By Alex Johnson, IMT Edinburgh
Recent figures show unemployment to be at 4.5%, the lowest seen since the 1970s. When we take a moment to examine this figure more closely, however, we find that it isn’t the cause for celebration the Tories would have us believe.
Official unemployment figures are extremely misleading. Under-employment and casual employment are rife, with 2.8 million workers currently employed within the “gig economy”. This massively expanding sector claims that its workers are “self-employed”, meaning they do not have the rights employers are legally obliged to give employees.
According to a Guardian poll, 25% of gig economy workers earn less than the national minimum wage, with contractors often being paid per job rather than per hour.
The “self-employed” status of gig economy workers means they are not entitled to sick pay or holiday pay. Work is extremely precarious, with many agency staff having hours changed and shifts cancelled at a moment’s notice.
Self-employed status supposedly means that workers can negotiate their own pay and contracts and determine their own hours. But what we’re actually seeing is companies offering zero flexibility in hours, with enforced schedules, zero say on contract terms and pay rates, and unagreed changes being imposed. For example, some companies have changed from an hourly rate of pay to a per job rate without giving contractors any choice.
Contracts can include a requirement to wear a uniform, work in strictly restricted time slots, and not take a job with any other company.
All this oversteps the legal lines of whether workers can even be considered self-employed. But the sector is heavily under-regulated, allowing exploitative firms to dictate terms to gig economy workers.
Labour market reforms announced on 7th February have been widely criticised for not providing any new protections for gig workers, and the government have only said that they will consult about law changes in this area.
One recent example has highlighted the shocking conditions in the sector: that of DPD drivers, a logistics company that delivers packages for Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, and Amazon.
DPD workers have endured pay cuts and enforced working hours. They cannot take more than two non-consecutive weeks holiday a year. According to the GMB union, DPD drivers have faced “arbitrary and detrimental” changes to their contracts, which are imposed without the contractors even providing a signature.
If a DPD delivery driver is unable to complete a shift for any reason – including illness or bereavement – and is unable to find another driver to replace them, they can be subject to a £150 ‘breach’ charge for a replacement driver, since DPD view an unauthorised sick day as a breach of contract.
This draconian policy has tragic consequences. Recently, Don Lane, a 53-year-old DPD driver died as a result of the company’s brutal behaviour.
Lane – who suffered from diabetes – was subject to the £150 charge, having cancelled a shift in order to attend a medical appointment. He had informed his employers of this appointment months earlier, giving them the opportunity to change his working hours.
Lane had worked for DPD for 19 years. In October he fell into a diabetic coma while at the wheel of his vehicle, and he collapsed again in December. He felt under intense pressure to continue working and repeatedly missed appointments with specialists despite his severely deteriorating health.
His widow is quoted in the Guardian saying,
“There was a constant threat of a fine. They had to deliver the parcels to tight slots and the pressure to get them done was huge. He was putting the company before his own health. He wasn’t able to do his parcels first and make the hospital appointments, so he would cancel on the day.”
End the dictatorship of the bosses!
Under capitalism, employers will try to maximise profits by extracting the greatest possible amount of labour from their workers at the smallest possible expense to themselves.
This is exacerbated in the current economic climate, where bosses are squeezing every drop they can out of workers and making savings wherever they can. This has led to the explosion of the gig economy, with super-exploited workers labouring in conditions that aren’t subject to what remains of our labour laws.
There are disturbing reports of DPD drivers being told they are not allowed to join a union, with threats of dismissal for taking part in stoppages. Despite this, there have been GMB demonstrations of DPD workers outside depots in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Uddingston.
Trade unions are calling for a government crackdown on this growing trend of bogus self-employment. We have seen strike action from Deliveroo and UberEats couriers, and Uber drivers fighting to win rights and be recognised as employees. There has been a mixture of victories and defeats, with Uber drivers winning an Employment Appeal Tribunal; the company lost an appeal against an earlier decision to grant the drivers workers’ rights.
There is still a long way to go, however. The labour law body, the Central Arbitration Committee, has ruled that Deliveroo cyclists cannot be considered employees because they have the option to ‘substitute’ – i.e. to send someone else, most likely a friend, to do their work – which is considered a luxury only for the self-employed.
This exploitation of gig economy workers must end. The unions should take up the following essential demands and fight to organise precarious workers against the dictatorship of the bosses:
- The right to be recognised as employees.
- A living wage, with holiday and sick pay.
- The right to unionise without fear of repercussions.
Companies that fail to provide such basic workers’ rights are not fit for purpose. They should be met with expropriation of their assets, under workers’ control.