Gig Workers of the World Are Uniting

Gig Workers of the World Are Uniting

How do you beat companies that can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to exempt themselves from labor law? You organize.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

Deliveroo was supposed to be the biggest IPO on the London Stock Exchange in a decade. The Amazon-backed, venture capital–fueled food delivery company operates in 12 countries. Despite having never turned a profit, the company was praised by UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak as a “true British tech success story” as it sought a valuation of $12 billion.

But the sunniest of platform capitalist narratives can’t overcome a simple reality: Workers fight back. A business model based on exploitation has made Deliveroo the world’s most-protested app-based platform. Now, even investors are realizing the power of worker organizing. Amid protests by Deliveroo couriers around the world and with drivers’ UK Supreme Court victory over Uber in February, three of the UK’s largest asset managers pulled hundreds of billions out of the IPO, citing concern over Deliveroo’s labor practices. On March 31, as its riders took the streets in a work stoppage organized by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), Deliveroo’s ballyhooed offering collapsed, falling 31 percent in its first minutes of trading—and continues to trade well below its initial price.

Workers face significant challenges in building collective power in an industry that depends on their atomization. How do you bargain for more when your boss is an app, you’re paid by an algorithm, and you haven’t met your coworkers? How do you beat companies that can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to exempt themselves from labor law—as Uber and its Silicon Valley allies did by passing Prop 22 last November? Despite the obstacles, gig workers across the world are beginning to answer these questions. As the platform companies push back against organizing efforts, workers are finding each other and developing a transnational network of resistance over forums, groupchats, and video calls.

The protest against Deliveroo’s listing echoes another milestone two years ago, when rideshare workers orchestrated a worldwide strike that helped turn Uber’s IPO into a historic flop. Nicole Moore, a driver in Los Angeles who helped organize the work stoppage, told me how activists in different countries coordinated online, studying financial news together to anticipate the stock announcement ahead of time. The result—a walkout across 25 cities in six continents that grabbed headlines two days before Uber’s listing—was a breakthrough moment, said Moore. “At that point, the global conversation about these companies was, ‘These innovators, should we invest in them?’ And we put drivers’ voices on the big screen to say there’s nothing innovative about paying people no money, to outsource your fleet costs to people making less than minimum wage. And that this was a worldwide problem.”

The friendships forged during that protest led to a convening in the United Kingdom in early 2020, when gig workers from over two dozen countries met in person to form the International Alliance of App-based Transport Workers (IAATW), laying forth a charter that declared a “broad, global alliance” against app-based transportation companies that are “destroying labor standards across the world.” The IAATW now serves as a hub for workers to coordinate action around shared issues, most crucially their misclassification as “independent contractors” with no recourse against poverty wages, safety violations, and robo-firings. It’s also a way to maintain unity against the multinationals’ habit of abandoning markets where workers win labor protections, only to bring their practices elsewhere.

Jennifer Scott experienced this firsthand as a bicycle delivery worker in Toronto, and a member of Foodsters United, a group of worker-activists formed in 2019 to organize against the delivery platform Foodora. In 2020, the couriers won recognition from Ontario’s Labor Board as “dependent contractors” (a hybrid employment category in Canada with some employee rights, including the right to collectively bargain), and then voted to join the Canada Union of Postal Workers, becoming the first certified union of app-based workers in Canada. But then came the bad news: Foodora would withdraw all operations from Canada. “It was emotionally devastating,” Scott tells me. “Like wow, we had a win and then we have no jobs.”

The Foodsters continued to meet, initially to process their grief, but soon realizing they needed to expand their fight. Canada’s labor laws are decided by province, and rulings in Ontario would not stop the gig companies from exploiting workers elsewhere. In February, Scott and fellow workers relaunched as Gig Workers United, with ambitions to build solidarity beyond provincial boundaries. In March, I attended a webinar they organized, which brought together workers and activists from as far away as Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia. One courier called in from behind the wheel of his parked car. In the two-hour meeting, workers traded news from their home countries: court victories, collective bargaining agreements, and the platforms’ next moves. For Scott, exchanges like these are a vital source of morale: “If you are very tired, and can’t quite do all the things you’d like to do this month, maybe that doesn’t feel like so much of a loss when you know that the folks in five other countries and 15 other cities met all of their big goals.”

The speakers included Ruwan Subasinghe, the Montreal-based legal director of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a more than century-old organization that supports unions worldwide, which in recent years has thrown its weight behind newer formations like Gig Workers United and Britain’s IWGB. Subasinghe said he believes the fight against platform companies has arrived at a turning point as traditional unions have increasingly embraced app-based workers (though some unions have also struck deals with the platform companies). Unions now understand that platform-style exploitation “could easily be replicated in other sectors,” he told me. “So it is really worth everyone’s while to be organizing gig workers and dealing with this sector as any other.”

One of those workers is Debbie Berendsen, a Dutch courier now on the front lines of the global fight against the gig platforms. Berendsen started for Deliveroo in 2018, earning reasonable pay delivering food in the small town of Arnhem, where there were only about a dozen couriers who would schedule and trade shifts. “We saw each other as coworkers. We always had enough work,” she told me. But last year Deliveroo replaced their shifts with a “free login” system, which allowed anyone to sign up and accept orders any time, flooding Berendsen’s town with new workers. “In a few days time, we lost all our income.” She sued Deliveroo with the help of FNV Union—a Dutch ITF affiliate—arguing the company should have classified her as an employee. When the Dutch Court of Appeals ruled in her favor in February, her phone lit up with congratulations from other gig workers around the world.

Deliveroo is appealing the case to the Dutch Supreme Court, in a case that could have major implications for the app-based labor model in the country where Uber’s rest-of-world operations are headquartered. A win in the Netherlands would affirm recent major worker wins in Europe: In February, the UK Supreme Court declared Uber drivers as workers, not independent contractors. Days later, prosecutors in Italy ordered food delivery companies to hire more than 60,000 workers and pay a fine worth nearly $900 million for violating their labor rights. That was followed in March with a groundbreaking new law in Spain that will compel platform companies to reveal the algorithms they use to manage workers. These tailwinds have helped European workers negotiate crucial collective bargaining agreements with delivery companies, including Uber competitor Just Eat.

North American activists hope to channel the momentum. Nicole Moore, the IAATW member, said progressive change in other countries should compel the United States to follow suit. “I can say right now, you know, courts around the world find that the way Uber and Lyft do their work, that we are employees under almost any law. So the fact that I know that as a driver in Los Angeles is extremely powerful.” There are good signs: In May, the US Department of Labor reversed Trump-era guidance that would have made it easier for companies to classify gig workers as independent contractors. That followed remarks from Labor Secretary Marty Walsh that many gig workers should be classified as employees—signaling a larger shift may be in the works.

But the gig companies are racing to preempt change. They’re reportedly nearing a deal with New York lawmakers for a bill that would let them continue classifying workers as independent contractors, and exempt them from minimum-wage laws. Up north, Uber has unveiled the Canadian version of Prop 22, which it calls Flexible Work+: a campaign to write its exploitative business model into laws nationwide. Leading the resistance will be gig workers, coordinating across borders through groups like the IAATW and ITF, in rapidly deepening solidarity. “A worker in California is intimately connected to the Uber driver in Kenya, to the driver in India or Malaysia,” Moore told me. “We all are suffering for a San Francisco billionaire’s $40 million home.”

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.

Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy
x