The Right to be A Wage Slave
Over the years we have seen a growth in the number of temporary and part-time workers, many of whom are identified as self-employed. The gig economy forms a significant part of this trend, which covers a wide range of occupations from IT consultants to Uber and Deliveroo drivers. One definition offered is ‘it is a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs’ (‘What is the ‘gig’ economy?’ BBC News, 10 February 2017). What distinguishes the gig economy is that the workers are paid for a particular piece of work, as opposed to those on zero hours contracts who are paid by the hour. The term ‘gig’ was coined by jazz musicians in 1915 who were paid for each live performance. It is a term still used by today’s rock and pop musicians. According to a TUC report, the gig economy has doubled in size since 2016 and with just under 5 million workers (‘Gig economy in Britain doubles, accounting for 4.7 million workers’, Guardian, 28 June 2019).
Insecure, casual working has always been a feature of capitalism. At one time, it was common for building workers to be hired on a day-to-day basis. In the US in the 1930s many farmers had to sell their land because of drought and falling prices and ended up as itinerant workers. After the Great Depression, temp agencies sprang up, which supplied workers to employers on a temporary basis (The History and Future of the Gig Economy, Small Business Trends, 12 November 2019).
Some claim that the gig economy is a product of the new digital technology. It is the case that firms like Uber use smartphone apps to organise jobs for their workers, but there are employers, such as Hermes, who also employ gig workers, but use more traditional methods to run their businesses (‘What is the gig economy and why is it so controversial?’ Wired, 14 September 2018). This explanation of the rise of the gig economy doesn’t give us the full picture. In the last fifty years, Western capitalist countries have experienced a decline in their manufacturing and traditional industries with the concomitant erosion of trade union power and accompanying loss of relatively well-paid jobs. Insecure, casual jobs have, to a large extent, taken their place. In the less developed capitalist countries there is a pool of underemployed workers who are prey to these gig employers. It is probably no coincidence that Uber was founded in San Francisco in 2010 in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crash when unemployment was high. Under capitalism, competitive pressures compel businesses to grab a greater share of the market by undercutting their rivals by offering a product or service at a lower cost.
Supporters of the gig economy insist that its workers enjoy the flexibility and independence that come with being one’s own boss. No doubt for some gig workers, such as video producers, working this way can be a relatively lucrative venture. However, for many it is just ruthless capitalist exploitation by another name. Firms like Uber and Deliveroo designate their workers as self-employed so they don’t have to fork out holiday pay and sickness benefits, contribute to their pensions, pay the minimum wage or any redundancy payments, but receive the fruits of their labour like any traditional capitalist. The benefits of flexibility have been illusory as it is their employers that ultimately control the hours they work. Despite the capitalist spin, more and more gig workers are seeing through the con. They know that they are workers, not independent contractors.
They are fighting back. In 2016 two Uber drivers launched legal action to be recognised as workers. The London employment tribunal ruled in their favour, that they should be classed as workers and be entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the minimum wage. Uber appealed this ruling to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and when they lost in November 2017, they went to the Court of Appeal which also upheld the ruling in December 2018. Uber made their last stand with the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, which, on 19 February, dismissed their appeal and upheld the ruling that Uber drivers are workers and are entitled to employment benefits. Uber responded by claiming that the verdict only applies to the small number of drivers who brought this case. However, thousands of Uber drivers are filing claims for compensation.
On 7 April, Deliveroo drivers went on strike for higher pay and better work conditions. This followed similar strike action in August and September 2019. Some gig workers are even organised in trade unions, one is the App Drivers and Couriers Union and another is the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain.
Despite all the guff written and spoken about living in a postmodern society where the class struggle is a thing of the past and we are now all aspiring individuals, it is evident that workers, even the more precarious ones, are still collectively organising to defend and, if they can, improve their working conditions. We think it is great that some workers are winning their battles. However, we must go on and win the class war.