In Holland, France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore, Australia and London, couriers are transporting hot food from restaurants that can't afford their own delivery staff to hungry customers who order through an app. But in London, where Deliveroo has its headquarters, business ground to a halt as more than 100 of its staff went on strike.
You'd be forgiven for not having heard of Deliveroo until the two week-long wildcat strike at the beginning of August; it's not a major force outside of a handful of big cities. But last year it turned over more than £100 million and has recently secured a round of funding to the tune of $209 million to support aggressive expansion.
At its essence, the company operates like this: through an app, Deliveroo brokers deals between restaurants, customers, and couriers – drivers are alerted to a restaurant that an order is ready, the job is accepted, and the courier delivers the food to the customer, who is charged a small fee by Deliveroo. The company claims there's scope to branch out from food into delivering other goods and services too.
Until recently, Deliveroo was paying its drivers a solid rate: £7.00 an hour plus £1.00 for each delivery. But overnight the company told its drivers that it was to 'trial' a new system. Rather than a guaranteed hourly rate, couriers would be moved to piecework at £3.75 per job.
Deliveroo dressed the announcement in the language of the entrepreneurial startup: this new schema would enable 'flexibility' and perhaps they might even earn more than they'd been earning before.
Of course, the reality for the courier was rather different. Workers would no longer have a guaranteed income, they would not be able to accept other delivery work while on shift, and because the food delivery app dips and spikes in popularity depending on the time of the day, staff would be competing for jobs and some could lose out way below the previous hourly rate.
But the drivers took collective action and they won some major concessions: pay is now guaranteed during peak hours and the trial is now opt-in rather than opt-out.
While these are concessions rather than outright victories, they're important for a number of reasons, first and foremost that it's no longer business as usual for the so-called sharing economy. The disruption and public outrage not only forced Deliveroo's hand, it also led the government to consider intervening: most of this new economy depends on shifting the expenses of employment onto the employees who are counted as 'self-employed'. But the government has said if staff are de facto working for one company then they are not self-employed, they are employees, and should be paid the national minimum wage.
This could have wider implications for collective bargaining in general in this new economy. The big unions have so far struggled to represent workers in the gig economy, specifically because workers are counted as self-employed. The general union GMB, for instance, had some difficulty in fighting on behalf of Uber drivers who are self-employed according to their contract. But that perception now seems to be shifting.
It is, in fact, vital that workers who are paid through these (frankly, quasi-rentier) businesses have their employment rights enshrined, including the right to collective bargaining. Because if they don't, well, there's already a blueprint for how these apps tend to play out.
Listen: The UK Tech Weekly Podcast discusses the Deliveroo strikes
The sequence seems to go something like this: a new company entices workers with the promise of decent pay and flexibility. But when there are enough workers involved, it becomes a buyers' market, and the business is able to apply downward pressure on wages. And ultimately, taking Uber as an example, the long view is automating the human element out as much as possible anyway – inferring a certain disregard for employees.
Uber is the darling of the sharing economy, and it's worth looking at the company's takeover of London. Sam Knight charts the efforts of Uber 'fixer' Richard Howard in this exceptional long read for the Guardian. With an “allowable burn” budget of £50,000 a week, Howard was tasked with winning drivers over to the Uber platform: he poached chauffeurs and taxi drivers from other agencies and at first, it was a winning formula. The money was good and these select early adopters gained newfound freedom to work the hours they wanted.
But fast forward to Uber today, and it's not just London's incumbent black cab drivers who are in conflict with Uber – the company is facing allegations of union busting and abuses of workers' rights.
In some ways the story is playing out similarly to Deliveroo's: once the labour force is sufficiently large enough, the employer begins chopping away at what enticed employees over in the first place.
In the US, Uber positions itself as hobby work: a job on the side for beer money or some post-retirement extra income. If you'd asked Uber or Lyft drivers in Austin, Texas, which recently voted against both operating in the city, they would have told you their income was not enough to live on. Some I spoke to had day jobs, others found themselves depending on the platforms.
There were people who were financially solvent – like a software engineer or a retiree, both who had the disposable income to buy a car and then use it for extra work. Then there were others who borrowed money to gain access to the market and found themselves earning barely enough to pay back their debts and scrape together a living.
This is not going to be a local issue: outsourcing the expense of labour to the labourers is the desirable sharing economy model. With barely any physical assets of their own, this economy shifts the burden of running a business directly onto their staff, whether that's in the cost of buying and maintaining a vehicle, or the fact that sick days aren't compensated.
Which way forward for the 'sharing' economy?
Uber has found itself locked into regulatory wars the world over. Austin voted the ride-sharing companies out of the city, Berlin banned Uber and told Airbnb that it doesn't get a free pass from laws that cover renting.
Their edge in providing the slightest inch more convenience over their competitors means these sorts of 'sharing economy' apps will always have their users, particularly in well-heeled metropolitan areas.
A new app, BringIt, for instance, promises to deliver groceries to your door in around 30 minutes, and it launched in largely affluent areas of London.
But regardless of their sizeable user base, which in the case of Uber provides a pre-made list of users as a weapon with which to lobby, they are not all-powerful.
The Deliveroo drivers are showing us the way. And although there's still some way to go – pay is guaranteed only in peak hours, and there are signs the trial has already become a cause of conflict between drivers and restaurants – it's clear these workers and campaigners are on the right path.
In an era where we're repeatedly but incorrectly told trade unionism and collective bargaining is a relic of the past, the courageous actions of a few hundred couriers have proved that no matter the shiny new sheen sprayed on the surface of wage labour, it is still wage labour, after all.
It is now up to the labour movement, the trade unions and the public at large to learn to understand the real nature of the sharing economy and to pick the right side. We can't turn our backs on workers who are dehumanised to lever-pullers, who users can review without a second thought given to the potential of the life-ruining impact on the person behind the wheel.
We need to demand fair treatment from these businesses who, after all, own the software behind an app and little more – the bosses of which have an income and lifestyle leaving them utterly, hopelessly detached from the workforce that they depend on.
Although for now it might be the app-delivered drivers and couriers you count on who are most precarious of all, in an era where government and private business collude with one another to dress up joblessness and layoffs in the language of agility and flexibility, the sharing economy might be closer to you than you think.
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