Deliveroo, the British online food delivery company, boasts 15,000 “self-employed” riders within the UK. With a 650% rise in takeaway orders in 2016 and a revenue of £130 million to match, Deliveroo has firmly cemented itself as one of the leading players in the “gig economy”.
The technology that has made the gig economy possible could, under a rationally planned socialist society, be used to reduce the number of hours in the working day and give workers flexibility to fit work around their lifestyles. Instead, under capitalism, it is used to maximise profits whilst simultaneously ratcheting up competition between workers and creating a situation of precariousness and uncertainty.
Only last year Deliveroo had to make a U-turn on attacking pay rates after workers called a strike. Since then, a national tribunal has been brought by the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which claims Deliveroo "bogusly" labels its riders as independent contractors. The IWGB, by contrast, is fighting to have Deliveroo riders represented in a statutory union.
With a storm brewing in court, the Leeds Marxists took to the streets to find out how this ongoing assault by the capitalists is affecting the Deliveroo drivers.
Deliveroo and other similar companies – so we are told by the bosses – are apparently not companies, but “platforms”. The workers in the gig economy, therefore, are apparently “entrepreneurs” who work for themselves. This new business model reflects the impasse of capitalism on a world scale. In order for the capitalists to continue their march for ever increasing profits, they viciously attack the working class and the gains achieved in the past through struggle, such as sick pay, holiday pay, the right to join a union, etc.
Speaking to a group of drivers, who were only prepared to speak under anonymity, it is clear that the “flexibility” in this new economy has had a damning effect. “You can get wiped out - I had that at Christmas”, one of the riders stated. “It would be nice to have a bit more security, like minimum sick pay,” he continued, adding, “You should be allowed [to unionise], everybody has a right to be part of a union, it’s a basic 21st century right.”
The Deliveroo business model thrives on competition and uncertainty, at the detriment of the worker. Talking to the riders, it was clear that many of the workers would prefer employment that offers flexibility rather than the monotony of 9-5 employment. However, under the guise of supposed “self-employment”, the bosses at Deliveroo have stripped drivers of all of the basic rights and reforms won by workers in the past. Instead of flexibility in the interests of the worker and their lifestyles, we have flexibility in the interests of the bosses and their profits.
When riders in Leeds responded to this with steps to unionise, they were met with sackings. “Yeah, I joined the union. I think it is really good, it was awful that people got sacked for fighting - they got treated with disrespect.” For a business model that pits its “freelancers” against one another for the next gig, this response of workers’ unity is an attempt to defy capitalism's inherent drive to divide and conquer.
What comes across in conversation with the riders is their acceptance that this type of work is only good for a bit of money on the side, particularly for students that want the “flexibility”. Yet, it is clear that these conditions aren’t up to scratch for a full-time worker. “For someone that had to earn money off this, they wouldn’t be able to support a family; it wouldn’t be viable at all.”
The abundance of labour facing the bosses, due to competition and economic stagnation, are making a “normal working week” a thing of the past, according to one rider. “They recruit people constantly, so hours are harder to get. My mate was working 40 hours one week and the next one he got six. There is no stability!”
As our conversation drew to a close, one rider referred back to the rogue Leeds Deliveroo manager – the same manager that sacked riders for proposing to unionise. But, now the story unravelled some more:
“There was a manager in Leeds who got fired because he was being discriminatory to riders. We found a trend that the riders being sacked had Irish, Indian or names that were not ‘fully British’. Around 80-90% of the people who were let go had non-British and names of ethnic minorities.”
This statement further highlights the immediate need to organise and fight back, and how under capitalism racism will be used as another tool to divide workers for exploitation.
The assault and exploitation of 15,000 Deliveroo riders is only the tip of the iceberg in the gig economy. We fully support the struggle of the Deliveroo drivers, who have demonstrated how workers' pay and conditions can only be defended through militancy. What is needed is for the big unions - who have so far neglected workers in the “gig economy” - to throw their full weight behind these organising drives.
What is clear, however, is that Deliveroo fits into a broader trend in this epoch of capitalist crisis – that of rolling back reforms and using technology to drive down job security and attack workers’ terms and conditions. The bosses are hell-bent on restoring the profitability of their system on the back of workers' sweat and toil. Ultimately, we can only put an end to this race to the bottom by putting an end to the capitalist system itself.
- End the intimidation of union members!
- End bogus self-employment - permanent contracts for all, with guaranteed hours of work! For the introduction of holiday pay, sick pay, and paid breaks.
- No to commission pay! For a real living wage, given for all hours worked, including waiting times.
- Nationalise the major monopolies in the gig-economy, as part of a rational and democratic plan of production!
- For a socialist society that gives workers real freedom to choose and shape the hours they work!