The gig economy and collective action

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The supposedly endless rise of precarity is not as straightforward as it seems.

Growing use of zero hours contracts (ZHCs) and the “gig economy”, in which people scrape together a living from fragments of work without being formally employed, are, we are often told, leading us on an endless march towards precarity and undermining workers’ capacity to fight.

But right now things look rather different. In April this year, following protests organised by Fast Food Rights and the Bfawu union, McDonald’s offered all its employees the option of moving off ZHCs.

In July KFC went into panic mode when a Socialist Worker journalist wrote a piece exposing the use of ZHCs in one of its franchising operations. KFC announced that the contracts had been issued in error and withdrew them. In August Sports Direct, 80 percent of whose workers are on ZHCs, was ordered to pay £1 million in compensation to staff, including agency workers, who, the firm admitted, had not received the statutory minimum wage. This followed a campaign by the Unite union, which organises some of the warehouse workers.

In the same month food delivery company Deliveroo ran into trouble when it trialled a new contract in London removing the hourly rate for its bike couriers and making them reliant on fees paid for each delivery. The self-employed couriers, who exemplify the supposedly unorganisable gig economy, held a series of wildcat strikes.

The couriers were not organised by any major union (though they were supported by the small Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) yet they found ways to organise. Along with “old-fashioned” face to face meetings and pickets they also used the very technology that is supposedly leading us into irresistible insecurity — organising through a WhatsApp group and crowdsourcing a fighting fund.

Chief executive William Shu was soon forced into a grovelling apology and offered couriers an opt-out from the contracts. Remarkably, they continued their strike, ending it only when further demands were met, including a guarantee of no victimisations and that nobody would be put on the new terms unless they opted in.

The supposedly endless rise of precarity is not as straightforward as it seems.

Consider the Sports Direct model. The annual turnover of its salaried staff alone, including store managers, is about one in five. In adult social care, another area where ZHCs are widely used, it is about one in four. How many firms can afford to lose and replace each year a fifth or a quarter of their workforce — taking with them valuable skills, training and knowhow?

ZHCs are heavily concentrated in just five areas of employment: “hotels”, “restaurants”, “beverage serving”, “residential care for the elderly and disabled” and “social work without accommodation for the elderly and disabled”. These are areas that are either traditionally casualised or in which employers are prepared to tolerate high levels of staff turnover, but this model does not necessarily generalise across the economy.

Sometimes the state can also act to curb aspects of precarious working. During the Deliveroo dispute the government announced that the company was obliged to pay the National Living Wage to those who work for it even if they are technically self-employed.

This is not because the capitalist state has suddenly become socialist. In Capital, Karl Marx discusses the introduction of early factory legislation in Britain. The state faced three pressures. First, there was the short-term desire of capitalists to maximise profits. Second, there was the growing militancy of workers. Third, there was the need of capitalism to secure a relatively stable workforce to exploit in the long run.

Moreover, once early legislation was introduced, there was further pressure to extend it beyond the factories, into sweatshops for instance, in order to ensure a level playing field for competing capitalists. In a similar fashion, the government was simply asking Deliveroo to do what other capitalists are obliged to do.

If increasing insecurity has pros and cons from a capitalist perspective, once the disruption of class struggle is added to the mix, along with the widespread sympathy it often evokes, it can sometimes tip the balance away from growing precarity even in relatively casualised areas of employment.

The Daily Telegraph points out in its coverage of the Deliveroo dispute: “Food is not information that can be piped down a cable…delivering it requires someone to physically collect it and drop it off.”

Both sides in the struggle around these kinds of work are starting to recognise the continued dependence of capitalism on those it exploits. Socialist Worker’s exposé of KFC’s use of ZHCs contained this wonderful line from one employee: “We’re the working class. We’re the people that make this business. Without us, you’d literally have one person in a shop trying to sell chicken.” Similarly Deliveroo’s Shu was forced to admit: “Our riders are the lifeblood of our business and without them we are nothing.”

It often takes time for new working class forces to mature, but, as they do, they discover or rediscover ways of resisting collectively. We should celebrate and generalise their successes.