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Gig economy workers’ strike enters third week

COURIERS who work as "self-employed" in Sheffield with Stuart Delivery, subcontractors for Just Eats, went on indefinite strike on 6 December. This followed the imposition of a new pay structure which its workers say represents a 24 per cent cut in their pay for most deliveries.

The couriers, organised into the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union, are seeking a minimum £6 per delivery. They are also seeking higher rates for longer distances and paid waiting time. Currently they receive nothing for waiting: they want to be paid for waits over 10 minutes. As of 24 December they were in their third week of the strike, making it what we believe to be the longest continuous gig-economy strike in UK history.

Courier Bryan Atkinson-Wilcock told Sheffield's The Star newspaper just before that strike that "once you take out the rising price of fuel, insurance, vehicle maintenance, and tax, we're making far below minimum wage." He added that his work - six to seven days a week, eight to 12 hours a day - has "obliterated" his savings. And he's "on my third car since I started working with Stuart because I’m doing 50 miles a day and the wear and tear costs take a considerable amount of my earnings".

Still on strike as of 24 December, the couriers are on picket lines outside six Sheffield branches of McDonald's between 5pm and 10pm each evening. McDonald's accounts for the bulk of Just Eat deliveries by Stuart Deliveries in the city, according to the strikers.

According to the strike website, by the second week it had spread to Chesterfield, Huddersfield, Blackpool, Sunderland and beyond. Students across the UK have reportedly held sit-ins in support of the striking Stuart Delivery couriers. The strike hardship fund had reached over £13,000 by 26 December.

Parirs Dixon is the 24-year-old president of the Sheffield IWGB couriers branch. He told Novara Media that he works 70 hours a week driving round Sheffield, he estimates the new pay rates bring down his net earnings by £700-800 a month, taking him and his colleagues below the national minimum wage.

The Big Issue reports that orders at Sheffield branches of McDonald's awaiting delivery have been "piling up", with some outlets stopping deliveries altogether.

See here for our report of a recent court case involving Stuart Delivery, in which it was ruled that some of its moped couriers were "workers" in law and not "self-employed".

Opaque gig economy data

Meanwhile, the non-profit Worker Info Exchange (WIE) has been active helping gig economy workers whose work is directed by apps to gain access to their data. The "opaque algorithmic management" that drives the apps that offer delivery jobs (or not) to riders and drivers has been known to shut them out of the system for arbitrary reasons.

The legally-required explanations about how these algorithms work are often "incomplete, inconsistent and unreliable" says WIE. Some couriers have lost work because of dubious predictive tools built into the app that are used to predict "fraudulent behaviour" by workers.

WIE has helped couriers to get access to data collected on them via apps and held by the companies engaging them. It has put in over 500 Subject Access Requests on their behalf, using the Data Protection Act.

In April 2021 a court in Amsterdam ordered Uber BV Nederland to reinstate and compensate five UK drivers and one Dutch driver who were sacked by "algorithmic means". (Uber in the UK is a subsidiary of Uber BV based in the Netherlands, which owns the technology that drives the apps of Uber in the UK).

The case was brought under the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) by the App Drivers and Couriers Union, supported by WIE. The judgment stated that the decisions to terminate the "agreement" between Uber in the UK and its drivers were "based solely on automated processing." and annulled those decisions.

In a separate case at around the same time, the City of London Magistrates Court ordered Transport for London to reinstate the licence of an Uber driver. The company had "routinely" notified Transport for London, tasked with regulating hire cars, that it had terminated its agreement with the driver.

The WIE report Managed by Bots – Data-driven exploitation in the gig economy is well worth a read. While control of freelance writers and journalists via apps doesn't seem to be much of a phenomenon yet, we need to keep watch.

Corporate surveillance of "output" by creatives working from home where they would previously be working in an office seems to be becoming a thing. Such sustems can measure keystrokes, emails sent, time spent logged into particular apps, time on the phone, number of calls logged, "engagement" by readers and other performance criteria. Any victory, however small, by the legions of "bogus self-employed" in the gig economy is likely to have knock-on beneficial effects on the working conditions of us genuine self-employed freelances.

EU to tighten employment status law

Draft EU legislation published by the European Commission in December would place new requirements on those engaging workers in the gig economy. It would put the burden of proving the employment status of those workers - whether they are genuinely self-employed - on those who engage them, rather than on individual workers. The proposals will now go through debage in the EU Council of Ministers and in the European Parliament.

While any new EU laws would no longer applies in the UK post-Brexit, Tim Sharp of the Trades Union Congress told the Guardian that "if the European Union is seen to be taking a robust approach on platform operators, I think there will be more pressure on the government here to take measures to protect vulnerable workers.". This is especially true if - as in the example above - the app that controls the work of gig economy workers in the UK turns out to be owned by a holding company based in the EU. The GDPR is still in force in the UK.