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Proletarian issue 74 (October 2016)
Industry matters: The 'gig' economy
The ‘gig economy’

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), out of the 126,000 new jobs created in the UK in the first quarter of this year, 102,000 (or 83 percent) were registered as ‘self-employed’. In many cases, this ‘self-employment’ is a legal fiction, whereby employers can slide out of their responsibilities towards their workforce – in particular the payment of the minimum wage and the right to holiday and sickness pay.

The result of this growing trend has been the emergence of what has been dubbed the ‘gig economy’, with workers picking up bits and pieces of work as and when the market permits.

A series of protests and court actions by Uber taxi drivers and by couriers at meal delivery companies Deliveroo and Uber Eats has been making waves, bringing to light the gross injustice suffered by those who, on paper, are supposedly blessed with the ‘freedom’ of being ‘their own masters’. As a spokesman for Uber taxis gushes: “The main reason people choose to partner with Uber is so they can become their own boss, pick their own hours and work completely flexibly.”

A spokesman for the GMB union, which is challenging Uber UK in the courts, tells a different story: “Uber drivers face very difficult working conditions and, with cuts to fares, we believe that some of our members are taking home less than the national minimum wage when you take into account the costs of running a car ... Some drivers are working longer and longer hours in order to make ends meet and are unable to take any paid holiday.” (Future of ‘gig economy’ in balance as Uber tribunal begins by Greg Pitcher, CIPD, 20 July 2016)

Another company that offers the dream of ‘being your own boss’ whilst it robs its ‘partners’ of their employment rights is the food delivery company Deliveroo. With one eye on the legal challenge facing Uber UK in the courts, Deliveroo insisted on everyone signing a contract waiving their rights to legal redress. The contract demanded that: “You further warrant that neither you nor anyone acting on your behalf will present any claim in the employment tribunal or any civil court in which it is contended that you are either an employee or a worker.”

Following a week of protests and strikes led by the IWGB (Independent Workers of Great Britain), the offending clauses were rescinded. (Delivery firm ‘asks couriers to sign contract agreeing not to bring tribunals’ by Marianne Calnan, CIPD, 25 July 2016)

Workers at Deliveroo’s rival meal delivery service, Uber Eats, picketed restaurants in a similar IWGB protest over wage cuts and the company’s refusal to meet the legal entitlement of employees to sick and holiday pay. The day after a protest, a leading activist, Imran Siddiqui, was sacked (or “had his account with the company deactivated”), sparking further protests. (Uber Eats drivers protest at dismissal of union activist, Morning Star, 31 August 2016)

The alchemy by which workers are transformed into ‘partners’ is by no means peculiar to seat-of-the-pants operations like Uber and Deliveroo. When three drivers working for the long-established taxi firm Addison Lee took part in a union demo (protesting against the hike in commission being creamed off revenues by the company), they had their contracts as ‘self-employed’ private-hire drivers terminated with none of the employment protections afforded to workers.

These sackings are being contested by the GMB’s lawyers, who maintain: “Employers cannot be allowed to have all the financial benefits of employees and none of the responsibilities to these people’s livelihoods. The attempt to reframe normal employment as part of the gig economy is a serious threat to the financial security of thousands.” (Anti-union minicab bosses due in court over three sackings, Morning Star, 31 August 2016)

Whilst the courts cannot be relied upon to safeguard the interests of workers, the rash of strikes and protests in areas of marginal employment, often led by new and relatively tiny unions that are not hitched to the TUC bureaucracy (the IWGB in the case of Uber and Deliveroo and United Voices of the World (UVW) in the case of the hispanic cleaners in the City of London), serves notice that, given some decent leadership, the working class remains ready to fight back against unbridled exploitation.

Who knows, the coming revolt against capitalism may well announce itself sooner from such precarious margins as these than from the ‘employment-protected’ heartlands of organised labour.

Running down the fire service

The Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) has already suffered £28m in cuts, with the government committed to imposing a further £14.4m over the next four years. Yet demands on the service are going up, not down, with a 140 percent increase in all rescues over the last 12 months and a trebling of deaths by fire.

Management's response is to keep juggling rosters around to squeeze more out of an already overstretched work force. In their latest wheeze, GMFRS bosses are trying to impose un-negotiated, anti-social 12-hour shifts on the firefighters, whilst also axing 250 posts. They began their campaign with shock tactics: a threat to sack the entire workforce of frontline fire fighters, all 1,250 of them, then an ‘invitation’ to reapply for their jobs under new contracts. (See Fury at plans to sack Greater Manchester's entire firefighter workforce, FBU, 19 September 2016)

Whether this was genuine hubris on the part of management or simply a tactic to test out the water, this fait accompli was rapidly withdrawn after a big outcry in the local media and a protest petition that secured 20,000 signatures. It remains to be seen what will be the outcome of the renewed talks, now that management have in advance revealed their ‘nuclear option’. (See Fire service withdraws proposals to sack its entire workforce, FBU, 27 September 2016)

Lidl: union-busters

Lidl, the German-owned discount supermarket chain with nine distribution hubs and 637 stores in Britain, employing a total workforce of around 18,000, is engaged in a union-busting war.

Even after the GMB union won a legal ruling in favour of its claim to negotiate on behalf of more than 200 warehouse workers at its warehouse in Bridgend, Lidl continued to contest the ruling, wheeling out a spokesman to say: “We continue to believe that our employees are fairly represented within the business, without having to deal with trade unions and creating a divided workforce.” (See Lidl stores under fire over trade union stance, BBC, 19 September 2016)

Such tender concerns over divisions in the workforce could surely be allayed by everyone joining the union. A protest rally has been held outside a Lidl outlet in Cardiff, and more are promised.

Southern Rail

As Southern Rail (SR) sinks deeper into a morass of its own making, pilloried on all sides for its crass inability to run a decent rail service, bosses at parent company Govia Thameslink have been trying to blame the unions for the whole mess, tweeting passengers with the following call to arms: “Time to get back on track. Tweet @RMT union and tell them how rail strikes make you feel.”

This union-bashing PR exercise immediately backfired on its authors as dozens of passengers at once tweeted back pointing out that SR management was to blame. A typical tweet was: “You brought this on yourselves. We, your customers, are suffering.”

Both the main rail unions, RMT (mostly representing guards) and Aslef (representing drivers), are in dispute with Govia over plans to cut costs and endanger the public by stripping guards of their safety-critical responsibilities and moving towards driver-only operation. With an increasing number of stations poorly staffed and with unreliable and overcrowded trains, expecting drivers to cope either on their own or with only the help of a guard shorn of his safety responsibilities (a mere ticket-selling ‘on-board supervisor’) is a recipe for chaos. (See Disgraced rail firm threatens jobs massacre by Lamiat Sabin, Morning Star, 4 October 2016)

Aslef is being hit with legal costs estimated to leave little change out of a million pounds, having twice this year found itself on the wrong end of bourgeois law.

In April, a court ruled in Govia's favour, halting a ballot of drivers over the introduction of longer 12-coach trains with driver-only operation. Then, in June, a further injunction was slapped on a planned strike, even though drivers on SR and Gatwick Express (another Govia company) voted 96 percent to strike on a turnout of 84 percent. (See Exclusive: union faces £1 million bill for fighting Southern Rail firm by by Raymie Kiernan, [link href=" [/link], 9 September 2016)

It turns out that even where unions sit on their hands and abide by union-bashing laws, they still wind up losing a healthy chunk of their membership subs to the capitalist state anyway.

Meanwhile, the RMT has called 14 days of strikes spanning October, November and December, with the first beginning on 11 October. No doubt with a nod and a wink from the department of transport, Govia is continuing to tough it out, with its latest ultimatum giving guards till midday on 7 October to sign contracts as watered-down ‘on-board supervisors’ or face the sack. (See RMT announces further strike dates in Southern dispute, RMT, 22 September 2016)

Class struggle in South Korea

On 14 November 2015, trade unionists and farmers in south Korea came out to demonstrate in Seoul against restrictions on union rights, casualisation and the damage to farmers' livelihoods posed by the neo-liberal Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. Police brutally suppressed the demonstration.

One of their victims was Baek Nam-gi, a farmer whose life-long defence of peasant rights had previously earned him a spell in jail under the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship. Police picked him out for attack, unleashing the full force of a water cannon directly at his head and continuing to train the hose on him as he fell to the ground.

Unconscious, Baek was taken to hospital, where he lay in a coma for 317 days, finally succumbing to his injuries on 25 September this year. As news spread of his demise, supporters gathered outside the hospital, anxious to prevent the police from seizing the body and concealing the true cause of death. The police are still trying to gain possession of the body through the courts. (See Death of Korean rights activist farmer Baek Nam-gi, a victim of state violence,, 26 September 2016)

Meanwhile in ‘free’, ‘democratic’ south Korea, workers who exercise the right to strike find themselves on the wrong end of the law. On 28 September, labour minister Lee Ki-kweon denounced workers at Hyundai who have launched the first full strike in 12 years, threatening them with a ‘suspension order’.

Such an order can be issued when a dispute threatens the national economy or the daily lives of the general public – a definition so vague as to permit of any interpretation. It has been used four times in the country's history: this would be the fifth if the government continues on this course. (See Labor minister vows to take all measures to promptly end Hyundai Motor's walkout, Yonhap News Agency, 28 September 2016)

Whilst every effort is made to keep workers on the anti-communist straight and narrow, in an oppressed country where the workers’ movement lacks a significant social-democratic buffer, everyday industrial skirmishes can accelerate rapidly into the rawest forms of class struggle. And the economic clout of organised labour is not to be underestimated.

According to one business analyst: “For the past three decades, Hyundai workers have gone on strike nearly every year, but this year's stoppage is particularly severe ... Unionised members have gone on strike 21 times and engaged in 27 rounds of wage negotiations so far this year, a new annual record. That's resulted in a production loss of 117,000 cars, worth more than 2.5tn won ($2.5bn), Hyundai's largest strike-related output loss ... Hyundai's operating profit will likely to take a 2.5 percent hit from strike-related losses.” (Hyundai's largest-ever labor strike to weigh on South Korean economy by Nyshka Chandran, CNBC, 28 September 2016)

Given that, together with its sister Kia Motors, Hyundai accounts for 12 percent of Korea's manufacturing industry and 14 percent of total exports, it is no mystery that the government is getting jumpy. But banning strikes and brutalising protesters will only invite bolder resistance to repression. Imperialism picks up a rock, only to drop it on its own feet.

Two reports, one solution

Meanwhile, back here in Britain, two reports throw new light on the condition of the working class.

The first, from the Living Wage Commission, warns that the national ‘living wage’ of £7.20 an hour for over-25s does not keep pace with slow wage growth, rent hikes, petrol prices and heating bills. The report concludes that this so-called ‘living wage’ fails to cover even the most basic needs. (See National living wage 'failing to provide basic needs for lowest paid' by Phillip Inman, The Guardian, 21 September 2016)

The second, from Oxfam, draws on data from Credit Suisse to demonstrate that the wealthiest 10 percent of the UK population own 54 percent of the country's total wealth, whilst the poorest 20 percent own a mere 0.8 percent. More starkly still, the richest 1 percent (about 634,000 people) own 23 percent of the total wealth, more than 20 times the combined wealth of the poorest 20 percent (roughly 13 million)! (See Soaring inequality in UK ‘contributed to Brexit’, Oxfam says by David Hughes, Independent, 12 September 2016)

These two reports are naturally the occasion for much well-meaning handwringing and patent remedies from the two commissioning charities. Suffice it to recall the advice of JV Stalin: “Either place yourself at the mercy of capital, eke out a wretched existence and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon – this is the alternative imperialism puts before the vast masses of the proletariat. Imperialism brings the working class to revolution.” ( Foundations of Leninism, 1924)
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