Deliveroo riders in North London push to unionize

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A group of Deliveroo riders in North London is pushing for improved pay and conditions by taking legal steps to obtain union recognition. To achieve that they will need a tribunal to judge at least some of them to be workers, rather than self-employed contractors as Deliveroo describes them.

It’s the latest development in what is lining up to be a huge tug-of-war in the UK between self-employed contractors in the so-called ‘gig economy’ and the tech platform giants that control how they work.

The BBC reports that the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which has been acting on behalf of the Deliveroo riders, has sent a letter to Deliveroo asking for recognition to bargain on behalf of the riders.

The IWGB is holding a public meeting in North London this evening to solicit wider support for the Deliveroo campaign, and is also crowdfunding to support all its work on behalf of low paid migrant workers — and “those precariously employed” in the gig economy, as it puts it.

The push for collective bargaining and union recognition follows a protest this summer by the group of Deliveroo riders angry at proposed changes to the company’s payment model. Deliveroo is currently trailing a switch from pay-per-hour to pay-per-delivery, and the riders argued this risked them working for below minimum wage during quieter times of day.

Facing increasingly noisy protests, which even caught the attention of the UK government, Deliveroo said in August it would not force riders onto the trial — offering them the chance to stay on the old payment model so long as they moved to a neighboring delivery area.

The IWGB union represented the Deliveroo riders in negotiations and helped to organize a crowdfunding campaign for a strike fund to cover riders for loss of income during their protest. But the latest move aims to put the union’s representation on a formal footing — if it can gain legal recognition to act on behalf of the Deliveroo riders. Although that’s a big if, judging by one employment lawyer we spoke to (see his comments below).

Regardless, the PR push to demand better pay and conditions for contractors on tech platforms is well timed, given Uber recently lost an employment tribunal in the UK. In that instance a group of Uber drivers successfully argued they should be classified as workers, given how their work is controlled by the tech platform — meaning Uber will need to pay holiday pay, provide paid rest breaks and comply with the National Minimum Wage. (Although Uber has said it will appeal the judgement, which also only applies to the group of drivers in question.)

The wider point here is how much attention is being drawn to the ways tech platforms intersect with employment law. In October the UK government announced it was looking at whether to extend rights of gig economy workers — with its review set to consider job security, pay, training and workers’ representation, and the Prime Minister saying she wants to be “certain that employment regulation and practices are keeping pace with the changing world of work”.

Last month a UK parliamentary committee also announced a review of workers rights, noting “growing questions around the status of those working in the ‘on-demand’ economy, for businesses such as Uber and Deliveroo”.

Among the issues the committee will consider is whether the term ‘worker’ is defined sufficiently clear in UK law at present; the status and rights of ‘gig economy’ workers specifically; and whether there is an appropriate balance of benefits between such workers and the companies in question.

A Deliveroo spokesperson declined to answer direct questions about the North London riders’ push for union recognition, sending TechCrunch the following statement instead:

As Deliveroo continues to grow, we are committed to providing great opportunities for UK riders, with the flexible work riders value, and a payment model which is fair, rewarding and better matches riders’ time with our customers’ orders. We have been in close and regular contact with our riders throughout the trial and as you would expect we will be writing directly to our riders to inform them of the next steps as the trial comes to an end. The feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive and we welcome the opportunity to further engage with riders, policymakers and the unions as the sharing economy in Britain continues to grow.

As the statement notes, Deliveroo’s trial of pay-per-delivery model is due to conclude shortly — after which it has previously said it will assess the results and make a decision on next steps. It remains to be seen whether it will feel confident enough to push forward.

But if it does, it risks bolstering support for the protest group now organizing to try to unionize. Although Deliveroo claims the new payment model has proved popular with a majority of the riders who have been trialling it.

Discussing the Deliveroo riders’ push to unionize in an interview with TechCrunch, Sean Nesbitt, head of Employment, Pensions & Mobility at law firm Taylor Wessing, said the bar is “very high” for obtaining union recognition — more so after a change in UK law this year.

“There are four levels of threshold they have to go through,” he explained. “A) are there workers, B) are there at least 21 workers in the period prior to the request, C) are 10 per cent of them union members, D) in a ballot, do the majority of people voting want to be members and is that not less than 40 per cent overall.

“It’s actually a five level test,” he continued. “That’s partly pursuant to changes to the law on [union] recognition that were enacted earlier this year. And I’m not aware that there has been a recognition case or challenge since the new laws came in. So this is not just a test of industrial processes and bargaining in the gig or online economy it’s also, I think probably, the first test in any part of the economy of the new laws on collective recognition.

“It is very difficult to pass the test if the business does not want to recognize a union — and it has got harder still through legislation that’s been implemented this year. From where I sit right now I think that IWGB will have to work very hard to harness the power of social media and whatever wave of public interest there is — particularly in London — around the issues, the equation between opportunities and rights, cost and service.”

“They’ll have to work hard to maintain momentum to win in this, because it’s a long term process if Deliveroo decide to dig in their heels,” he added.

Despite the myriad obstacles to unionizing, Nesbitt said the case will inevitably draw more attention to the “fairness and due process” arguments being made by the IWGB and others for better rights for gig economy workers. So even if they do not gain recognition they will raise the profile of their wider narrative around gig economy pay and conditions.

There may be a strong argument in favor of the government… setting the rules clearly and transparently and in a pro-active way.

“They’re still putting it in the public eye for consideration by the government, by Matthew Taylor in his report, by the BEIS committee, as to what’s the right balance between rights and consumer service, access to market and fairness; what’s the right balance?” he told TechCrunch. “This is an interesting and, I think, very effective way of maintaining that debate.”

Nesbitt said the Uber tribunal ruling is clearly a boost to the Deliveroo riders’ cause.

“I imagine a union may say, well, if Uber drivers who tend to be majority male, majority in their mid-twenties upwards, people who can afford to buy or rent a car, have social protections and social rights, they may say we want the government to consider — and the public to consider — the position of younger, less monetized workers, with less capital. Is it right that one set that already has certain economic standing, has got more privileges and more protection than younger less protected people that are riding bikes, sometimes without helmets, around London’s streets?”

In the meanwhile, he noted there are a raft of other pending gig economy courier hearings set to take place before — and thus feed into — a Deliveroo rider tribunal.

He expects the latter won’t take place before next spring or summer, as the group will need time to gather the necessary evidence to support their arguments.

And while it’s not clear which way the UK government will jump on gig economy workers’ rights in future, Nesbitt noted the issue is one that has been specifically highlighted by Prime Minister Theresa May as a priority.

He also suggested resolving investor uncertainty over the digital economy is also likely to be important for the government — not least for a Brexit Britain grappling with all sorts of unanswered questions for businesses — providing added impetus for it to be pro-active in setting clear rules for gig economy workers.

“For all those who want to invest in collaborative economy, in new business models, digital business, and which the government has got as a core plank of its likely growth policies for the next five years, there’s a period of prolonged uncertainty. And because each case is decided on its facts we’re going to have a period of significant uncertainty while enough cases are built up to create a sense of perspective and generality from which people can then work — and there may be a strong argument in favor of the government deciding that they can take in feedback and information from various communities and setting the rules clearly and transparently and in a pro-active way, there may be strong arguments in favor of that instead of a period of uncertainty.”

“The tech angle is a new angle, and the Uber lens and the Deliveroo lens are very important magnifying lenses for the debate between consumer access and worker rights. But the discussion about at whose cost and what does it do for the exchequer and the payment of tax is a discussion that’s happened over the last one hundred years or more,” he added.