which its customers pay. From this perspective, the time a courier is sitting on her bike waiting for an order is dead time; the worker is idle and why should they be paid if the company isn’t earning any profit?

What is actually surprising, given the technological affordances of mobile apps, is that Deliveroo ever paid an hourly rate in the first place. Presumably, initial recruitment would have been difficult without guaranteeing earnings, a situation which has likely been overcome as the company has gained market dominance.

From the perspective of the worker, the job would not be possible without these work-related tasks, such as waiting for orders. What’s more, she would not choose to spend her time doing them otherwise, so it seems only fair that she be compensated. Therefore, it is clear that the nature of working time is an important ‘structured antagonism’ within the labour relationship.

Spontaneity and networks

The initial Deliveroo protest seems to have been a spontaneous outburst against perceived injustice. How can we explain this impulsive coming together of workers in the gig economy, when, by its nature, it is so highly individualised and fragmented?

In mine and my colleagues own research of digital ‘gig’ workers, we find that it is actually quite common – even for these spatially distributed workers – to bind together in groups, creating networks in which they can share information and offer each other support and help. Thus, while platforms disembed workers from laws and norms, workers, nevertheless, remain embedded in social networks at local, national and regional spatial scales. These social networks can provide a base from which collective action can spring. In fact, I demonstrate a similar process as taking place amongst Walmart workers.

Networks on their own are not, however, good at co-ordinating and sustaining action as they lack the necessary strategic oversight and solidity. Importantly, the network of London’s Deliveroo couriers has become interconnected with a ‘network orchestrator’, in this case the Independent Workers of Great Britain Union (IWGB). The IWGB’s Logistics and Couriers Branch seem to have provided these Deliveroo workers with organisational resources and knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, linked them into the IWGB’s wider networks.

Indy unions and new forms of collective bargaining

The IWGB along with the United Voices of the World (UVW) and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) represent a new breed of small, independent unions which have thrived in London since the 2010s. These ‘indy unions’ organise workers (mainly cleaners) which traditional unions largely ignore due to the perceived difficultly and cost of recruiting them. Despite the weak market bargaining power of their members, these unions have successfully fought for living wages and against victimisation at a number of workplaces.

What the indy unions lack in resources and industrial clout, they make up for by drawing upon community (ethnic and political) solidarity and direct action to organise powerful actions aimed at damaging the reputations of employers. In effect, they raise labour standards through the threat of reputational damage, rather than pursuing their aims through traditional recognition and formal collective bargaining channels. Formal collective bargaining is often seen as the labour movement’s raison-d’etre. In fact, informal bargaining backed by the threat of sabotage and direct action has always been an important element of labour relations – especially in the 18th and 19th centuries.

We can see a similar process playing out at Deliveroo. Management first met with workers on the picket line and attempted to convince them that they would be better off under the new system while also trying to entice them into individual negotiations with managers. Both suggestions elicited an angry response. With media coverage and reputational damage mounting, Deliveroo made workers a new offer amounting to a month long compromise whereby workers could choose to remain on the hourly rate during peak hours (18:30 – 21:30) if they moved to a new delivery zone. This offer was promptly rejected on the grounds that it still did not guarantee an income. Additionally, moving to a new delivery zone would mean working an area with which they are unfamiliar and where demand for their services is unknown. Moreover, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses of the offer it was only binding for a month in any case!

With the strikes and protests continuing, media interest growing and politicians and the state now intervening to criticise the company, it seems that it will only be a matter of time until Deliveroo make an improved offer. If they don’t, the dispute will escalate, with Deliveroo essentially threatening to fire all 200 workers if they do not sign the new contract by tomorrow (17.08.16), we can thus expect the workers to adopt ever more dramatic and disruptive direct action tactics in an attempt to further damage the company’s reputation.

I believe that this kind of network based informal collective bargaining – backed by reputation damaging direct action – may represent a model of labour relations which becomes ever more prevalent as the ‘gig economy’ expands.

Alex Wood

Alex Wood