Precarious labour strikes back

Uber drivers and college cleaners, cinema workers and McDonalds staff marched for better pay and basic rights.

2017 has been a big year for union action on precarious work: United Voices of the World and Justice for Workers successfully campaigned to bring all cleaners in-house at the LSE and SOAS universities, respectively. IWGB won the appeal made by Uber of an employment rights case originally brought by GMB. Ritzy cinema workers, unionised by BECTU, have just entered the second year of their strike for a living wage, and McDonalds workers with the Bakers Union have gone on strike in the UK for the first time in their history.

This autumn, precarious workers in a number of different unions marched across central London. Two marches, in September and November, were organised by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to highlight struggles against low wages, poor conditions and persistent exploitation of workers. These conditions have characterised the UK economy for nearly 10 years, and have made the current decade the worst for pay growth for over two centuries.

While London has often been the focus – New Economics Foundation research has shown that the capital’s gig economy has grown by 72% since 2010 – the problem is national. Since 2011 the number of people employed on zero hours contracts has increased fivefold. One in three contractors on zero hours want more work. NEF analysis has also revealed that two in five in the UK are stuck in bad jobs’, whilst more than half of all self-employed people are failing to earn a decent living.

The protests coincided with legal action involving one of the gig economy’s most notorious companies, Uber. In September, Transport for London refused to renew Uber’s license to operate in London due to failure to respond to concerns over passenger safety and security. And, in November, Uber lost its appeal against last year’s tribunal decision that recognised drivers as workers with rights to sick pay, holiday, and a minimum wage. Uber is expected to take its appeal to the Supreme Court.

At the protest in September, Uber driver Syed explained why he was marching:

We are here today to make sure that these so called gig economy and tech companies cannot hide their responsibilities; they have a responsibility to look after their workforce. Gig economy doesn’t mean you have to exploit your frontline workers. I’ve been with Uber for the last four years and I have seen the massive changes in the way Uber treats its drivers, and it’s always more and more exploitation.

So we are here to make sure the drivers at least get a guaranteed minimum wage from Uber, and workers rights and holiday pay, and sick pay on top.”

Syed also spoke about the additional costs and low wages that are forced on Uber drivers:

And now you need to take [out] the petrol costs, you need to take the vehicle costs, you need to take the maintenance costs, you need to take road tax, you need to take the TfL license fees, you need to take your accounting fees. You need to take so many expenses out and still our figures are that no drivers are earning more than £5 an hour. Even according to Uber’s claims no driver is earning more than £7 an hour which is still less than the minimum wage.”

Joe, a security guard, explained the reasons for outsourced University of London workers going on strike:

Basically it’s been about low pay, poor conditions of service, uncaring attitude of management…not able to talk to staff, doesn’t care about the staff at all.

We are asking for the university to bring us to in-house instead of outsourcing… because they are ripping us off, and they are not treating us with respect at all.

It’s very degrading to be honest if [management are] not really doing the right thing… We deal with the students and we are very happy with them, but the pay is very low, the conditions of service are very poor, the management do not even care – you don’t even see them. The only time you see them is when there’s a strike. Then they start running around like headless chickens.”

At the November protest, Henry Lopez, the President of the IWGB and an outsourced worker, spoke about how the campaign was progressing:

The campaign is full on. We are very happy with the support we have from the people, from the students, social organisations, from the trade unions…

Every time an outsourcing company comes in to take over the contract they want to change the wages, they want to issue zero hour contracts. So it’s an endless struggle with these companies. So the only way to end this situation is that the university employs us directly and also gives us the conditions that they give to the directly employed employees. Because there shouldn’t be a second tier workforce and we shouldn’t be second class workers.”

To support the IWGB’s campaign for better working conditions, donate to the strike fund and write to the University of London Vice-Chancellor.

The New Economics Foundation is crowdfunding to build an ethical, driver-owned alternative to Uber.

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