Delivering rights in the modern world of work

Submitted by sglenister on Fri, 14/10/2016 - 13:26

14 October 2016

By Joy Johnson, UNITE Political Team

Become a Deliveroo rider and "pick up a ton of perks to sweeten the deal, like discounts with Apple and Vue Cinema on top of your self-employed sixteen pound an hour depending on location". Click on Deliveroo, the online restaurant delivery service website, and this is what the platform offers as inducements to entice young, fit "superstar cycle and scooter riders" to join the 'Roo'.

Absent from the flimflam of 'perks' and Deliveroo's mission promising 'amazing' food are any rights. Nor would you see any guarantees for the superstar riders.

So, no guaranteed hours. No guaranteed wages. No guaranteed pension. No sick leave. No holiday pay. No workers' rights. Welcome to today's world of work, where the employer can deny any responsibility by saying it just advertises 'opportunities' for self-employed people.

Deliveroo is merely one platform among others that appeals to would-be customers with the promise that within thirty minutes from 'app to tap' they can indulge in their favourite food delivered to their door. We could ask: what is going on in our heads? We lap up The Great British Bake Off in our droves, yet on the streets of London and other major cities, so called 'superstar riders' weave their bicycles through traffic with meals in a box on their backs? It's a sight that to all intent and purposes describes these cyclists not so much as 'superstars riders' as modern day 'packhorses' regularly carrying on their backs food and bottles that can weigh around fifteen to twenty kilograms.

We've become used to workers on zero hours being billed as flexible when in essence it is a form of exploitation reminiscent of workers in the docks and lump labour on construction site. Now there is a new and hip expression to disguise the reality of precarious working governed by platforms with the invitation to – 'tap the app' - and that is the 'gig economy'.

Platforms have taken precarious working to another level and it is best summed up by Unite as 'a technological gloss on a very old problem'.

When the Conservatives boast that we have an employment bonanza with the highest levels of employment ever, there is no regard to the quality of employment and the impact on our society of poor employment. With 4.8 million UK self-employed this form of work has been the fastest growing since the recession – but there is little or no evidence on how much is bogus or lack of alternatives.

And when they brag that the 900,000 workers on zero hours and 1.7 million in temporary work have made the Conservative Party the Party of full employment, well tell that to those who can't plan their futures because they have no idea whether they will be able to pay the next bill.

We are told that this way of working is now irreversible. According to the World Economic Forum over five million jobs will be lost by 2020 as a result of robotic and technological change.

Are we all Luddites now if we regard this progress as a dystopian future?

Or do we determine to make the gig economy work for working people? Around six million people are not covered by workers' rights that we have in the past taken for granted but which of course were hard won by trade unions.

The gig economy seemingly doesn’t have provision for trade unions. Has it become too late for the Institute of Employment Rights’ Manifesto for Labour Law that has as its central theme collective bargaining with the proviso that without the right to strike it becomes collective begging?

The answer must be no. Workers in the gig economy have as much right to rights as we all do. It is also apparent that workers themselves want to organise and act as a collective. They know how easily they can be picked off. Over the last few months, workers from Uber and Deliveroo have taken strike action over pay and working conditions.

While it may seem that we are powerless in the face of this global digital onslaught, we aren't.

New Zealand earlier this year passed legislation banning zero hours. They also have a law allowing trade unions to speak to workers at their place of work or electronically under a 'right to access'. This right when enforced must be without loss of pay. Nor can employers subvert access by using common law and trespass to decline access to private property.

Unite's Assistant General Secretary, Steve Turner and Unite organiser, Luke Primarollo when they gave evidence to the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee scored a major victory likening Sports Direct's Shirebrook's warehouse to a Victorian work house with its extensive use of penalties, agency labour to avoid employers obligations, and widespread use of zero hours.

Jeremy Corbyn is following in the footsteps of the late John Smith who, addressing the 1993 Labour Party conference, pledged:

"Our charter of employment rights will give all working people basic rights that will come into force from the first day of their employment. We will give the same legal rights to every worker, part-time or full-time, temporary or permanent.

"We will give every working man and woman the right to protection against unfair dismissal, and access to health and safety protection. And every worker will have the right to join a trade union and have the right to union recognition."

Following Jeremy’s re-election as Labour leader the NEC passed his ten policy pledges including his pledge on workers' rights from day one.

"We will give people stronger employment rights from day one in a job, end exploitative zero hour contracts and create new sectoral collective bargaining rights. We will strengthen working people's representation at work and the ability of trade unions to organise so that working people have a real voice at work. And we will put the defence of social and employment rights, as well as action against undercutting of pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour, at the centre of the Brexit negotiations agenda for a new relationship with Europe."

Pursuing collective bargaining with the right to strike is a central tenet of any employment rights agenda. Exploitation is exploitation whenever, and wherever, it occurs. In this new world of work, where workers are increasingly individualised, when work is insecure, and when large numbers are potentially facing a future without work, it may leave the impression that trade unions are no longer relevant. No, they are needed more than ever.

It is important, however, that extolling the virtues of collective bargaining embraces the riders of Deliveroo, as well as industrial workers, in large scale trade union organised work places.

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