The Self-Organised Struggle of Liverpool Couriers Highlights the Difficulties of Organising in the 'Gig Economy'

The Self-Organised Struggle of Liverpool Couriers Highlights the Difficulties of Organising in the 'Gig Economy'

Deliveroo was founded in 2013 by Will Shu, an investment banker, and Greg Orlowski, a software developer. It was a simple idea whereby customers place food orders through an app or on the website, and couriers, with the app on their mobile phones, deliver the food from the restaurant to the customer. However, like any technology (no matter how life changing) utilised under capitalism, in practice Deliveroo means exploitation for the workers on whose labour the success of the company depends.

In 2015 Deliveroo began to expand internationally. By September 2017 it operated in 140 cities across the world, employed more than 1,000 full-time staff, and some 30,000 “self-employed” couriers (of these, 15,000 based in the UK).1 As the company expanded thanks to heavy investment (including from Amazon), it increased its sales but continued to make losses – £30m in 2015, £129m in 2016, £199m in 2017, and £232m in 2018. The model has raised many questions over its profitability. Meanwhile, courier working conditions get worse, while Shu keeps raising his salary. Deliveroo has become the poster child of the “gig economy”.2

News of first labour disputes circulated as early as August 2016. In response to Deliveroo trialling a new pay structure – £3.75 a drop, instead of an hourly rate of £7 plus £1 a delivery – couriers in London organised strikes and protests. While initially successful, the hourly rate was later done away with anyway. As it stands, couriers are not entitled to the minimum wage, holiday pay or sick pay. Workers can now be paid as little as nothing per hour to £20 an hour, depending on how much traffic there is on the app. The model has been compared to the casual labour prevalent in Britain's docks in the twentieth century. In Netherlands and Spain as well as the UK, Deliveroo has been taken to court over issues such as employment status, collective bargaining and human rights. Base unions, such as the IWGB, have tried to represent workers both on the streets and in the courts (drawing workers in with the promise of resources and expertise), but much of the workers’ resistance remains outside of the union framework, in informal networks, collectives, and Telegram and WhatsApp chats.

For us, the most interesting aspect of the situation lies in that very resistance. As our comrades in Klasbatalo recently wrote,

"...despite the separation of worker from worker by the increasing elimination of the shop floor, and despite ‘gig’ workers not being registered as employees and thus having little to no protection, class struggle in the ‘gig economy’ pushes the working class immediately into unmediated self-activity such as wildcat strikes. From Foodora workers in Italy, Deliveroo workers in the UK to Uber drivers in Los Angeles, militancy in the ‘gig economy’ is on the rise."3

Putting to bed all claims that in the digital age the working class no longer exists, or that organising for better conditions can only be achieved through legal channels, what we see in the “gig economy“ is more and more couriers behaving like a "class for itself”. Just across Deliveroo, over the past three years we have seen strikes and protests in London, Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, Sheffield, Aberdeen, Nottingham, Birmingham and Newcastle, as well as internationally, in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. And it is in this context that in Liverpool we came across a self-organised struggle of Deliveroo workers.

A few publications have already hosted articles about the situation in Liverpool, among them the Echo4, Nerve Magazine5 and Liverpool Anarchist.6 Since September 2019 Deliveroo has been trialling a new zone system in Liverpool, the so called “free login zone”, which allows anyone to log in at any time, as opposed to the old “booking zone”, which gave couriers the opportunity to book hours in advance. This change, along with the influx of new riders, has increased competition, particularly hurting those couriers for whom this is the main source of income – some have reported losing up to £100-£200 a week, and having to use other apps (UberEats, Just Eat and Stuart) to supplement their income. This veiled attack on wages inspired a few couriers to get talking, start organising and take action.

Their first public happening took place on 6 October, in the form of an assembly outside the Bombed Out Church. The event attracted around 20-30 couriers and was supported by the Solidarity Federation and the Communist Workers’ Organisation. For two hours the couriers discussed the myriad problems they face at work and the demands that should be put forward, all the while trying to pull in riders that passed by to join them. They settled on the following: a minimum delivery fee (£4.50 for cyclists, £5 for motorcyclists), a guaranteed Living Wage for all and an end to the hiring of new riders. Another assembly was called for 12 October (this time during peak time) at the same spot. That week couriers also addressed a letter to Deliveroo, explaining the difficult situation that they find themselves in. At the second assembly, which saw a similar turnout, the decision was made that a plan of action is needed, and a few couriers volunteered to meet more often. This kind of self-organised action, although naturally limited at first, is something that all workers could learn from (the IWGB, despite having some members in Liverpool, was absent on the ground).

The couriers never received a proper reply from Deliveroo, except for a questionnaire with pre-determined answers and temporary fee incentives (the timing of both may have been coincidental – or not...). Faced with a faceless company represented only by an app (there is no Deliveroo office in Liverpool, nor any dark kitchens to picket), the core group of couriers deliberated on how to get the attention of their bosses. They made contact with the media, planned an intervention at a screening of Sorry We Missed You7, tried to establish links with couriers in other cities, etc. But the prospect of taking prolonged strike action, losing money in the process and making themselves vulnerable to dismissal, only to be ignored by Deliveroo and not make a dent in their profits, was on everyone’s minds (as this had already happened in other cities). So was the story of a Deliveroo worker who in October made a 600 mile journey across France to collect signatures for a petition demanding greater workers’ rights, only to be denied entry to the company’s London headquarters...8 For many of the Liverpool couriers this was their first experience of organising, and coming up against virtual employers who seem untouchable is a daunting task for anyone.

By November the struggle had lost its momentum. The numbers attending the core group meetings decreased as did the ongoing involvement of wider layers of the workforce. The core activists identified that decisions of their meetings needed to be better shared with the other activists. There was also concern about how best to use digital networks to achieve better involvement but also avoid company spies accessing the core group membership and discussions. But the struggle is not all over yet. On 26 November the couriers made a small but public re-appearance at the university workers’ strike rally with their own banner (“Different Sectors, Same Struggle”), trying to link their fight to a wider class movement, distributing flyers and speaking on the stage to the assembled crowd. And, on 3 December, they will speak again at a Teach Out at the University of Liverpool together with striking HMRC cleaners, about casualisation and the realities of working in the “gig economy”. By all means these are just small steps, but it’s a start at overcoming isolation. The hated “free login zone” trial ends sometime in December/January. Whatever system Deliveroo settles on may yet spark new controversy – what happens then is still up in the air.

Throughout all this we have tried to support the couriers by attending their events and meetings, spreading the word about their struggle, helping to distribute flyers and making banners. We have also encouraged them to remain independent of the trade union straitjacket and we began to raise some political questions – about class, capitalism, and a future society without exploitation. To that end we produced a flyer, attached below, which we gave out to the couriers and at some of the rallies. Its contents remain relevant, and not only to Liverpool.

Dyjbas

Workers against Slaveroo

When we speak of the working class the image it usually brings to people’s heads is still one of a cloth-cap wearing man slaving away in some huge factory. While that industrial working class still exists, particularly abroad where labour power is cheaper, the times have changed and the economy of the UK is more and more based on these so called “services” – of which Deliveroo is a part. When we look at the ways many of us make a living however, whether it’s cleaners, waiters or couriers, we see the face of a new working class: more dispersed, but affected by the same old problems. Low wages, long hours (or no hours!), insecurity. And all to make money for millionaires and billionaires like Will Shu, a class of their own beyond our reach.

Rediscovering the Lessons of the Past

Ever since waged labour first became widespread some 200 years ago, workers have resisted the attacks of capital through organising ourselves and withdrawing our labour. Assemblies (where we come together to discuss our grievances and decide what to do about them), strike committees (which we delegate to co-ordinate our actions) and, ultimately, workers’ councils (which at times of heightened class struggle took over the running of whole cities!) – these forms of organisation have resurfaced time and time again whenever workers found themselves at odds with the employing class. In the current mobilisations of Deliveroo riders in the UK, but also internationally (France, Italy, etc.), we see riders rediscovering how to self-organise – mass meetings are held, collectives are formed, and various demands are being formulated. In some places the unions step in, but where that happens they usually bring with them a more legalistic approach (union reps instead of delegates, ballots instead of organic walkouts, etc.), which over time tend to destroy self-organisation (the miserable response of big unions like Unite, UNISON or GMB to years of cuts and worsening conditions shows how comfortable they have become with their union dues, bargaining over our labour!).

Beyond the Immediate

In order to win the demands, Deliveroo needs to be hit where it really hurts – in their pockets. To that end, the current struggles will have to involve more and more riders across more and more cities, and not just in the UK. Such co-ordinated action may yet force Deliveroo to capitulate. But whether this is successful or not, the self-organisation of Deliveroo riders has already shown the way forwards to all working people – that we don’t have to take things lying down, that we can unite whatever our nationality, and that it’s through cooperation that we win. In this the seeds of a new world, beyond the endless accumulation of money which wrecks our planet and our bodies (through wars, climate change and the daily toil!), are sown.

We in the Communist Workers’ Organisation (CWO) think that the current way society is organised, where we spend our whole lives being exploited by bosses and faceless companies, all so that we can afford the basic necessities, is not the be-all and end-all. This is the essence of capitalism, and we think that workers have to get rid of it so that we can organise the world in a different, more human, way. We call this new society communism, but it has nothing to do with the nightmarish regimes that used to call themselves “Communist” (which in reality were just as exploitative and oppressive!). Instead it’s a future where there is no class system of exploiters and exploited, where private property and money are a thing of the past, and where all stand for one and one stands for all. It’s a long road, but as the old Chinese proverb says, every journey begins with a single step!

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Internationalis...
Dec 3 2019 09:24

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  • ...what we see in the “gig economy“ is more and more couriers behaving like a "class for itself”.

    CWO-ICT

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R Totale
Dec 3 2019 19:53

Thanks for this report - hadn't heard anything about the Liverpool situation (or that Liverpool has a local anarchist paper again), and good luck with it!