On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
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On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
manager called each of the drivers regularly,
Kalanick said, “to get their feedback and make sure
things were working well.”
Nowadays, Uber has far more than a handful of
drivers-it has more than 400,000 in the United
States alone, and many drivers complain that
Uber’s managers no longer listen to them to make
sure things are working well. “They do whatever
they want,” said Bigu Haider, an Uber driver in
New York who is furious at Uber over fare cuts and
other moves that have reduced his income. “I don’t
see any voice for the drivers.”
Home / Working in America /
On Demand, and
Demanding Their
Such heartfelt complaints are heard across much
of the digital on-demand economy, whether at
Mechanical Turk, TaskRabbit, Lyft, or Instacart.
The internet is crackling with gig workers’
complaints about sub-minimum wages, 12-hour
workdays, and companies that stiff them on pay.
Gig workers in the Uber economy are organizing to win more say
Within these tales of woe is a frequent refrain: that
over their jobs—and writing a new chapter in American labor
gig workers are not listened to, that they have little
or no voice or leverage on the job.
Considering the nature of the platform-based
economy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that so many
workers feel they have so little voice. The
companies are often remote, and many workers
rarely, if ever, communicate with managers.
Instead, they typically deal with apps and
algorithms, which don’t exactly encourage
This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The
American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
dialogue-or ask about workers’ concerns. App-
based workers are often isolated from each other
and dispersed. Mechanical Turk workers toil at
Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder, recently recalled
that when he first started the company seven years
ago, “it was easy to communicate with the handful
home, transcribing audio, typing in details of
receipts, or inspecting YouTube videos for
of drivers using the app.” Uber’s marketing
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profanity. TaskRabbit workers do plumbing or
carpentry at this house or that one, and Uber and
are considered independent contractors. Workers
for Mechanical Turk-which giant online retailer
numerous online forums to share advice with each
other and warn about requesters who cheat them
Lyft drivers are in their cars, ferrying passengers
Amazon developed and owns-have created
Despite the atomization of this workforce, there
are stirrings from below among the app-based,
by refusing to pay them for their work. Helped by
several researchers at Stanford, Mechanical Turk
workers have also set up a thriving forum, called
crowdsourced, microtasking masses. As has so
often happened across history when workers feel
underpaid and unheeded, the toilers of the on-
Dynamo, a virtual union hall where workers
brainstorm strategies to press for better pay and
demand economy are stepping up and taking
steps-some tentative, some innovative, and a few
ingenious-to be heard and heeded. To these
“There is enormous creativity and dynamism going
workers, myriad problems cry out for fixing: pay
that is often below minimum wage; managers who
on-a multiplicity of approaches,” says Wilma
Liebman, former chair of the National Labor
systematically ignore their concerns; being
Relations Board. “To me, it’s just inspiring-there’s
misclassified as independent contractors, and
being fired, blocked, or deactivated by platforms
all this energy, all this thinking, all this
commitment. There’s all this experimentation at
with little notice or justification.
the local level.”
Many gig workers are seeking
“None of these groups yet have the power unions
to lift their voices by banding
together. At Upwork, a
platform that connects
freelancers with projects,
workers have showered the
once had in collective bargaining,” Liebman adds.
“But they’re working on it.”

company with complaints
In many ways, digital ondemand workers face far
more obstacles to
that its stated minimum pay of $3 an hour is
inexcusably low. (Like most platform-based
organizing and being heard
companies, Upwork insists that its workers are
than workers in the
independent contractors, a group not covered by
minimum-wage and overtime laws.) To Uber’s
traditional economy.
dismay, its drivers in Seattle have formed an
association that they hope-thanks to an innovative
Isolated as so many of them are, on-demand
workers rarely meet face to face, and online
Seattle law-will evolve into a formal union that
does collective bargaining, even when the workers
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forums are a second-best substitute for building
trust and solidarity. Sometimes when these
(which picks up, packages, and sends things), and
Hello Alfred (a butler-like service that helps with
them-and even kick potential troublemakers off
their platforms. Moreover, since on-demand
their workers as W-2 employees.
workers communicate online, companies spy on
shopping, cleaning, and laundry) treat most of
Seth Harris, a former deputy secretary of labor,
notes that some on-demand workers already have
workers are frequently considered independent
contractors, they aren’t protected by federal labor
laws that prohibit companies from retaliating
plenty of voice and bargaining power. For instance,
the chefs on the platform Homemade-far different
from Uber drivers or Mechanical Turk workers-
against employees who join together to improve
have the power to determine the prices of their
Notwithstanding such obstacles, “workers are
finding ways to move their voices,” says Leonard
meals and what dishes to offer.
Larry Mishel, president of the
Economic Policy Institute, a
Smith, a Teamster organizer in Seattle, where the
Uber drivers have arguably done more to organize
liberal think tank, estimates
that there are 600,000
than any other platform-based workers in the
country. “Whether this leads to more union
organizing in the traditional or nontraditional
workers in the nation’s digital
on-demand economy, but some gig economy
experts, like Sara Horowitz, founder of the
economy, I don’t think we know yet. It really
depends on the ability of the labor movement to
adapt to the workers of today, rather than have
300,000-member Freelancers Union, say there are
millions of such workers. Defining who exactly is
an on-demand worker can be difficult. Nearly
workers adapt to the labor movement.”
Inasmuch as digital on-demand companies come
eight million caregivers have registered on
in different shapes and sizes and use workers in
different ways, workers in those companies may
Care.com, but should they be considered workers
in the digital on-demand economy? Mechanical
need to embrace different strategies. TaskRabbit
Turk boasts that it has more than 500,000 workers
and Care.com, which provides home-care aides,
nannies, and housekeepers, are online exchanges
worldwide to draw from to do a range of tasks, but
an International Labour Organization study
that match workers with customers. Uber and Lyft
estimated that it has a stable workforce of just
serve as exchanges, too, but also play a powerful
role in managing, hiring, and firing drivers.
Whatever the number, the on-demand economy is
growing so fast and has stirred such vast interest
Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower are digital
marketplaces that sell crowdsourced labor online.
from investors, the public, and the news media
And a few on-demand companies, like Instacart
that how this innovative sector treats-and
(whose workers buy and deliver groceries), Shyp
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mistreats-its workers has become a major issue.
Indeed, how gig workers respond to these
use it.”
To deal with this wage theft, many Turkers
contribute to Turkopticon, a browser plug-in that
challenges and how they exert collective power are
shaping up as an important new chapter in the
nation’s labor history.
rates Mechanical Turk requesters. Companies that
BACK IN 2007, ROCHELLE LaPlante was a full-
repeatedly reject Turkers’ work for no good reason
without paying get a red light, while those who pay
suggestion, she began supplementing her income
by working part-time for Mechanical Turk doing
Turkers’ work get a green light. Two researchers,
Lilly Irani and Six Silberman, set up Turkopticon
time social worker in Seattle, and at a friend’s
well, give clear instructions, and readily accept
HITs (“human intelligence tasks”). LaPlante has
in 2008 to give these “invisible” workers a tool
since moved to Los Angeles and now often spends
30 hours a week “turking”-she transcribes audio,
against requesters who cheat.
“Our first goal was to give workers an ability to
help each other: mutual aid,” says Irani, a
scans bar codes to tell companies what products
match them, and watches YouTube videos to see
professor of communications at the University of
California, San Diego. “But that isn’t the same as
whether they’re appropriate for children. Many
HITs pay just 3, 5, or 10 cents each, and sometimes
LaPlante can do 100, even 200 of them, in an hour.
voice. It doesn’t mean Amazon will listen to them.
But it means requesters could be pushed to listen.”
“There are days the pay is amazing, and some days
Many Turkers voice frustration that Amazon,
which owns Mechanical Turk, refuses to intervene
it’s awful,” she says. A study by Janine Berg, a
senior economist at the International Labour
Organization (ILO), found that median pay for
when a requester rejects their work and refuses to
pay without justification. The Amazon
“participation agreement” that Turkers must sign
Turkers in the United States is $4.65 an hour,
although LaPlante says her average is “ten-ish.”
to work says Amazon is “not involved in the
Among Turkers, one of the most common
complaints is requesters who refuse to pay.
transactions between Requesters and Providers”
and is “not responsible for the actions of any
Sometimes requesters legitimately conclude that
Requester or Provider.” Moreover, the agreement
Turkers’ work on a HIT was not up to snuff.
Sometimes they simply cheat workers.
states, “As a Provider you are performing Services
for a Requester in your personal capacity as an
independent contractor and not as an employee of
“That happens all the time. That happens daily,”
the Requester.”
LaPlante said. “There are definitely cases where it’s
done on purpose. They reject because they don’t
Irani has seen an evolution of Turkers’ views.
want to pay, and they take the completed work and
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“When we first began Turkopticon, the reaction
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workers had was, ‘We don’t want to be in a labor
union. Is this going to turn into a union thing?'”
“I try to do between $12 and $15 an hour.
Sometimes I far exceed that and sometimes I’m
was not founded with formal unionization in
mind.) “But over the years, it seems workers have
old and 5-year-old. “My husband has a job.
Without that, there is no way we could live in L.A.
Irani says. (Turkopticon is not a labor union and
well below,” says LaPlante, the mother of a 7-year-
become more open to how unions can help them.
on what I make turking.”
They see how recalcitrant Amazon has been on
making changes.”
The ILO study found that Turkers’ median pay in
Miriam Cherry, a labor law professor at St. Louis
India is $1.65 an hour, compared with $4.65 in the
U.S., where the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an
crowdsourcing, says it was unfair that platforms
like Mechanical Turk (which are eager to attract as
their average age is 35, while 38 percent of
American Turkers said Mechanical Turk was their
University who has written extensively on
hour. According to the ILO’s survey of 814 Turkers,
many requesters as they can to maximize their
commissions) turn a blind eye to workers’
main source of income. Turkers and Crowdflower
workers (also included in the survey) said they
concerns by refusing to do anything about
average 28.4 hours of work per week-21.8 hours of
complaints that requesters are cheating them. “The
platforms unanimously let people reject your work
paid work and 6.6 hours of unpaid work, searching
for HITs and doing preparatory work.
and not pay you,” Cherry says.

Eleven percent of U.S. Turkers have postgraduate
degrees, 34 percent have a bachelor’s, and 37
“In the real world, if
percent have some college, with a significant
percentage of them pursuing a bachelor’s degree.
someone is doing a bad job,
The survey found that only 10 percent of American
you can fire them, but you
Turkers earn more than $10 an hour-around what
LaPlante says she averages.
still have to pay for the
previous week’s work.”
“Most Turkers are very educated and they choose
to do this,” LaPlante says. “They have three
LaPlante and other Turkers use not only
Turkopticon, but also online forums like Mturk
children at home or are caring for a parent at
home or they have a disability, and it’s hard to get
Crowd and Turkernation to recommend lucrative
new HITs, to warn against bad requesters, and to
out of the house. It’s not just people who sit
solitary in their basement. I know someone who is
an attorney who does it in the evening.”
share tips on how to “turk” more efficiently. Some
forum members text their forum buddies as soon
as especially good HITs are posted.
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LaPlante, who has a degree in
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human services from
Western Washington
University, helps run two
forums for fellow Turkers,
which lifts her mood and her
On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
grown worried that even industrial giants Daimler
and Bosch have turned to crowdsourcing for help
on several elaborate design projects. In April, IG
Metall brought together organizers and academics
from around the world for a conference in
earnings. “The forums provide a lot of socialization
Frankfurt to discuss whether crowdsourcing might
for people,” she says. “Without the forums, people
would be completely lost, they wouldn’t know
undercut high-road employers and unionized
workers and what, if anything, should be done
what to do, where to start. It’s just totally jumping
about it.
into the deep end of the pool. Forums help
workers, especially those who are new and don’t
In the ILO’s study, one Turker told of a requester
who had blocked her “after I sent him an email
suggesting politely that he could pay a tiny bit
know what to do.”
When a new requester begins posting numerous
HITs, LaPlante and other forum members often
more for the work he was asking people to do.”
(Requesters can block Turkers they’re unhappy
send messages to that requester, recommending
with from working on their HITs.) The Turker said
how to make instructions clearer or perhaps
protesting that the proposed pay is too low. When a
the requester “was very condescending and rude”
and wrote that blocking her was aimed at putting
new requester rejects their recommendations, they
her overall Mechanical Turk account in jeopardy.
sometimes push to get hundreds of Turkers to
shun that requester’s HITs. All this sometimes
“This is unreal,” the blocked Turker said. “I
reported it to Amazon, but they have done
results in getting better instructions and
sometimes even higher pay.

These forums provide some worker voice, but their
power is limited, partly because it’s hard to herd
Turkers, who are invisible to each other and
With more than 500 Turker
members, the Dynamo
forum, with its concept of a
dispersed around the nation-and world. Janice
Bellace, a professor at the Wharton School of
virtual union hall, is
Business, calls Mechanical Turk’s microtasking
seeking to exert far more
“post-industrial homework”-similar to the
underpaid piecework that garment workers did at
collective pressure on
home a century ago on New York’s Lower East Side.
Amazon than other
Crowdsourcing can involve highly skilled work.
Germany’s biggest labor union, IG Metall, has
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Dynamo’s website proclaims, “Turkers are human
beings, not algorithms,” and displays a letter to
done almost automatically and super-cheap, and
they realize, ‘Oh my God, these are human beings.
not only actual human beings, but people who
deserve respect, fair treatment and open
realization, Milland says, some requesters have
agreed to pay more for their HITs, but there’s a long
Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, saying, “Turkers are
I’m paying them like slave labor.'” Thanks to this
way to go.
Much like union members, Dynamo’s members
WHILE TURKERS HAVE TAKEN to their computer
researchers who use Mechanical Turk to adopt a
make their voices heard. Indeed, within the digital
debate and decide on what issues and campaigns
to pursue. One campaign has pressed academic
keyboards to win better conditions, Uber drivers
have taken to the streets-and done much else to
code of ethics; academics often turn to the
platform to find people to complete surveys and
on-demand economy, Uber drivers have led the
way in uniting and fighting. In New York,
tests. And when many Turkers in India were
complaining that Amazon paid them by check-
hundreds of Uber drivers went on a one-day strike
in February to protest fare cuts, while drivers in
which often took several weeks to arrive, that is, if
Tampa clocked out for one or two peak hours a
the check didn’t get lost in the mail-a Dynamo
campaign persuaded Amazon to start paying
week in protest. Drivers have filed ambitious class
actions asserting that Uber has unlawfully
Turkers in India through direct deposit. On the
classified them as independent contractors to save
Dynamo website in early June, nearly 50 Turkers
were calling for a campaign to pressure Amazon to
money. And drivers, helped by the Teamsters and
other unions, persuaded the Seattle City Council to
reduce its commissions-which generally run from
pass a landmark unionization law for app-based
20 percent to 40 percent-of what requesters pay.

“Dynamo allows us a place to work together and
beat around ideas of what to do,” says Kristy
Milland, a longtime Turker in Toronto. “Do we
submit crappy data to a company that’s abusive to
Turkers to teach it a lesson? Or do we assemble
There is so much energy
and activity in organizing
Uber drivers that at times
things have degenerated
into a turf war
people at Amazon headquarters in Seattle to
Milland agrees with Rochelle LaPlante that when
online forums communicate directly with-and
, most notably in New York City, where three
powerful unions have clashed in their efforts to
represent the city’s 35,000 Uber drivers.
pressure-requesters, that can pay off, at least a
little. “Requesters,” Milland says, “can get work
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Harry Campbell, an Uber driver who has a popular
blog, The RideShare Guy, says drivers are pushing
better. In a class-action
lawsuit, drivers in California
“partners”-has long ignored their pleas. Many
drivers are at first exhilarated with being able to
employees, thereby compelling Uber to make
Social Security contributions on their behalf and
to be heard because Uber-which calls its drivers
sought to be declared
set their own hours, Campbell says, adding that
pay for such “employee” expenses as insurance,
they initially buy into Uber’s rhetoric that they’re
their own boss. But then the drivers start seeing
gasoline, and car maintenance (as California law
requires for employees). In New York, the
the downsides-having to pay for insurance,
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
gasoline, and automobile maintenance; not getting
any retirement or health plan through their job;
got several hundred Uber drivers at LaGuardia
Airport to sign pro-union cards last February and
having to drive 50 or more hours a week to support
their families. Their problems were compounded
then asked the National Labor Relations Board to
hold a unionization vote so it could represent some
when Uber ordered wave upon wave of fare cuts
600 drivers. But the Machinists’ union, which has
across the U.S.
long sought to unionize New York’s limousine
drivers, protested that it should have jurisdiction
“That’s where you lose that feeling of being your
own boss. If you were your own boss, you probably
over the Uber drivers. And the Taxi Workers
Alliance, a powerful taxi drivers union with 19,000
members, including 5,000 Uber drivers, also
wouldn’t give yourself a 30 percent pay cut,” says
Campbell, a former aerospace engineer. “Not only
are they cutting rates, but they’re telling drivers,
claimed jurisdiction.
‘This is going to be good for you [by bringing you
With all this commotion, there has been a wave of
and conditions.
more passengers].’ I haven’t spoken to a single
driver who says, ‘I’m making more after the rate
important developments in recent weeks in
connection with Uber drivers’ battle for better pay
“This is where the drivers’ voice gets drowned out,”
• On March 4, the United States Chamber of
ignores you.”
city’s Uber and Lyft drivers the right to unionize
Campbell continues. “Obviously drivers complain
about rate cuts. Uber doesn’t listen. It basically
Commerce filed a federal lawsuit against the City
of Seattle in an effort to overturn the law giving the
even though they are independent contractors.
Many labor advocates have praised the Seattle law,
Anger about the fare cuts and
the low pay has fueled a
multiplicity of efforts to find
ways to get Uber to pay
drivers more and treat them
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enacted last December, as a pioneering approach to
unionizing app-based drivers. The Chamber’s
lawsuit asserts that if independent-contractor
drivers band together to bargain on fares and other
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matters, that would violate antitrust laws as a
conspiracy in restraint of trade. The law’s backers
financial assistance from the company.

argue that the drivers’ union would enjoy a state
immunity exemption to antitrust laws because the
city council took official government action to
In announcing the
settlement, Uber’s Kalanick
acknowledged, “We haven’t
make the Uber drivers’ union possible. (The
National Labor Relations Act excludes
independent contractors from the federal right to
always done a good job
working with drivers.”
bargain collectively, just as it excludes public
employees and farmworkers. Seeing that many
states and cities have given public employees
More than 150 California drivers have asked the
such rights for independent contractors, too.)
the attorney representing the plaintiff drivers
collective-bargaining rights, the Seattle City
Council concluded that it had the power to create
judge to vacate the settlement, however, arguing
that it awards too little money to drivers and that
shouldn’t have surrendered on the independentcontractor-versus-employee question.
• On April 21, Uber announced a far-reaching
settlement of class-action lawsuits brought in
California and Massachusetts over whether drivers
• On May 10, after labor leaders had persuaded the
in those states were independent contractors.
electrical workers to delay their unionization push
Under the settlement, drivers in those two states
would continue to be considered independent
in New York, Uber and Local 15 of the
International Association of Machinists
contractors and Uber would pay them up to $100
announced a five-year deal in which that union
million. In the settlement, Uber agreed for the first
time to publish a deactivation policy and give
would set up an Uber-blessed “Independent
Drivers Guild” to, in the Machinists’ words, “give
drivers a warning and reasons when they face
the 35,000 [New York] drivers using the app a
deactivation. The settlement also set up an appeals
process for drivers who feel they were wrongly
strong voice as well as new protections and
benefits.” As part of that agreement, drivers would
continue to be treated as independent contractors,
and the drivers guild would meet monthly with
Uber. Under the agreement, the guild-which
According to the April announcement, Uber also
agreed to “facilitate and recognize the formation of
a Driver Association, which will have leaders
doesn’t purport to be an official union-would not
be allowed to bargain over fares, commissions, or
elected by fellow Uber drivers, who will be able to
bring drivers’ concerns to Uber management.” The
benefits as part of any effort to get an official
contract (although the Machinists say those issues
can be discussed).
settlement calls for quarterly meetings with Uber
officials, with the associations receiving some
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Deactivated drivers in New York would also get an
appeals process, and the Machinists said drivers
(Getting a majority of the city’s 35,000 Uber drivers
to vote for a union might not be easy, considering
legal services, and education courses. The
Machinists also agreed not to seek to unionize the
would gain access to life insurance, discounted
that Uber would likely mount a fierce anti-union
“I don’t see why the Machinists should capitulate
on employee status or collective bargaining,” Desai
drivers during the agreement’s five years, unless
the NLRB rules during that time that Uber drivers
are employees and thus have a right to unionize.
says. “This is a betrayal of historic proportions for
drivers, especially because this company is the
most well-financed and politically aggressive, and
• On June 2, the Taxi Workers Alliance filed a
federal class-action lawsuit asserting that Uber has
is rewriting labor law. Why would you concede to
misclassified its drivers as independent
contractors, violated minimum-wage and
James Conigliaro Jr., a lawyer for the Machinists,
defends his union’s agreement with Uber. “We
overtime laws, and unlawfully taken surcharges
from drivers’ fares. The lawsuit says, “Uber,
believe this is the best model right now because it
achieves immediate results,” he says. “The drivers
through its practices and broken promises,
severely harmed the thousands of drivers they
recruited, and contributed greatly to a ‘race to the
get immediate support and a body that will
advocate for them. They will have a seat at the
table with Uber managers. They will have a voice at
bottom.'” Uber, which vigorously insists its drivers
are independent contractors, called the lawsuit “a
thinly veiled stunt.”
the workplace.”
Conigliaro argues that this halfway solution-a
Bhairavi Desai, the alliance’s executive director,
non-union guild-made sense because the
Machinists had encountered huge difficulties
says her group had filed the lawsuit partly out of
frustration that the Machinists had agreed that
Uber drivers could continue to be considered
unionizing black-car limousine drivers over the
past two decades because of employer opposition,
even though the union had won NLRB decisions
independent contractors.

declaring those drivers employees. And the
Desai says the Taxi Workers
Machinists would likely encounter far more
formidable opposition if it sought to unionize Uber
Alliance hopes someday to
win a union representation
Defending the Machinists’ decision to create a
guild, Congliaro adds, “We saw this as a great
election for Uber drivers in
New York.
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foot in the door in the gig economy.”
make decisions. Sachs adds that companies saying,
“‘We listen to what our employees say’ has a kind of
Liebman, the former NLRB chair, gave the deal
tentative praise. “It’s a first step,” she says. “It’s a
‘welfare capitalism’ feel to it-which history shows
we should be skeptical of.” (Under the “welfare
capitalism” of the 1920s, company-controlled
foot in the door. It gives them some access to
benefits. … They said they would have a regular
forum for dialogue with Uber and a right to
unions provided some benefits to their employeesuntil the companies abandoned those unions after
the 1929 market crash.)
represent drivers in deactivations. Those are not
insignificant matters.”
The Uber-employee model he likes most, Sachs
But Benjamin Sachs, a labor law professor at
Harvard, is more skeptical about both the drivers
says, is the Seattle ordinance because it “provides a
road to genuine collective organization and
collective voice.”
guild in New York and the drivers associations in
California and Massachusetts. “The biggest
question mark is, is this a way of avoiding and
“But I hedge about being
subverting meaningful worker voice, or is it an
onramp to meaningful worker voice?” he says.
optimistic,” he continues. “It’s
hard to unionize a dispersed
workforce, even when you
Sachs expresses concern that these driver groups
have the legal architecture to
do that. It shows how far back
could in effect become company unions. On one
hand, he notes “they can lead to something more;
that is, if you give workers a taste of what it’s like to
we’ve moved-now, when a
group of workers is declared to have unionization
rights, we celebrate that, as if it’s not insanely
be in community with one another,” they might
then push for a true union. But on the other hand,
he says if this effort “feels like it’s going to be a dead
difficult to unionize workers.”
NOTWITHSTANDING SUCH pessimism and the
end, then it will be a dead end.”
myriad obstacles, on-demand workers have racked
up some undeniable-and largely unadvertised-
If management clearly dominates and
manipulates these groups, he continues, the NLRB
might find them to be illegal company unions-but
gains, thanks to their speaking up and pressuring
companies. After some “taskers” complained that
they were earning less than the minimum wage,
to do that, the labor board would first have to
determine that the drivers are employees. Sachs
says that these groups probably wouldn’t be
Leah Busque, TaskRabbit’s then-CEO announced
in July 2014 that her company would ensure a
minimum-wage floor of $11.20 for its 30,000
considered company unions if they do next to
nothing and serve as a mere suggestion box, or if
workers. Since then, TaskRabbit has required that
they become independent of Uber and actually
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every task posted on its site pay for at least one
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On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
hour’s work and that pay average out to at least
$11.20 per hour.
aides, or livery drivers. But while there is immense
enthusiasm for this idea, such on-demand
cooperatives are in the embryonic stage in the U.S.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA),
For instance, Juno, a brand-new company seeking
to compete with Uber, says it will treat its drivers
an advocacy and organizing group for home-care
aides, housekeepers, and nannies, has created a
Good Work Code that a dozen platform-based
as employees, not independent contractors, and
holds itself out as a semi-cooperative-it’s reserving
50 percent of its equity for drivers.
companies, including CareLinx.com, DoorDash,
and Managed by Q , have adopted. Among other
things, the code calls for safe, stable, and flexible
Trebor Scholz, a professor of culture and media at
working conditions. Palak Shah, the alliance
the New School, is the foremost champion of
official overseeing that effort, is also urging
companies to embrace its “Fair Care Pledge.”
platform cooperatives and points to Stocksy, a
photographer-owned online cooperative that sells
NDWA has partnered with Care.com, a giant online
marketplace with 11 million users, to post the
stock photographs. Richard Freeman, a labor
economist at Harvard, applauds the idea of
pledge on the company’s website. As a result,
cooperatives, but warns that fledgling, startup
130,000 families have promised to follow the Fair
Care Pledge with the caregivers and housekeepers
cooperatives, whether Juno or a home-care aides’
cooperative, might have a hard time growing
they hire. This pledge includes treating workers
because they’d be dwarfed by established giants
with respect, signing a work agreement, paying at
least $15 an hour, and providing paid sick days,
like Uber and Care.com. Moreover, Freeman notes,
employee-owned companies and cooperatives in
paid holidays, and paid vacation.
the U.S. have often stumbled and been riven by
divisions as they’ve grown larger.
“I was worried that there were a lot of people out

there in the gig economy speaking for workers who
were not from worker organizations,” Shah says.
“They said they had to figure out how they’re going
to have a quality labor force, and we wanted to
offer a road map of how they should start thinking
The most contentious labor
issue in the on-demand
economy is of course
whether workers are
independent contractors or
about this.”
Many worker advocates are talking up what they
see as the ideal way to assure ample worker voice
and leverage in the on-demand economy-set up
platform cooperatives owned by the workers
, and many workers have pushed hard and brought
themselves, be they microtaskers, home-care
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lawsuits on this issue. Instacart, a grocery-delivery
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On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
company, agreed to make its shoppers employees
only after being sued, but it also realized that if it
“We do a ton of work with our Alfreds on how to
make the tool better, how to make their jobs
wanted a stable of loyal, dependable, well-trained
shoppers, it was far better to have W-2 employees.
better,” she says. “Every week, Alfreds fill in a
But some on-demand startups have taken the high
road on this from the start. Three years ago, when
survey. Was there job satisfaction? What can we do
two Harvard Business School graduates founded
Sapone, Hello Alfred’s CEO, adds, “We don’t have a
Hello Alfred, a company that provides personal
services-buying groceries, picking up dry cleaning,
suggestion box because we’re talking to our people
all the time, every single day.”
hiring a plumber-they wanted to make sure they
provided customers with tip-top service. To
accomplish that, the two founders, Marcela Sapone
Chris Mooney, a 31-year-old Navy veteran who
began working for Hello Alfred in November, says
W-2 employees (not contractors), paying them well
discuss problems, to disseminate information, to
try to find ways to boost morale.”
and Jessica Beck, realized that they had to treat
their workers well. That meant treating them as
the Alfreds meet twice a week with managers “to
(starting pay is $18 an hour), and last but not least,
listening to what their workers have to say. Some
“I never felt that I wasn’t listened to, that I didn’t
have a voice,” he adds.
entrepreneurs criticized Sapone and Beck for not
going the independent-contractor route-hiring
workers as employees costs 20 percent to 30
Similarly, Managed by Q , a startup that cleans and
provides maintenance services to office buildings,
employer costs, including paying for Social
Security, Medicare, workers’ compensation, and
needs loyal, well-trained workers to provide
excellent service. Managed by Q pays a minimum
percent more because it entails many extra
also treats its workers as employees-it, too, says it
unemployment insurance. But “when we
of $12.50 an hour, well above the minimum wage,
explained it,” Beck says, “a lot of people [business
school friends, fellow entrepreneurs, potential
offers full health-care benefits and a 401(k) plan,
and even gave 5 percent of the company’s equity to
investors] saw exactly what we were doing and
its workers. CEO Dan Teran said Managed by Q
they got right behind the vision.”
listens closely to its workers, noting that it doesn’t
make decisions on employees’ benefits until it
Hello Alfred’s founders realized that they needed
loyal, long-term workers its customers would get
discusses them with its employees.
to know and trust. “Our retention is extremely
high,” says Beck, now chief operating officer,
Not surprisingly, workers at high-road companies
like Hello Alfred and Managed by Q aren’t
clamoring for a union or for more voice. Harvard’s
noting that the company works hard to make
employees, known as Alfreds, feel valued and
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On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
On Demand, and Demanding Their Rights – The American Prospect
Professor Sachs praises such companies, where
workers are respected and listened to, but he says
that’s not enough. “Workers need an independent
collective voice, even when the employer is a highroad employer,” he said.
Sign up for TAP
Brishen Rogers, a labor and employment law
professor at Temple University, says that when ondemand workers have a voice, or a union, “it gives
workers more power in the workplace and society,
All we need is your email
but it can also help companies understand what it
is their workers want and hear workers’ ideas on
how company operations and employee morale
can be improved.”
Most digital on-demand companies are not even a
decade old, and the many efforts by on-demand
Sign Me Up!
workers to organize are even more recent. Some
experts say these efforts are still in an embryonic
stage. Embryonic or not, for American labor, an
important question is how successful these
workers will be in gaining a bigger voice-and
stake-in the fast-growing new economy.
Corbyn, Sanders, and
Warren: the Bogus
Et Tu, U.K.?
Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter
for 31 years, including 19 as its labor and workplace
reporter. He is the author of the new book ‘Beaten
Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of
‘Take Back Our Party’
Chapter 2: Bad Policy
American Labor.’
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Where Are the Workers When We Talk About the Future of Wo…
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Where Are the Workers When We Talk About the Future of Wo…
A guest takes food delivered by a robot in the
restaurant of Alibaba’s futuristic Flyzoo Hotel, in
Home / Working in America /
Hangzhou, China. Innovative applications of AI in
hotel and restaurant settings may threaten jobs in
Where Are the
Workers When
We Talk About
the Future of
these sectors.
There’s something hugely awry with many of the
discussions about the wave of new technologies
confronting us and what they mean for the future
of work: Specifically, the people who will be most
affected and hurt by the wave of new technologies
—America’s workers—are usually left out of the
discussions. It’s unfortunate and illogical that the
CEOs and Silicon Valley investors driving these
conversations rarely include workers—after all, by
some estimates the number of people who will
CEOs, Silicon Valley investors, and
techno-academics talk to themselves
about new technologies, but workers
must have a say in these debates as
lose their jobs because of robots and artificial
intelligence is staggering. The McKinsey Global
Institute forecasts that automation will, by 2030,
destroy more than 39 million jobs in the United
States, while two Oxford professors estimate that
47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk of being
automated by 2033.
Nonetheless, and rather strangely, at the dozens of
conferences held across the country about “the
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Where Are the Workers When We Talk About the Future of Wo…
Where Are the Workers When We Talk About the Future of Wo…
future of work,” there rarely is a seat at the table
for workers or worker representatives. By contrast,
Going forward, any discussions or conferences on
the future of work should include at least some
millionaire executives, as well as consultants and
technology gurus. As a dismayed Darren Walker,
officials or worker-friendly academics. I’ve even
heard talk of having workers picket any new
there are plenty of seats for billionaire investors,
workers or their representatives, perhaps union
president of the Ford Foundation, has written:
“future of work” conference that doesn’t include
“Too often, discussions about the future of work
center on technology rather than on the people
some workers among the panelists.
If workers (or their representatives) have a voice in
the design and development of the technologies of
who will be affected by it.”
It often seems that the corporate executives
tomorrow, that might help corporations and
rushing to introduce artificial intelligence, robots,
and other new technologies plan to give workers as
engineers design these technologies in a more
worker-friendly way, perhaps minimizing worker
much say in these matters as zoo managers give to
the animals about revamping a zoo.
stress or boredom. Giving workers a say might help
maximize the ability of employees to work with or
alongside robots and other new technologies,
There’s an unfortunate explanation for why
instead of being replaced by them. There is huge
focus nowadays on developing driverless cars and
workers have often been left out of these
discussions. As I explain in my book Beaten Down,
Worked Up, worker power and voice in the U.S.,
trucks, but there is far less focus on how these
technologies will affect the millions of people who
make their livelihood as drivers—whether of
whether in the workplace or in politics, has
declined to its weakest point in eight decades.
Whether it involves raising the federal minimum
trucks, taxis, or Ubers or Lyfts. Workers should also
have a say in all these discussions to help ensure
that the jobs of the future are good jobs, with solid
wage (which hasn’t been increased in a decade),
replacing a dozen workers with robots, or moving a
factory overseas, workers’ concerns are too often
pay and benefits and a humane, non-frenetic pace
of work.
It would be great if the federal government helped
ensure that workers have a voice in these
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the
executives and engineers behind these new
technologies pay little heed to the workers who
conversations on technology’s effects on workers,
but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said
the issue “isn’t even on our radar screen.” Labor
would be affected. Just 1.5 percent of U.S. workers
in professional and technical services are
unionized, and just 3.7 percent in computer and
unions are also somewhat at fault for workers
having so little say in these discussions. Unions
mathematical operations are—far lower than the
have not hired or trained nearly enough people
nation’s overall 10.5 percent unionization rate.
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who can speak knowledgeably on these issues.
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The Silicon Valley executives and investors who
dominate “future of work” discussions often
workforce. Work is often critical to people’s
maintaining their self-worth, something to which
lifeline for the millions of workers who might lose
their jobs because of new technologies. Many
The hotel and restaurant workers’ union, UNITE
promote universal basic income to serve as a
UBI advocates often pay too little attention.
HERE, has arguably had the most success in
negotiating about technological advances, such as
champions of UBI see this idea as a way to
minimize worker opposition to the anticipated
flood of new technologies. The universal basic
robots that handle room-service deliveries or
touchscreens that replace waiters in restaurants.
The powerful hotel workers’ union local in Las
income figure I most often hear from Andrew Yang
and others is $1,000 a month for every American
over age 18. Good luck living on $12,000 a year.
Vegas (Culinary Workers Union Local 226) and the
Some UBI supporters assert that if UBI is
hotel casinos there agreed to create a committee
that will study how employees can be trained to
even say Social Security and Medicare should be
calls for giving the union 180 days’ warning before
instituted, safety net programs like Medicaid and
food stamps will no longer be needed, and some
harness—and work alongside—new technologies,
instead of being replaced by them. Their contract
phased out, too. I imagine that millions of workers
will have very strong opinions about these
hotels deploy new technologies and for hotels to
try to find new jobs for any displaced workers. In
proposals to eviscerate the social safety net. That’s
my book, I quote UNITE HERE’s president, D.
all the more reason it’s wrong to exclude workers
from these discussions. While tech execs
Taylor: “You are not going to stop technology. The
question is whether workers will be partners in its
vigorously discuss UBI among themselves, a recent
deployment or bystanders that get run over by it.”
Hill-HarrisX poll found that Americans oppose UBI
by 57 percent to 43 percent, with older workers
On this front, what’s happened in Las Vegas
shouldn’t stay in Las Vegas. Workers should have a
seat at the table, and that would make it far less
most strongly opposed.
Many workers would much prefer to have a job
likely that millions of workers will get steamrolled
than sit at home and receive UBI. It confounds me
that “future of work” discussions rarely touch on
as corporations rush to introduce a brave new
world of tomorrow’s technologies.
something workers would badly want—instead of
seeing some companies lay off, say, one-third or
more of their employees due to new technologies,
workers would no doubt want corporations to
embrace large-scale work-sharing, perhaps having
Steven Greenhouse was a New York Times reporter
all employees work a 25-hour or 30-hour
for 31 years, including 19 as its labor and workplace
workweek, instead of laying off a huge swath of the
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Far From Seamless: a Workers’ Inquiry at Deliveroo
Facility Waters
September 20,
From Hito Steyerl’s ‘How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.MOV File’
There has been a rapid growth of companies offering food delivery services through online
platforms, including: Deliveroo, UberEATS, Amazon Restaurants, Foodora,
foodpanda/hellofood, and Seamless, to name a few. The basic premise is to replace existing
arrangements for takeaway delivery food, centralizing the process on an online platform.
There are similarities with Uber’s business model, seeking to (as the current popular term
states) “disrupt” an existing business model. The emergence of these companies connects
eager venture capital with startup founders, often trying to hide the labor of the workers on
which the platforms rely. Yet, the branded uniforms of these companies—either on bicycles
or mopeds—have becoming an increasingly common sight in major cities.
In the UK there has been another wave of disruption, but not one that had been planned for
in these new business models. In July 2016, the UK Border Agency (UKBA) raided multiple
Byron Burger restaurants in central London, as well as the Deliveroo recruitment office,
carrying out a mass arrest of undocumented workers. This was a collaborative trap
fabricated by the state and businesses. Deliveroo’s workforce is largely populated by
immigrants, and Byron Burgers is one of Deliveroo’s key partners. Once the news spread,
many riders began boycotting Byron orders, refusing to deliver their food to customers. The
message was spread through WhatsApp, social media, and moved, through the drivers, into
different parts of the city. These combined to create a climate in which there was greater
cohesion and solidarity. The connections between the multiplicity of socio-spatial layers
were thickening.
Two weeks after the raids, emails and texts were sent to every Deliveroo rider stating that
pay was being changed to £3.75 per delivery. Previously, cyclists earned £7 per hour, plus
£1 per delivery, while moped drivers earned £10 per hour, plus £1 per delivery. This new
per delivery rate was understood by many as a dramatic pay drop, or at least perpetual
precarity and the possibility of days without pay.
The next day Deliveroo workers organized a wildcat strike that lasted for six days. News of
the strike spread first on social media, with workers gathering in their zone center 1 to meet
and organize. Across the city, workers met, and remaining logged out of their applications,
headed up to Deliveroo’s head offices in central London. There were hundreds of workers
there, revving moped engines, beeping horns, dancing in the streets, and doing wheelies, all
while shouting “No drivers! No Deliveroo!” up at the office windows. It was playful and fun,
something that could be shared between those who do not necessarily speak the same
language – after all, everyone can share the enjoyment of having a go at the boss. There was
rage, particularly a confrontation between a manager and a dozen drivers still wearing
motorcycle helmets with the visors down. But also, there was laughter.
People were arriving in convoys, as they had gone from zone center to zone center,
spreading the news and recruiting anyone they came across in uniform. The management
had no idea what they had let themselves in for. The Silicon Valley mentality seemed to pull
a blank when it came to unofficial unions and grassroots solidarity. Their dots on maps all
vanished, only to appear again as a physical presence, outside their offices en masse. On the
second day, when negotiations were clearly not going well, a group of 20 almost stormed
the office to occupy it, before being held back by other more patient strikers and a IWGB 2
union representative. By the sixth day, Deliveroo had to walk back the policy change,
claiming now that the move to the piece rate was optional and would only be trialed in one
In the wake of the victory of the wildcat strike, the next challenge was finding a way to
translate that resistance into something with longevity, something that could be channelled
into new organizational forms that could continue to mobilize. The IWGB, a small base
union, recruited rapidly at the strikes. At points, both of us stood waving membership
forms, with a queue of workers waiting to join. This is not the kind of experience either of us
have found with the larger trade unions in London. From the strikes last year, the campaign
in London has continued, along with other moments across the UK (for example in Bristol,
Leeds and Brighton). 3 This has involved not only the IWGB, but also branches of the IWW,
but no mainstream trade union has been involved. In London the campaign is currently tied
up in legal and employment tribunals. The IWGB is making a claim to be recognized as the
union in one particular zone and, if successful, this will mean the employment status will
change from self-employed independent contractor to worker status. A success would mean
much greater employment rights, including minimum wage, holiday and sick pay, and so on.
This moment has less space for worker agency to shape the decisions. At first it involved a
sustained organizing campaign in the zone, but it is now being deliberated at tribunal. The
union provides an important space to meet with other workers and formulate demands, but
this piece will focus on the experiences of the labor process in particular. What the past year
has shown is that these workers in the “gig economy” have become visible. They are finding
new ways to resist, continuing to meet and organize, and this can not be hidden behind the
digital platform forever.
On Deliveroo
Our focus will be on Deliveroo, who uses a stylized Kangaroo and turquoise branding.
Across London the drivers have become ubiquitous, whether at road junctions or gathering
near restaurants between deliveries. The company is estimated to have at least 20,000
drivers and cyclists across 84 cities in 12 countries. 4 To date, it has received just under
$475M in funding. 5 Deliveroo has tried to differentiate itself from the competition by
offering a way for customers, they claim, to “order amazing food from the best loved local
restaurants who otherwise may not offer delivery.” It is complete with a founding myth
about the CEO, a former investment banker, arriving in London from New York and being
frustrated at the options for food. The solution was to develop an app, through which
Deliveroo would “personally curate a high-quality and diverse selection of restaurants … the
only thing you will not find on Deliveroo is low-quality takeaway restaurants.” 6
Deliveroo uses a legal arrangement similar to Uber to employ drivers on the platform.
Technically, the drivers are categorized independent self-employed contractors. Deliveroo
uses this status to claim that their drivers come from a broad network of entrepreneurs,
rather than entering into traditional employment relationships. This implies that drivers are
free to offer their services to a range of companies and can even send someone else to
complete the deliveries. It is part of a process of “digital black box labor” in which the labor
component of platforms is deliberately obscured. 7 Yet drivers have to pay a deposit to
receive their uniform and are expected to wear them while completing pre-arranged shifts.
It is an attempt to divest the company from the fiscal protections – minimum wage, holiday
pay, sick pay, and so on – afforded to and won by workers. Increasingly, the prevalence of
“black boxes” in society is hiding work and the experience of workers. 8
In this piece, we draw attention to the labor process at Deliveroo and what it is like to work
on the platform. It has been collectively written between the Deliveroo driver Facility Waters
(a pseudonym), and Jamie Woodcock, who is employed at a university where he researches
work. We have experimented with different ways to collect and share information about
working at Deliveroo. In particular, we have tried to peel back the black box, emphasising
that work on Deliveroo is not seamless, but rather it takes place in specific geographic
locations in the city. We draw on inspiration from workers’ inquiry, which readers of
previous issues of Viewpoint Magazine will be familiar with. Our experiment here is an
adaptation of the ‘full fountain pen’ method, in which “intellectuals would be paired with
workers … they would listen as the workers recounted their story, write them down on their
behalf, and then have these workers revise the written documents as they saw fit.” 9
Although in our case one is not writing on the other’s behalf. Instead, we have
collaboratively written on Google Docs and augmented our analysis with GPS technology
and interactive maps. We encourage readers to explore the interactive map alongside the
Part I
Applying to Deliveroo
The application process to work at Deliveroo involves filling out an online form (see Figure 1).
This means that if you are looking for work you can start quickly, as Deliveroo could have
you on the job within three days. Deliveroo has been investing heavily in public relations,
both for new customers, but also aggressively recruiting drivers. Both authors have received
leaflets in the mail and have seen an increase in targeted advertisements on social media,
particularly since starting the research and writing process. The tone of the material
channels Silicon Valley, combined with an informal style, presumably something that tests
well in focus groups for so-called millennials. The Kangaroo logo gives the excuse to include
‘Roo’ into other words, for example: ‘foundeROO’ or ‘Roowomen and Roomen’ to refer to
drivers. But most of all the advertisements for potential drivers stress the ‘flexibility’ of the
Figure 1: https://deliveroo.co.uk/apply
Although the process for this particular job blurs with many of the others, I was notified that
the online application was successful. I was called in to a temporary Deliveroo recruitment
center – a warehouse converted to house, a call center, and somewhere to hand out
equipment. The “interview” is not really an interview, instead meaning I turned up and had
my bike given a basic inspection. Following this, I sat at a laptop to take a test – although it
was not that hard as you can keep refreshing until all the answers are correct – and was
then taken out on the roads for a further test. This involved cycling with another interviewee
and a trainer, following the instructions on a smartphone app. The requirement was to
navigate successfully to the location, not running any red lights, although it was not clear if
there was a time limit. After reaching the first location, the second interviewee navigated to
the next, then the group returned back. After a brief safety talk, there was another visit to
the laptop, this time to fill out five years of previous addresses with exact dates and
employment history, along with submitting to a credit check. None of these aspects were
explained, nor were they present in the contract, and seemed excessive given the selfemployed contractor status.
This feeling of losing control and becoming employed continued in the next steps. I was
taken into the call center section, where another worker (also on a temporary contract) was
called over to take my phone. They downloaded the Deliveroo app and ensured it was set
up correctly. Following this, I was given a reference number and directed to a line to wait for
equipment. Every worker has to pay a deposit, receiving the uniform and either a backpack
or a delivery box (see pictures in later figures). On reaching the front of the line, another
temporary worker tried to give me a box. These are the least preferred option as they have
to be attached to the bicycle, giving less flexibility than the backpack. It also means at the
end of the shift it can only be removed by dismantling it from your bike. This compares
much less favorably than the backpack, which is more like the uniform, and can be easily
removed after work. Either way, all the equipment can only be received if the worker pays a
substantial deposit. The process is similar to induction at a call center on a zero hours
contract, 10 starting with a large number of people in the room trying to figure out what is
going on. It is not immediately clear what the job will involve, nor how long people will last
on the contract. However, unlike the call center, at Deliveroo you cannot see how many
people leave in the first week, as from this initial meeting people are distributed into
different zones across London.
The workforce at Deliveroo is split between moped drivers and bicyclists. The moped
drivers work longer shifts, usually covering the entire day, and work much more frequently.
The cyclists tend to work over lunchtime and evenings, picking up the extra demand as
people order food mostly at these times. There are difficulties assessing exact numbers or
ratios of mopeds to bikes – something that Deliveroo keeps to themselves like the overall
numbers of drivers – but in general the moped drivers are predominantly migrant and
male. On the other hand, the cyclists tend to be younger, mostly closer to 18 years old, and
many are working alongside studying for A levels 11 or university degrees. There are
comparatively few women working at Deliveroo, but significantly more work as cyclists than
moped drivers. White English people are the minority across both the roles. Both require
complex driving skills as the riders navigate the traffic in London, but the cyclists also need a
high level of fitness in order to complete the work.
A Day Riding for Deliveroo
My shift begins in the basement of the shop that I work in. Stooping a little, I put on my
waterproof trousers and jacket before putting the lights and water bottle on my bike. I zip
the battery block in one pocket with the charging cable plugged into my smartphone in the
other pocket. I pick up my bag and make my way to street level.
Every shift begins from home before I make my way into the zone center, the area that you
have to be within to be able to clock in, cycling along one of South London’s main arteries,
waiting to get to where Montpelier Road splits off of Queens Road – knowing that this is
precisely the outer limit of my zone center (see interactive map). Looking at the map you’ll
notice ‘ends’ to my shifts. This is because like many people in cities, where I can afford to
live, is not where I was working. It also demonstrates, how I effectively turn my commute
from a 30 minute cycle into a 3 and a half hour ‘extra’ shift on top of my main job.
Figure 2: Map distributed by Deliveroo 12
I continue cycling while using the phone, and within a minute of clocking in I receive my first
order. We only have the option to accept deliveries, and the only way to skip them is to
ignore them, which takes a few minutes for Deliveroo to unassign you. Supposedly, this is
bad for your ability to continue working for them, however we rarely receive any official
clarification, and largely rely on sharing information and experiences between workers. I
carry on cycling to Nando’s in Camberwell going past Kelly’s Avenue, the central point of our
zone, where riders are suggested to wait for orders as it is should be roughly central to the
restaurants we deliver from. It is here that riders gather, unlike with Uber and other
platforms, meeting each other and building offline connections.
Figure 3: Login screen, Zone center screen, Nando’s screen
Today there is no-one there though, because I logged on 40 minutes before our shift starts. I
did this because on other Sundays I have logged on early and been paid my hourly rate
regardless of when I was officially down to do so. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does
not. While I am certain there are specific criterion that Deliveroo payroll are using, I have no
certainty of what these actually are. The other riders and I have our superstitions, but very
little concrete knowledge.
I get to Nando’s restaurant 10 minutes into my shift. Here we have our own corridor and
counter, which is attached to the main kitchen but a separate operation to the front of
house services that the restaurant provides. When I get close enough to Nando’s I can
confirm my arrival and progress to the next screen, where I find out what I am meant to be
picking up. Here it is not the listed food which really matters but the order number. As
riders, we put responsibility for the order being correct with the restaurants, even if we are
technically meant to be another point of quality control. I find I have been given a stacked
order, meaning I pick up 2 deliveries at the same time. Again, the only option is to accept
this, unless you are willing to phone the support line, be on hold for 5-20 minutes, ask to be
unassigned, and have a note put on your record. I get the food in brown paper bags which
are stapled shut and a numbered ticket attached. I put the orders in my thermal bag, zip up,
and swipe through to the next screen on my phone.
Figure 4: Confirmed, Corridor, Stacked screen
Finally, I now get to see where I actually need to go, and it is straight uphill. Six minutes later
I get to the customer’s address, walk up their steps, and wait at the door. I give them their
food and swipe through to see the next address: straight over the hill, down to a gated
apartment building in Dulwich, and hand over the food to the next customer 5 minutes after
the last. After confirming that delivery, the app tells me to make my way back to the zone
center and wait to repeat the process.
Figure 5: Order 1, Order 2, Return to center
After another 2 orders I decided to wait around at the adjacent zone center to mine. The
Camberwell centre is on an industrial estate where Deliveroo has set up a collection of
‘Rooboxes’. These are mobile huts, which each contain a kitchen and 2-3 staff who only
produce food for us to deliver – a customer cannot walk up and order directly. In
appearance it is very like a hipster pop-up street food market, except the hipsters are
geographically located elsewhere, in their home or office, and at the other end of the app.
Here we collect food from Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Motu Indian Kitchen, Crust Bros or
whoever else is set up there at that time. It all runs through a central distribution office (also
a temporary structure) where Deliveroo staff call out your name and give you the food.
Figure 6: Rooboxes site
I sometimes prefer waiting at this zone center because they have an indoor break room with
chairs and a free coffee machine, as well as some toilets. It is quite different from the other
assigned meeting points across the city, often just a place for bicycles and mopeds to be
parked up. It is also close to a couple of restaurants which are in my zone, so I do not need
to worry about missing orders or being told off and, if my zone goes quiet, I usually get
reassigned to Camberwell anyway. However, instead of being reassigned to Camberwell, I
was reassigned to Dulwich. Like orders, the app only offers the option to “accept” a zone
move. Again, me and the other riders have our theories about what we can get away with,
and we all occasionally sit out the 3 minutes of notifications every few seconds until the
request is passed onto another rider. I start heading out to the Dulwich centre over
Champion Hill (a hill in between a lot of restaurants and customers, in what would otherwise
be a pretty flat zone) and within a minute I am given a new order. The order took no more
than a minute to complete as the customer was less than 200 meters from the restaurant.
Figure 7: Zone move request, Dulwich centre
The next order is for Franco Manca, a trendy pizza chain only a few doors down from the
last restaurant. It is another stacked order so I have to wait for both before I can see where I
am meant to be going. There are a few other riders here already waiting, who say it is taking
a long time for anything to be prepared. We chat about the weather, our bikes, our other
jobs, how long we’ve been doing Deliveroo, the good and bad about it, and of course the
wages, including how most of us would not bother with it if they changed us to a piece rate.
This is the basic conversation that most of us have if we meet each other for the first time,
but in your own zone you build friendships and find other points of common interest,
strengthened through WhatsApp contact.
I was waiting here for over 40 minutes, which means Deliveroo has missed its target of
delivering within 30 minutes of the original order. One of the orders had already been given
to me after about half an hour, and was just getting cold in my bag while I waited for the
other. I got a phone call from Deliveroo Rider Support, saying that the customer had rang
up customer services to ask where their pizza was. They wanted to know why I had not left,
they could see on the map that I had been outside this restaurant, stationary, for too long. I
explained that there was nothing I could do, it is the restaurant’s problem and I would do
the best I could. When I got the second order, I delivered them both without any problems,
and let the person with the cold pizza know that if they complained to Deliveroo they would
either get a full refund, or replacement order and get to keep what I had just delivered. All
the riders I have spoken to about this specific issue said they do the same. We all know that
Deliveroo can sort out free food and we are happy to share that knowledge with the
customers – just so long as it is not our personal fault for the food being late.
The restaurant’s delay in preparing the food meant I was already past the end of my shift. I
continued to work until 35 minutes after my shift ended, assuming that I would probably
still be being paid my hourly wage as well as deliveries. Technically, I could have logged out
by phoning the Rider Support line, asking to be unassigned, then they could reassign it to
someone else and I would leave the pizzas with the restaurant. However, the line gets
jammed at 9:30pm as so many people are doing this, so being on hold takes just as long as
delivering the food. And if you deliver the food you get the pay, so it is just not worth the
hassle. A far from seamless interaction with the platform. Finishing shifts on time is rarely
possible. There have to be almost no orders going through, as the closer you get to 9:30 the
more people log off, meaning fewer people to take orders. This means you can log out early
and lose money, or risk waiting and possibly be assigned more orders. I usually decide to
stay on the app unless I’m exhausted, as by this time I am happy enough to be on the bike,
thinking about how each extra pound makes things a bit easier.
Part II
Illusion of Freedom
Working for Deliveroo on a bike presents a comforting illusion of freedom. You are on a
bike, you can pick your route, and to a certain degree you go at your own pace. However,
this comforting illusion is regularly unravelled. Sometimes a whole shift can be unremittingly
shit. In the winter you have entire weeks in the snow, wind, or rain when the weather is -3 to
3 degrees Celsius 13 and all your shifts are in the dark. Your hands, feet, and face are
numbingly cold and your body is sweating from your clothing and the exercise, but you still
have to be aware of ice and wet leaves on the road and the bad judgements of other road
users who are also inhibited by the conditions. In better weather, it is easy to memorize
your route, and drift off into a daydream, only awoken as you get to the house though
sometimes after the door has shut and the customer has taken their food, and often hours
will pass and the daydream will go outside of the cognitive threshold of the repetitive,
rhythmic movements towards the next point in a journey without any coherent direction
other than its next point. This is analogous to Sadie Plant’s description of the way the digital
worker “has only half a mind on the task,” that “she hears, but isn’t listening. She sees, but
she does not watch. Pattern recognition without consciousness.” 14 The experience of a
routine activity becoming near-automatic – especially those as risky as driving or biking in
London – can be quite scary before reinforcing the estrangement we feel from these
This daydream offers an interesting insight into how capital production is facilitated through
the synthesis of technology, labor, and space. The fact that this synthesis occurs is not
surprising, as the role of digitized routing is a way of augmenting the two dimensional
“God’s eye-view” into our own visual interpretation of places. This “view from above is a
perfect metonymy for a more general verticalization of class relations in the context of an
intensified class war from above,” as the “proxy perspective that projects stability, safety and
extreme mastery” 15 and, in the case of Deliveroo, is synthesized with the “eye which is
dislodged from the realm of optics and made into an intermediary element of a circuit
whose end result is always a motor response of the body to electronic solicitation.” 16 The
eye becomes an “appendage of the machine,” in which sight is extended through the
smartphone, whilst the bicycle mechanically extends the legs. 17 This form of vision is only
novel in the sense that the required live cartography is accessible enough that precarious
workers can be augmented with it, and it is cost effective as little investment is needed from
capital (delivery platforms rarely, if ever, supply the necessary smartphone).
If we consider that our “relation to the world is essentially artificial, technical” then “each
human world is a configuration of techniques.” 18 Technology “only stands out in two
circumstances: invention and ‘breakdown.’ It’s only when we are present at a discovery or
when a familiar element is lacking, or breaks, or stops functioning, that the illusion of living
in a natural world gives way in the face of contrary evidence.” 19 This notion has multiple
implications: in the broader sense, the interest in the technology of Deliveroo, and its
relation to capital stems from the fact that it appears as an invention, a novel recombination
of existing sectors (logistics, apps, smartphones, flexible work), and on the other hand, in
the subjectively particular sense, in that this confluence of techniques “configures a world”
which is materialized through these techniques. 20 The worker intermittently exists in a flow
outside of a conscious interpretation of the empirical surroundings – until a car pulls out
unexpectedly, an address does not match up, or the servers crash. It is also an invention
that regularly breaks down, for the user, the worker and, and consequently, for the
Figure 8: Servers downtime in January 2017
When the servers go down, a compensatory wage is supplied for the period of outage;
however, under no other circumstances is this offered to workers. Of course issues also
arise from mechanical failures for both vehicles and phones, with punctures and flat
batteries being the most common for me as a bike rider. On top of this, I regularly had
schedule clashes between Deliveroo and other jobs that I needed to prioritize. Moped
drivers also manage a real risk of theft. Although I’ve had a couple of teenagers try to take
my phone on a shift and I had two workmates who had their bikes stolen, the threat and
consequences are far more serious for motorcyclists, who are likely to have more valuable
vehicles and to have Deliveroo as their primary source of income. The extent of this
problem has lead to drivers forming self-defense groups in order to confront and attack
thieves, something which cyclists have not had to do as of yet. These problems disrupt the
flow of the work, yet remain hidden behind the façade of the platform.
Despite these breakdowns, the illusion of freedom sets this kind of work apart from other
precarious options. Unlike working in a call center or other service work, there is no demand
to smile or use your emotions while delivering food. There is not the imposed “demands on
the delivery and maintenance of packages of affects” found with selling in call centers, 21 so
there is the cognitive space to have those kinds of daydreams. If you are lucky enough to get
a tip, it is either set when the customer makes the order or handed over with the food in a
brief exchange – sometimes just a hand from through the half open door – it is determined
before the worker arrives at the door. The other notable difference with other kinds of work
is the absence of supervisors or managers roaming the workplace and surveilling workers
directly. The only contact with Deliveroo is mediated through the app or meeting other
workers at the designated waiting points. This means being away from the supervisory
gaze, not feeling the physical pressure to modulate behavior beyond meeting the time
requirements of the platform.
Vectors of Authority
The closest I get to interacting with management on a day to day basis was outside Franco
Manca when I received the phone call to check up on me. Even then, it was a phone call
from a call center worker rather than a supervisor or a manager. What it shows, though, is
the conglomeration of managerial techniques that they have available: platform user
(customer, restaurant, or rider) feedback, and an algorithmically sorted accumulation of
data. Deliveroo knows exactly when and where I am at all times I am logged into the app.
This means that when discipline is applied, as in the case above, it is operating along vectors
of authority. The term vector is not meant in any kind of metaphysical sense: the GPS
tracking situates the rider in a four meter area through signals which travel in lines directly
from terra firma to satellites. The tracking produces not just current location, but also
distance covered and the time it has taken. These three factors produce the bulk of the data
necessary for the management of each rider, by allowing rankings according to efficiency.
Deliveroo maintains that they do not prioritize any riders over others, claiming that the rider
is selected for each job according to how close they are to the restaurant. However, this
seems incongruous to the technological rationality that they would want anything other
than predictable efficiency. It seems even more superfluous when the realizable value in the
data that is automatically collected might not be used. In practice, me and my colleagues are
very aware that those who are faster get more orders, regardless of how far they are from
each collection point.
Although drone warfare is radically different to Deliveroo in a number of obvious ways, it
nevertheless deploys similar techniques. Therefore it is interesting to contrast Gregoire
Chamayou’s analysis that:
In contemporary doctrines of aerial power, operational space is no longer regarded as a
homogenous and continuous area. It has become “a dynamic mosaic where insurgent
objectives and tactics may vary by neighborhood.” We should see it instead as a patchwork of
squares of color, each of which corresponds to specific rules of engagement. But those
squares are also, and above all, cubes. 22
The difference is that optic is not oriented towards a contested territory or groups of
people, but an individuated practice of power from above. There is no need for cubes when
a phone in the pocket indicates all necessary information. To reiterate, this is not to say that
the material outcomes of these operations are in any way comparable, only the verticality of
perspective which reduces an individual’s movement and time into social profiles, where
“activity becomes an alternative to identity” are. 23 What is shared is a common faith in
quantitative data, a decision making process in based in pure positivism. Both Deliveroo
and drone strikes rely upon networks of GPS satellites, receiving information only available
through the military-industrial complex.
The Deliveroo platform – enabled by GPS and smartphone apps – provides a real-time “God’s
eye-view” of workers currently logged in. This produces a management perspective that is
similar to a real-time strategy videogame – watching the city from directly above, viewing the
abstracted “units” as they move around the terrain, and displaying live data flows of various
kinds. However, unlike the power fantasy of the videogame, this perspective does not
translate into the omnipotent ability to direct “units” through mouse clicks. It is therefore
possible to capture this as a kind of “electronic panopticon” 24 – or perhaps even an
“algorithmic panopticon” 25 – a dispersed center that can automatically collect and collate
quantitative data from which, officially at least, workers cannot escape. However, unlike the
architectural design of the panopticon, the supervisory role no longer has a physical
manifestation. Instead, the worker is corralled with weekly emails that state whether or not
they are meeting their targets. This synthesis of panopticism and Taylorism is exemplary of
the individuation of capital production present in fully electronically mediated work,
complete with time stamps and geolocations.
The Politics of Knowledge
Against this exhaustive data collection of data and the
omnipresent God’s-eye viewpoint, this project began as a way to
think about and discuss gig economy work from the perspective
of someone working at Deliveroo. We have presented here our initial attempt at an inquiry
at Deliveroo. As a collaboration between a driver and a researcher, we have tried to explore
the labor process and how it is experienced from the perspective
of someone actually delivering food across London on the
As can be seen in the Figures, the minimum amount of data is
shared with the driver at each point along the labor process. The
customer knows even less within this interaction, only notified of
the order acceptance and when the delivery has arrived. Between
the two, the platform mediates access to the data – for the latter is
unlikely to want to know more (after all the appeal of these
platforms is quick and easy delivery of food), while for the former
trying to gain more access to the data (not only from the platform
more generally, but also their own) is extremely difficult. Each
order, communication, journey, delivery, timing, GPS position, and
so on is tracked and collated. This kind of data is created by the
movement and interaction of people around the city, but its
capture remains proprietary. These data sets are becoming an
important resource for training machine learning algorithms,
seeking to displace (at least in part) human labor.
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For the driver to understand their own data trail, it is possible to reconstruct parts of it from
fragments of communication from Deliveroo, including the receipts for each delivery. The
metrics by which the platform assesses performance are never made clear. Either the
driver meets the targets or not, with no indication of the margins of success or failure. In
addition to these methods, self-tracking technologies have been used to trace the routes
around the city, a collection of data through another means that the platform already holds.
In this way the inquiry here is also a contestation over knowledge of work at Deliveroo. The
use of these technologies still produces a top down perspective with roadmaps. It is
possible to make calculations, but these are still the calculations that are of most interest to
capital. Like the RTS game perspective, it is individual and controlling, a view from capital
onto workers. This raises questions – beyond the scope of the article here and the tools
used at present – about how else the experience of work could be perceived and mapped.
Layers as meeting points
When looking at the maps, it can be seen that the lines are
unevenly distributed, that in many places there are considerably
more than in others. The importance of this is fairly
straightforward. It shows that there are routes which are more and
less familiar to myself and to other riders. Our relation to these
spaces is materialized each time we are in them. Together, as we
work, we produce a topographical layer, where we converge
intermittently. The uniform, which has become a ubiquitous part of
London’s landscape, provides a double function. In one direction it
serves to translate the worker into an aspect of the commodified
food product: Deliveroo and its riders are marketed as being
synonymous with the food it delivers. But in the other, it allows for
reciprocal recognition between co-workers, where we can nod or
wave as we pass, or chat during waiting periods. These factors,
among others, operate in such a way that a social field is produced.
In the emerging literature, there is an all too often gesture towards
the gig-economy as being the highest point of alienation, 26 mainly
trying to moralize against the use of such apps and services as
opposed to providing space for a nuanced interpretation of it, or
even of what it is. If instead we attempt a geographically sensitive
understanding of Deliveroo, then we see how localities are
formed “as a social phenomenon, not so much a singular or
specific place, but more as a densely acquired network of
familiarity that spans across people and places.” 27
Drawing back from the individual maps, it is possible to take in the bigger picture of how
Deliveroo work is conducted in and through the environment of London. The risk with this
kind of work is to overemphasize the digital dimension, focusing on the novel management
techniques and methods of technological surveillance.
A broader recognition must be made here: that Deliveroo is contextualized socially and
spatially in the cities that it operates in. From my interaction with them in London, I have
seen how they occupy spaces that are temporary or rent-free, from kitchens in temporary
buildings to publicly maintained roads as logistical routes. The coalition between capital and
the state has effectively sanctioned and legitimized so much of the
reality of city dwelling. High rents and Right-to-Buy, Buy-to-Let and
property speculation, poor housing regulations and underfunded
councils, inflated costs of living and long working hours – these
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things are neither legitimate nor natural, they are produced by the amalgamated tendencies
of “austerity” and neoliberalism – both of which function within the paradigm of capital
accumulation. And such conditions are instrumental to recruiting labor-power for Deliveroo.
Steve Hanson has written on the “the dialectics of working and not working” where he
dissolves “the fake, state barrier between official and unofficial economic activity.” 28
Through his own ethnographic work of an English town bombarded by austerity he unpacks
how “on-and-off” work and “getting-by” are related to the “precariousness of everyday life.”
29 The dissolution of the binary between employed/unemployed allows us to recognize that
“paradigms and people are dialectically connected, they all contain each other as part of a
wider assemblage.” 30 Austerity and underlying economic conditions combine to produce
unofficial economies as people try to make ends meet beyond regular Fordist employment,
which, over the last few years, the ever innovative gig-economy has tended towards
formalizing and monopolizing each sector that presents itself. The neoliberal project of
creating individuated entrepreneurs is an “ideal type” for the gig-economy worker. A selfcontained economic unit, an independent biography creating their own story. The container
as “a dumb, indifferent, interchangeable materialisation of capital’s abstract circulation.” 31
Hanson suggests that this “‘containerization’ can be thought of as a metaphor, but only if
one inverts it, because when metal boxes began containing objects, they did so to distribute
them more widely and quickly … capitalism deterritorializes in order to territorialize, but it
does not do so to trap people or objects in one place or any landscape, all of which are
becoming steam.” 32 Legally self-employed micro-entrepreneurs are in a way the negative of
the jet-set executive, a person who is forever in transit, virtually mobile, closing a deal and
moving on. Two sides of the same coin.
Deliveroo could only emerge under certain economic and social conditions, just as much as
it will only survive in cities where the relationship of production can be reproduced. This
means that flexible, “extra” work must be necessary to a large enough portion of the
population, that wages within the capitalist centers are significantly higher than in
“peripheral regions” and that the necessity of “getting-by” is economically and disciplinarily
enforced. It is in these oppressive feedback loops where the producer-consumer dialectic is
folded upon itself that companies such as Deliveroo, AirBnB, and Uber can proliferate. As
many have noted, they are not produced by “technological” feats: “the form innovation takes
within capitalism is as the continual simulation of the new, while existing relations of power
and control remain effectively the same.” 33 These new arrivals are low-asset, lightweight
corporations which are well suited to the slow-growth recession economy. 34 They shouldn’t
be critiqued in isolation, as they are not singular entities. After all, they are continuous with
the historical and geographical domains they parasitically root themselves in – whether its
bedrooms, hired cars or our streets. We have seen how in Brighton one of the demands
from the Deliveroo workers’ protests was to immediately cease recruitment. This was
because the reality of piece-rate work and a workforce greater than work available created
35 oversaturated region where riders often would work entire days for a couple of pounds.
It must be remembered too, that Deliveroo is in no way producing absolute “places” or
totalities. Like other platforms, it is superimposed into localities that are familiar and livedin. They are interrelated to the “unlimited multiplicity or unaccountable set of social spaces
which refer to generically as ‘social space.’” 36 The intention behind reiterating the
interaction between this work, sector and locality is simply that if we metaphysically enclose
Deliveroo as a subject in itself then we cannot unfold its ambiguous continuities.
Occasionally when I’m at the Camberwell site (see above), I will see an Ocado truck pull up to
deliver ingredients to the “restaurants”. Ocado is an on-the-day, food distribution company
that operates from warehouses, with an app and a website creating a customer interface
without a shopfront. The operational similarity of Ocado and Deliveroo shows how localities
in logistics operate on different on different scales which are layered between and on top of
one another, and how the concealing of labor is consistent in both levels.
When working, many other riders have conversations through their headphones, or with
their phone jammed between the side of their head and the padding of their helmet. The
conversations I overheard glimpses of what were in many different languages presumably
to other parts of the city, country or world – in short, to other places. Whilst I and others
daydream, others continue to make use of their vocal faculties to voluntarily maintain their
own social contemporaneity. Here, we see other possibilities of the fragmentation of
experiences, where the worker is simultaneously occupying social space here and there,
deterritorialized and diffuse. Few jobs offer this kind of freedom to communicate. For
example, both authors’ experience of working in call centers offered the opposite of this –
in that you do not have the possibility to daydream or talk freely on shift, but also in the
periods outside of work conversation can be difficult or intolerable. 37 This aspect of
Deliveroo is an example of how workers operate beyond the immediate locality and beyond
the surveillance of supervisors, in ways which aren’t necessarily counterproductive and are
therefore beyond the managerial field of vision.
The social and spatial qualities of Deliveroo means that a topographical layer is always in a
process of becoming, where associations and familiarities with the terrain, riders, and
restaurant workers are formed. These interactions can provide rich and pleasant
experiences, and the work is often enjoyable, as is the company of other workers. The
ability to miss some shifts without the fear of losing the job is a truly valuable aspect. In the
words of IWGB’s Jason Moyer-Lee: “flexibility that works for the worker is a marvellous thing.
What we do say is that these companies need to abide by the law. Just because some of
their workers have flexible work arrangements, that doesn’t mean you can deny them basic
rights. 38 We could not agree more. The assumption that flexible work is categorically
incongruous with financial stability is a fallacy. Being able to legitimately refuse work is a
cause worth fighting for in the courts, in parliament, in streets, and most importantly in the
A strategic approach to pursuing workers’ rights in the gig economy is a necessity. For the
first time in many years we have a meaningful socialist opposition in the UK, with
parliamentary members like John McDonnell taking a serious interest in precarious workers’
rights. In recent months, the Labour party look like they have an increasingly viable chance
of entering into government. The courts in the UK have already confirmed ‘worker’ status
over that of ‘self-employed’ to many of the Doctors Laboratory, CitySprint and Uber
workers. 39 Ultimately, workers must be able to take collective action, and the proof that this
is possible is still fresh in many drivers and riders memories. The election of a Labour
government or the favorable ruling of a court cannot deliver counter-power in the
workplace. It is therefore important to remember that this began with a non-unionized
wildcat strike of workers from around the world which gained international recognition, a
crowdfunded strike fund of £10,000 within the week long dispute, and most importantly: a
defeat for management. It is only when workers are at the forefront of the struggles that we
can demand and win the conditions we desire.
At Deliveroo one difficulty is knowing what is being fought against. Earlier I noted that many
of the rules presented to riders are through implication, and that we often have to rely on
experience, intuition, and guesswork to navigate each shift – and to also keep the job over a
period of time. For example, in the time it has taken to write this piece, Deliveroo has
already changed its rules so that uniform is no longer necessary, removing the equipment
deposit scheme, that the piece rate is now opt-in for most London zones, and have relaxed
restrictions on signing up for shifts. A lot of these changes seem to be performative gestures
to appease the ongoing court case, yet they still have real consequences in reducing the
possibility or effectiveness of collective action. Despite this, we can look to recent history for
reason to be optimistic. A strike by UberEats workers in August 2016 had many Deliveroo
riders striking in solidarity – a phenomena consistent with the strike action taken in
Bordeaux in March 2017. This optimism is based on the critical understanding of
insurrectionary behavior as:
…something that is constituted here [that] resonates with the shock wave emitted by
something constituted over there … not like a plague or forest fire which spreads from place
to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of music, whose focal points, though
dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always
taking on more density. 40
As the intensity of capitals’ occupation of everyday life 41 through the “gig-economy” and its
contestations of space progress, so too do the rhythms of de…
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