Uber loses another appeal against drivers’ rights in UK

Uber has lost another appeal against a landmark 2016 UK employment tribunal ruling that found a group of drivers to be workers, rather than self-employed, meaning they’re entitled to benefits such as holiday pay and the National Minimum Wage. The court of appeal today upheld previous decisions classifying the drivers as workers. Although the ruling […]

Uber has lost another appeal against a landmark 2016 UK employment tribunal ruling that found a group of drivers to be workers, rather than self-employed, meaning they’re entitled to benefits such as holiday pay and the National Minimum Wage.

The court of appeal today upheld previous decisions classifying the drivers as workers.

Although the ruling was not unanimous and Uber has been granted permission to appeal direct to the Supreme Court.

Commenting on the ruling in a statement Uber said:

This decision was not unanimous and does not reflect the reasons why the vast majority of drivers choose to use the Uber app. We have been granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court and will do so.

Almost all taxi and private hire drivers have been self-employed for decades, long before our app existed. Drivers who use the Uber app make more than the London Living Wage and want to keep the freedom to choose if, when and where they drive. If drivers were classified as workers they would inevitably lose some of the freedom and flexibility that comes with being their own boss.

The original tribunal dismissed Uber’s argument that its platform merely supplies drivers with “business opportunities” — calling it a “pure fiction which bears no relation to the real dealings and relationships between the parties”.

But Uber points out that one of the appeals court judges, Lord Justice Underhill, expressed the view that the relationship it argued for “is neither unrealistic nor artificial”, accepting it being “in accordance with a well-recognised model for relationships in the private hire car business”.

The company also points to a number of changes to its business since the 2016 ruling, such as offering insurance cover for drivers.

“Over the last two years we’ve made many changes to give drivers even more control over how they use the app, alongside more security through sickness, maternity and paternity protections. We’ll keep listening to drivers and introduce further improvements,” its statement adds.

On the other side, co-lead claimant James Farrar, a former Uber driver who is now chair of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), welcomed the ruling — but also criticized Uber for “delaying inevitable changes to its business model”

In a statement Farrar said:

I am delighted today’s ruling brings us closer to the ending Uber’s abuse of precarious workers made possible by tactics of contract trickery, psychological manipulation and old-fashioned bullying. However, I am dismayed that implementation of worker status for drivers is further delayed while Uber seeks yet another appeal. This is nothing more than a cynical ploy to delay inevitable changes to its business model while it pursues a record breaking $120 billion stock market flotation. It’s time for Uber to come clean with all its stakeholders and abide by the decision of the courts.

Fellow co-lead claimant, and secretary of the IWGB’s United Private Hire Drivers branch, Yaseen Aslam, also expressed frustration at the protracted legal fight — writing:

I’m delighted with today’s ruling, but frustrated that the process has dragged on for over three years. It cannot be left to precarious workers like us to bring companies like Uber to account and despite the personal price we have had to pay, we are the lucky ones. We know of many that are under such hardship, that it would be unimaginable for them to take a multi-billion pound company to court. It is now time for the government and the Mayor of London to act and stop letting companies like Uber take them for a ride.

Uber lost its first appeal against the 2016 tribunal ruling a year ago but vowed to keep on appealing.

At the same time unions are keeping up the pressure on the ride-hailing giant, calling a drivers strike two months ago and urging Uber to immediately apply the tribunal judgement — and implement “employment conditions that respect worker rights for drivers, including the payment of at least the minimum wage and paid holidays”.

Uber has previously told policymakers that if it was required to pay such benefits to the circa 50,000 drivers operating on its platform in the UK it would cost its business “tens of millions” of pounds.

Commenting on today’s decision, Rachel Farr, a senior professional support lawyer in the employment, pensions & mobility group at Taylor Wessing, suggested the judgement could have ramifications for other gig economy platforms, bolstering those that argue such workers “deserve a better deal”.

Though she also emphasized the case-by-case nature of employment classification decisions.

“This decision will have an impact both across the gig economy and in more traditional sectors and will give encouragement to claimants in other cases which are awaiting a hearing or stayed pending the outcome,” she said in a statement. “But just because Uber lost, it doesn’t mean that others will: Each case will be considered on its specific facts, including the contractual terms between the parties and what actually happens in practice.”

Food delivery startup Deliveroo, for example, has so far prevailed in UK courts against union-backed attempts to gain collective bargaining rights by challenging its classification of couriers as independent contractors.

Last year a UK employment tribunal judged that Deliveroo riders could not be considered workers because they had a genuine right to find a substitute to do their job for them.

At the same time the government has been consulting on updating employment law to take account of tech-fuelled changes to working patterns. And earlier this week it set out a labor market reform package — billing it as a major upgrade to workplace rights.

Although unions dubbed the plan heavy on spin and weak on substance, reiterating accusations that gig economy giants are getting fat by exploiting workers.

Nor are unions the sole critics of pay and conditions in the gig economy. Reacting to the Uber decision today, Frank Field MP — who has conducted an inquiry into gig economy pay and conditions (and whose report on Deliveroo likened its asymmetrical model to 20th century dockyards) — dubbed it “another stunning victory for workers against the exploitation and poverty wages that stem from bogus self-employment in the gig economy”.

“The Government’s job now is to ensure justice is delivered for workers all year round, not just at Christmas,” he added.

This week the government said it’s committed to legislate to improve the clarity of the employment status tests — to “reflect the reality of the modern working relationships” — which could have major implications for platform giants like Uber.

Although at this stage it’s not clear what the reformed employment tests will look like, nor how its approach might end up redrawing the line for workers. So there’s much tbc there.

“The long-drawn history of the Uber case shows that the current law is not easy for businesses and those who work for them to understand. Clarifying such a complex area of law is easier said than done and it remains to be seen what this promise will actually mean,” noted TaylorWessing’s Farr.

“However, what is certain is that there is an evolving consciousness around the nature of work within an increasingly flexible and digitalised economy. The future of work will change and employers sticking to arguably outdated relationships with their employees are likely to be left behind.”

Congestion charge looming

In other news today that’s also likely to impact Uber’s business, London’s mayor and transport regulator, TfL, have announced they will lift the congestion charge exemption for private hire vehicles (PHVs), as part of a strategy to tackle pollution and congestion in the city.

From April 8 only zero emission-capable vehicles will be exempt from the charge in London.

PHVs that are not wheelchair accessible will also have their exemption removed. So even Uber drivers using Prius (or similar) electric hybrid vehicles will still have to pay the charge from early next year.

The change of policy, which follows a public consultation, is expected to reduce the number of PHVs circulating in London’s Congestion Charging Zone by up to 8,000 per day.

The mayor’s target is a 65% reduction in taxi emissions by 2025 with the stated aim of protecting the health of Londoners.

Air toxicity in the UK capital has been exceeding legal limits for years, coinciding with a big rise in the number of PHVs on London’s streets after Uber’s 2012 launch kicked off the ride-hailing craze.

Freelancers rights come of age as gig economy booms

Gig workers, freelancers, sharing economy workers — call them what you want to, but the millions who drive you around in Lyfts, drop off your Seamless delivery or work on piecemeal projects from home have become a staple of the American workforce — and their numbers are only set to grow. A report out today […]

Gig workers, freelancers, sharing economy workers — call them what you want to, but the millions who drive you around in Lyfts, drop off your Seamless delivery or work on piecemeal projects from home have become a staple of the American workforce — and their numbers are only set to grow.

A report out today says 56.7 million Americans worked as freelancers in the last year. That is more than 1 out of 3 of the entire labor force.

For full-time employees, a whole array of protections exists to make sure they get paid, are not discriminated against and retain some income if they lose their jobs. From federal employment laws to state laws and city ordinances, employees have recourse for wrongdoing by employers. But for the fast-growing segment of Americans working as freelancers, little to no legal protections exist.

That’s beginning to change. From a modern take on labor unions in the shape of the Freelancers Union to legal tech startups trying to provide freelancers with simple and accessible contracts that protect their rights, freelancer protections are slowly catching up to the incredible growth that the gig economy has seen over the past few years.

Who is freelancing?

The Freelancers in America Study published today provides a window into who’s doing all the gig jobs around. Jointly commissioned by the Freelancers Union, which has more than 400,000 members nationwide, and Upwork, the largest freelancing website, the study is now in its fifth edition.

It found that freelancers live all across the United States, more than 40% of them are younger than 35 and almost two thirds of them found their work online. At the current rate of growth, we can expect the majority of the US workforce to freelance within less than a decade.

For the most part, the study found that freelancers are content with their work. More than half of those surveyed said that no amount of money would get them to take a traditional job. Compared to non-freelancers, freelancers have a better work/life balance and more control over their schedule, resulting in less stress and better health.

Yet, unlike their traditional full-time counterparts, freelancers disproportionately worry about whether they’re going to get paid for the work they complete, and how they can pursue claims for payment if they don’t. Nearly 70% of freelancers have struggled to collect payment for work they’d completed.

Protecting freelancers

This is where organizations like the Freelancers Union come in. Unlike traditional unions, membership in the Freelancers Union is free — with grants from various donors and fees from offering insurance plans covering the Union’s costs. While membership in traditional private-sector unions peaked in the 1970s and has been in a steady decline since, the Freelancers Union has seen steady growth since it was founded in 1995 and is currently growing at a rate of 1,000 new members a week.

Caitlin Pearce, the union’s Executive Director, tells me that freelancers deal with a fundamental power imbalance. With less than a fourth of them using a contract to protect their rights, they are often left at the mercy of the employer. “Freelancers are basically cut off from all the workplace protections that have become commonplace,” she explained.

In response to the concerns of its members, the Union has been advocating for timely payment by employers, access to affordable health care and more income predictability.

Last year, the Union led a successful advocacy drive to pass the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” by the New York city council. Under this act, businesses hiring freelancers in New York City are required to use a contract, must pay within 30 days of the work being complete, and freelancers can file a claim with the city to resolve issues they have with businesses. If the claim is successful, then businesses have to pay freelancers double the damages, in addition to the freelancer’s attorney fees.

Serious challenges remain. Even the act itself can’t protect workers who work remotely from as close as New Jersey for businesses based in New York. Effective protections need state and federal level laws, but Pearce says that even within New York State they found little appetite for legislation to protect freelancers’ rights.

For now, the Freelancers Union is doubling down on their municipal strategy, advocating for other cities where many freelancers are based to adopt ordinances similar to the one passed in New York.

Pearce says they’ve started to gain traction in Philadelphia and Madison, and are using the New York campaign as a model. New York showed the Union the widespread support they can galvanize for freelancer rights. From traditional labor unions to WeWork and Kickstarter, a wide range of groups came together to support passing the act. In the end, it passed unanimously, with all 51 New York City council members, including three Republicans, supporting it.

“It’s just a common sense law, if you do work you deserve to be paid,” stresses Pearce. The hope now is that same common sense can prevail in other cities, states and eventually federally.

The startup approach

Protections for freelancers are not only coming from union-like organizations. Some legal tech startups are working to provide more affordable contract services directed specifically at freelancers and small businesses.

Gina Pak and Liam Moriarty met during their time at Columbia Law School, and at first followed the typical attorney route of working for high-powered New York law firms. But a few years into their law careers, they both quit their jobs, packed up their Upper West Side apartment and moved out to Los Angeles to co-found Lawgood.

Pak and Moriarty had found that bad contracts in the US were giving rise to more than 12 million lawsuits every single year, costing the national economy more than $600 billion. Freelancers and small businesses can’t afford attorney fees, and so choose to write their own risky contracts, or go without a contract at all, leading to lawsuits when things inevitably go awry.

Instead, Lawgood provides an online service, where freelancers and businesses can upload any contract they have questions about and get feedback for the fraction of the cost of hiring an attorney.

Then, the company’s system combines a network of carefully vetted lawyers with artificial intelligence technology designed to detect potential problems in the contract. Each user gets a marked-up contract that provides notices of potential issues, simplified explanations of complex wording, and suggestions on how to negotiate.

Pak tells me that as things currently stand, “laws are just inadequate when it comes to protecting freelancers and are not keeping up with the times.” A well-drafted contract can protect both the freelancer and the company that hires them. But in her experience, even the word contract has a bad rep. “It’s a pain point that people just don’t want to go through, and some freelancers are even hesitant to ask for a contract because they don’t want to signal a lack of trust in the person hiring them.”

This means that for Lawgood, apart from enabling freelancers to get affordable, easy to understand contracts, they have to advocate for behavior change. They have to convince freelancers that contracts are one of the most effective communication tools if written well. “Don’t think of it as distrust,” encourages Pak, “but a tool for both sides to succeed and be clear on expectations.”

What does the future hold for supporting freelancers’ rights?

While organizations like the Freelancers Union and startups like Lawgood offer some hope for freelancers, it’s clear that more national level protections are needed to make sure freelancers aren’t taken advantage of.

In that sense, the Freelancers in America Study offers some important clues as to why politicians everywhere should be paying more attention to freelancers. Apart from the fact that they already represent more than 1 out of 3 American workers, the study showed that freelancers are 19 points more politically active than non-freelancers.

Even more strikingly, a whopping 72% of freelancers said they’d be willing to cross party lines to vote for candidates who support freelancers’ rights.

Pearce says one of the best outcomes from publishing the study is quantifying the number of freelancers, a loose and dispersed constituency that had not been properly counted before. The hope now is that their size, level of political engagement and willingness to cross party lines, will lead to politicians taking on their cause and eventually pass legislation protecting their rights. Until that happens, freelancers should push for contracts that protect them and join groups like Freelancers Union to amplify their voices.

UK Uber drivers to stage 24 hour strike over pay and conditions

A UK union that represents the interests of Uber drivers has called a 24 hour strike for tomorrow. Ride-hailing giant Uber may not be comfortable thinking of the people who do the driving on its platform as workers but, in 2016, a UK employment tribunal ruled against its classification of a group of then current […]

A UK union that represents the interests of Uber drivers has called a 24 hour strike for tomorrow.

Ride-hailing giant Uber may not be comfortable thinking of the people who do the driving on its platform as workers but, in 2016, a UK employment tribunal ruled against its classification of a group of then current and former drivers as independent contractors after they brought a legal challenge; and again in 2017 when Uber lost its first appeal against the tribunal ruling.

Though Uber’s appeal continues.

Today one of the unions that campaigns on behalf of individuals providing labor on so-called ‘gig economy’ platforms, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), announced the strike action by Uber drivers.

It said Uber drivers are demanding an end to unfair deactivations (described by the union as ‘de facto dismissals’); an increase in fares to £2 per mile (vs the current rate of £1.25p/m in London); a 10% reduction in commissions paid by drivers to Uber (currently 25% for UberX); and calling for Uber to immediately apply the tribunal judgement and implement “employment conditions that respect worker rights for drivers, including the payment of at least the minimum wage and paid holidays”.

The union argues Uber drivers should be classified as Limb (b) workers under UK law, rather than ‘independent contractors’ as the company claims.

It’s asking Uber users to respect the strike and not use the app tomorrow.

The chair of the IWGB’s United Private Hire Drivers branch is James Farrar, who was one of the former Uber drivers who brought the 2016 tribunal action against the company.

Commenting in a statement he said: “After years of watching take home pay plummet and with management bullying of workers on the rise, workers have been left with no choice but to take strike action. We ask the public to please support drivers by not crossing the digital picket line by not using the app during strike time.”

The 24 hour strike will take place on October 9, from 1pm, in London, Birmingham and Nottingham.

The IWGB said participating drivers will stage protests outside Uber’s offices in all three cities at the start of the strike.

In a response statement emailed to TechCrunch an Uber spokesperson told us:

“We are always looking to make improvements to ensure drivers have the best possible experience and can make the most of their time driving on the app. That’s why over the last few months we’ve introduced dozens of new features, including sickness, injury, maternity and paternity protections. An academic study last month found that drivers in London make an average of £11 an hour, after accounting for all of their costs and Uber’s service fee. We continue to look at ways to help drivers increase their earnings and our door is always open if anyone wants to speak to us about any issues they’re having.”

A company spokesman also flagged up a number of changes Uber has made in the UK since the tribunal ruling, including expanding a free insurance product it offers to drivers and couriers including sickness, injury and maternity & paternity payments across Europe.

The spokesman also pointed to a number of other changes it’s made, such as to paid waiting times, in-app tipping, and discounted access to savings products such as pensions and free skills courses.

He also flagged Uber’s recent launch of a new driver app with real-time earnings tracking and access to data insights intended to help drivers boost their earnings; and a 24/7 telephone support line for drivers and passengers (which was actually a requirement of London’s transport regulator).

The company also says it has formalized how it listens to and responds to driver feedback in every city it operates in — albeit, not well enough to steer off this latest strike.

All the changes it flags might well be positive steps in terms of improving Uber drivers’ lot but if UK judges continue to find these folks should in fact be classified as workers Uber will find itself having to shell out a whole lot more money to keep operating in Europe.

The company has previously said that if it had to provide all the ~50,000 ‘self-employed’ Uber drivers on its platform in the UK with workers’ rights it would cost its business “tens of millions” of pounds.

Uber’s next appeal against the tribunal judgement will be heard later this month, on 30 and 31 October. 

UberEats UK couriers striking over pay changes

Groups of UberEats couriers are continuing to strike over pay and calling for a minimum £5 per delivery fee. Several strikes have been reported in London over the past few days, as well as other UK cities including Glasgow, Cardiff and Plymouth. Late last week Uber revealed a new pay structure which shrinks the per […]

Groups of UberEats couriers are continuing to strike over pay and calling for a minimum £5 per delivery fee. Several strikes have been reported in London over the past few days, as well as other UK cities including Glasgow, Cardiff and Plymouth.

Late last week Uber revealed a new pay structure which shrinks the per delivery fee it pays gig economy workers carrying out food deliveries on its platform in London, Manchester and Birmingham — to just £2.50.

Adding on the £1.50 per mile fee Uber also gives UberEats couriers means the new minimum delivery fee couriers can expect is just £3.50 — down from the £4 Uber was previously offering UberEats couriers in cities such as Manchester.

The change to its pay structure has triggered a number of wildcat strikes in recent days, with couriers reportedly stopping fulfilling orders and gathering to protest in groups — including outside Uber’s Aldgate East London office.

Additional strikes have been scheduled for today.

Uber says a reduction in the per delivery fee it pays couriers is necessary in order to increase the amount it pays out during busier periods and areas — under its so called ‘Boost’ system.

Boost adds a multiplier to couriers’ pay, depending on order demand. And according to an email Uber sent to couriers last week, which was reviewed by TechCrunch, the company says couriers have been unhappy with Boost, as is — saying they have told it multipliers are “too low and not available in enough places”.

Uber says it talked to “over 300 delivery partners in London” — and was “consistently” told Boost is not helping couriers “make more money the way it’s supposed to”.

As a result it says it’s boosting Boost. “With the new fares and planned Boost multipliers, earning potential is expected to be higher during busy periods and areas than it is today,” it writes.

However it concedes that the new pay structure may shrink couriers’ earnings outside the busy periods that are covered by Boost.

“With the new fees, this also means that payments may be lower outside of typical mealtimes or in quieter areas, when there are fewer orders waiting to be picked up,” it writes.

“It makes sense that more money is available to be made during mealtimes and busy areas, something we’ve heard partners recognise, and is reflected in these changes. We recommend partners check for Boost in the partner app before going online. That’s the best indication of when and where we expect to see demand for food delivery.”

Uber is also not quantifying exactly how much of an increase couriers will get under the new increased Boost multiplier. Nor exactly how Boost’s availability is being expanded as claimed (we’ve asked Uber to clarify the expansion of Boost and it told us it will send more details within a hour; we’ll update this report when we have them).

This is likely because Boost is a moving target — with a dynamic “live map” in couriers’ apps showing “the current Boosts for each zone”.

Uber’s explainer of the feature also notes that the multipliers “will change based on the time of day, and the day of the week, to help show you when and where it’s expected to be busiest”. (It gives example of 1.5x and 2x Boosts on its website — but without greater transparency from the company it’s impossible to know how representative those multipliers are or are not.)

So Uber making opaque Boost ‘increases’ at the same time as delivering a big reduction to per delivery fees make it pretty easy to see why riders are not happy.

The company has tried to smooth the way for the pay structure tweaks by offering a temporary minimum payment guarantee (for the next six weeks; until November 4) to offer couriers an earnings back-stop — in case they do not earn up to the peak minimums it expects them to (between £9p/h and £11 p/h, depending on time/day).

If couriers don’t earn the listed minimums Uber says it will “top them up” to the stated amounts.

However this top-up also comes with caveats and conditions and is not universally available to all couriers — with the following restrictions applied, according to Uber’s email to couriers:

To receive a minimum payment guarantee per hour, for every hour a partner spends online during an incentive period, they need to 1) confirm at least 80% of delivery requests received by them; and 2) complete at least one delivery.

“Of course, partners are entirely free to choose if, when and where to go online and whether or not they want to participate in this incentive,” the company adds — a caveat that’s essential given Uber does not want the thousands of “delivery partners” it relies upon to fulfil orders being legally classified as workers, rather than the independent contractors it claims they are.

How tightly a company controls labor can determine employment classifications. And worker status for riders on gig economy food delivery platforms would load millions in additional costs onto these businesses, regionally — such as meaning they’d be required to pay the UK minimum wage plus additional benefits such as holiday and sick pay.

(A legal challenge to Deliveroo’s employment classification of riders last year was not successful. However the UK high court recently agreed a union could challenge its opposition to collective bargaining — on human rights grounds.)

How platform companies use technology to manage remote workforces of contractors is certainly facing increasing legal scrutiny in Europe.

Uber lost a 2016 employment tribunal in the UK brought by a group of drivers for its ride-hailing business — who the courts judged to be workers, not contractors. (Though Uber continues to appeal.)

One of the key selling points gig economy platforms shout about when trying to attract fresh ‘partners’ to fulfil their platform propositions is the claim they offer ‘flexible’ work opportunities. But exactly how much real-world flexibility there is if earnings are so tightly tied to demand at least starts to look debatable.

Being free to work for a pittance unless you work within narrow and shifting hours of peak demand doesn’t sound quite so ‘free’ — and looks rather more precarious.

There’s also growing political awareness (again, at least in Europe) that individuals gigging via platforms risk being exploited by asymmetrical platform power — as a recent report into rival food delivery platform Deliveroo, carried out by UK MP Frank Field, suggested.

Field likened Deliveroo’s model to casual labor practices at British dockyards until the middle of the 20th century — with a few winning out at the expense of very many more who lose out.

UberEats pay structure changes suggest couriers willing and able to work during peak periods might gain but only at the expense of those who can’t deliver what the algorithm wants.

In an FAQ about the new pay structure for UberEats, Uber couches the amendments as designed to help riders “make the most out of your time spent on the app”, writing: “While the minimum fees have been reduced, we’ve also increased Boost multipliers and made it available in more parts of the city during busy mealtimes. We believe this will allow you to make better earnings when restaurants have the greatest need for your service, and make the most out of your time spent on the app.”

“We’ll also be hosting Earnings Advice Sessions, where our Experts will provide tips on how to maximise your time online. Be on the lookout for more information on how to sign up for one of those sessions,” it adds, showing how the company is offering casual sessions intended to encourage certain work patterns among giggers — while continuing to assert they are just independent contractors, not more tightly controlled workers.

The GMB Union, which is backing UberEats’ couriers’ calls for a £5 per delivery fee and holding a protest outside Uber’s office today, said it’s expecting 1,000 drivers to join in the demonstration.

The union criticised Uber for “heaping more misery on drivers with reductions masked as increases” under the new pay structure. “People now expect food to be delivered on demand without the human cost that goes with such a service,” added regional officer Steve Garelick in a statement. “Uber must sit up and listen to those who provide this service.”

Two years ago Deliveroo couriers staged similar strike protests after the company trialed a new pricing structure.

Study flags poor quality working conditions for remote gig workers

An Oxford University study of remote gig economy work conducted on digital platforms has highlighted poor quality working conditions with implications for employees’ well-being. The research comes at a time when political scrutiny is increasingly falling on algorithmically controlled platforms and their societal impacts. Policymakers are also paying greater attention to the precarious reality for […]

An Oxford University study of remote gig economy work conducted on digital platforms has highlighted poor quality working conditions with implications for employees’ well-being.

The research comes at a time when political scrutiny is increasingly falling on algorithmically controlled platforms and their societal impacts. Policymakers are also paying greater attention to the precarious reality for workers on platforms which advertise their gig marketplaces to new recruits with shiny claims of ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’.

Governments in some regions are also actively reassessing employment law to take account of technology-fueled shifts to work and working patterns. Earlier this year, for instance, the UK government announced a package of labor market reforms — and committed to being responsible for quality of work, not just quantity of jobs, for the first time.

The Oxford University study, entitled Good Gig, Bad Big: Autonomy and Algorithmic Control in the Global Gig Economy, looks at remote gig economy work, such as tasks like research, translation and programming carried out via platforms such as Freelancer.com and Fiverr (rather than gig economy platforms such as food delivery platforms, where workers must be in local proximity to the work — albeit, those platforms have their own workforce exploitation critiques).

The researchers note that an estimated 70 million workers worldwide are registered on remote work platforms. Their study methodology involved carrying out face-to-face interviews with just over 100 workers in South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa who had been active on one of two unnamed “leading platforms” for at least six months.

They also undertook a remote survey of just over 650 additional gig platform workers, from the same regions, to supplement the interview findings. Participants for the survey portion were recruited via online job ads on the platforms themselves, and had to have completed work through one of the two platforms within the past two months, and to have worked in at least five projects or for five hours in total.

 

Free to get the job done

The study paints a mixed picture, with — on the one hand — gig workers reporting feeling they can remotely access stimulating and challenging work, and experiencing perceived autonomy and discretion over how they get a job done: A large majority (72%) of respondents said they felt able to choose and change the order in which they undertook online tasks, and 74% said they were able to choose or change their methods of work.

At the same time — and here the negatives pile in — workers on the platforms lack collective bargaining so are simultaneously experiencing a hothouse of competitive marketplace and algorithmic management pressure, combined with feelings of social isolation (with most working from home), and the risk of overwork and exhaustion as a result of a lack of regulations and support systems, as well as their own economic needs to get tasks done to earn money.

“Our findings demonstrate evidence that the autonomy of working in the gig economy often comes at the price of long, irregular and anti-social hours, which can lead to sleep deprivation and exhaustion,” said Dr Alex Wood, co-author of the paper, commenting in a statement. “While gig work takes place around the world, employers tend to be from the U.K. and other high-income Western countries, exacerbating the problem for workers in lower-income countries who have to compensate for time differences.

“The competitive nature of online labour platforms leads to high-intensity work, requiring workers to complete as many gigs as possible as quickly as they can and meet the demands of multiple clients no matter how unreasonable.”

The survey results backed the researchers’ interview findings of an oversupply of labour, with 54% of respondents reporting there was not enough work available and just a fifth (20%) disagreeing.

The study also highlights the fearsome power of platforms’ rating and reputation systems as a means of algorithmically controlling remote workers — via the economic threat of loss of future work.

The researchers write:

A far more effective means of control [than non-proximate monitoring mechanisms such as screen monitoring software, which platforms also deployed] was the ‘algorithmic management’ enabled by platform-based rating and reputation systems (Lee et al., 2015; Rosenblat and Stark, 2016). Workers were rated by their clients following the completion of tasks. Workers with the best scores and the most experience tended to receive more work due to clients’ preferences and the platforms’ algorithmic ranking of workers within search results.

This form of control was very effective, as informants stressed the importance of maintaining a high average rating and good accuracy scores. Whereas Uber’s algorithmic management ‘deactivates’ (dismisses) workers with ratings deemed low (Rosenblat and Stark, 2016), online labour platforms, instead, use algorithms to filter work away from those with low ratings, thus making continuing on the platform a less viable means of making a living.

As a result of how platforms are organized, remote gig workers reported that the work could be highly intense, with a majority (54%) of survey respondents saying they had to work at very high speed; 60% working to tight deadlines; and more than a fifth (22%) experiencing pain as a result of their work.

“This is particularly felt by low-skilled workers, who must complete a very high number of gigs in order to make a decent living,” added professor Mark Graham, co-author, in another supporting statement. “As there is an oversupply of low-skill workers and no collective bargaining power, pay remains low. Completing as many jobs as possible is the only way to make a decent living.”

The study also highlights the contradictions inherent in the gig economy’s ‘flexible working’ narrative — with the researchers noting that while algorithms do not formally control where workers work, in reality remote platform workers may have “little real choice but to work from home, and this can lead to a lack of social contact and feelings of social isolation”.

Gig platform workers also run up against the rigid requirements of demanding clients and deadlines in order to get paid for their work — meaning there’s a whip being cracked over them after all. The study found most workers had to work “intense unsocial and irregular hours in order to meet client demand”.

“The autonomy resulting from algorithmic control can lead to overwork, sleep deprivation and exhaustion as a consequence of the weak structural power of workers vis-a-vis clients,” they write. “This weak structural power is an outcome of platform-based rating and ranking systems enabling a form of control which is able to overcome the spatial and temporal barriers that non-proximity places on the effectiveness of direct labour process surveillance and supervision. Online labour platforms thus facilitate clients in connecting with a largely unregulated global oversupply of labour.”

Workers that gained the most in this environment were good at mastering skills independently and navigating platforms’ reputation systems so they could keep winning more work — albeit essentially at other workers’ expense, on account of how the platforms’ algorithms funnel more work towards the best rated (meaning there’s less for the rest).

The study concludes that platform reputations have a ‘symbolic power’ — as “an emerging form of marketplace bargaining power” — and “as a consequence of the algorithmic control inherent to online labour platforms.”

The workers who lacked the individual resources of skills and reputation suffered from low incomes and insecurity.

“Our findings are consistent with remote workers’ experiences across many national contexts,’ added Graham. “Hopefully, this research will shed light on potential pitfalls for remote gig workers and help policymakers understand what working in the online gig economy really looks like. While there are benefits to workers such as autonomy and flexibility, there are also serious areas of concern, especially for lower-skill workers.”

Deliveroo’s ‘flexible’ labor model likened to 20th century dockyards

A report into the pay and conditions for riders delivering food for gig economy platform Deliveroo has urged the company to commit to offering a form of worker status to those riders who form the backbone of its workforce, arguing that the current reality is a dual labour market — which works very well for […]

A report into the pay and conditions for riders delivering food for gig economy platform Deliveroo has urged the company to commit to offering a form of worker status to those riders who form the backbone of its workforce, arguing that the current reality is a dual labour market — which works very well for some riders but very poorly for others.

Far from Deliveroo’s model representing a hyper modern form of disruption, the report draws a parallel between the five-year-old startup’s ‘flexible work’ model and casual labor practices at British dockyards until the middle of the 20th century — “where workers would gather around the dock gate desperately hoping that they would be offered work”, and where only some workers were fortunate to be offered fairly regular shifts, while others were offered no work at all. 

From the report:

Such a system of casual employment could only work so long as there existed in every port a pool of surplus labour available to meet the demands of the port on its busiest day. According to Alan Bullock’s record of that period, the companies took full advantage of this, but refused to accept any responsibility for the fact that during most of the year a large number of the men forming the pool were underemployed.

Likewise, it seems, with Deliveroo, where, according to one rider, ‘riders on the advance booking times take most of the peak time slots blocking others from being able to increase their stats, often with little to nothing left to choose from.’

The inquiry was conducted by UK MP Frank Field who took evidence from 179 Deliveroo riders for the report — some put forward by the company itself, and some by unions.

For those riders who require greater stability and certainty in their work, Field is recommending that Deliveroo provides guarantee hourly pay rates of no less than the UK’s National Living Wage for all the time people are logged in and available for work — urging the company to recognize “the responsibilities they hold to those workers whose lives are made very difficult and insecure by both their existing rates of pay and working conditions, as well as the lack of alternative jobs to fit their circumstances”.

“A central question for both Deliveroo and the Government, before it decides on the shape of any new employment legislation, is how to safeguard the living standards of working people who need a reliable source of income but cannot find any work other than those jobs that, for one reason or another, risk plunging their earnings below the level of the National Living Wage. Both the market and the state are currently failing to deliver adequate pay and working conditions for this group of people,” he writes.

For those Deliveroo riders who prize flexibility and only wish to work a smaller number of hours — i.e. to suit their needs or wrap around other jobs — Field suggests they should be able to continue with the current model, which the report notes enables Deliveroo to “expand and contract its workforce when needed”. So he is also urging the government and the company preserve “the flexibility that so many riders have said they value” — recognizing that the gig economy is working for some, while arguing that it should not be at the expense of others.

Commenting on the findings in a statement, Field said: “The self-employed status and part-time nature of much gig economy work has given the labour market a flexibility that is still relatively new. Some of those workers who are keen to seize this opportunity view it as a short-term option while they develop their longer term earning power — setting up their own business, starting on an artistic career and the like.

“But for an unknown number of workers these imposed self-employment opportunities are all there is on offer, even though their need is for stable work for at least the level of the National Living Wage. It is this group that we are concerned about in this report and have been in each previous report we have published on the gig economy.”

The inquiry found that Deliveroo riders’ hourly pay ranges from £0 (nothing) to upwards of £20 — with average rates “tending to hover a little above, a little below, or at the level of the National Living Wage”. 

The lowest earnings reported to the inquiry included hourly amounts of nothing, £2, £3, £4.25, £5 and £6; while average earnings reported included hourly amounts of £5, £6, £6.83, £7, £8, £8.50, £9, £10, and £12; and the highest earnings reported included hourly amounts of £9, £10, £12.75, £15, £16, and £17.

Meanwhile, the company’s turnover increased from £16M in 2015, to £72M in 2016, while its global revenues increased over the same period from £18M, to £128M — and its net assets increased from £90M, to £168M.

A common ‘Catch 22’ style complaint raised by riders speaking to the inquiry relates to steps the company takes to control its workforce — which in turn appear to undermine its mooted ‘flexible work’ claim. Such as Deliveroo only allowing riders with the best delivery statistics to get first pick at booking shifts in advance (i.e. in the areas where it offers booking zones).

Riders who could not access first pick booking told the inquiry they were typically left with few or no bookable shifts — yet without the guarantee of being able to carry out deliveries they found it hard or impossible to improve their Deliveroo statistics in the way required by the platform to unlock access to bookable shifts. Hence the Catch 22.

“You theoretically can work when you want, realistically there are no guaranteed hours and shifts are now very hard to come by,” one rider told the inquiry.

Unpredictable earnings was another commonly raised complaint, along with the fact that riders are not paid for the time they spend waiting for work — and some also reported being penalized by the platform when stuck waiting in traffic to pick up or make a delivery, or waiting for a restaurant to prepare the food .

One rider told the inquiry: “If I could [sum] up my relationship with Deliveroo it would be the transfer of risk from the company onto me […] I am only paid for my profitable activity. If there are no orders then I do not get paid, this costs Deliveroo nothing, the risk is on me not Deliveroo. A normal company would take that hit and continue to pay me.”

At the same time, the number of people riding for Deliveroo has grown exponentially — from 280 in 2014, to 4,186 in 2015, to 22,576 in 2016, and to 37,773 in 2017. While so far this year 32,166 people have ridden for the company, with approximately 60 per cent based in London and the South East, according to the report.

Field concludes there is a need for the government to reform employment law, and enforce it “much more robustly, with the objective of introducing greater security for workers without compromising the flexibility of their work”.

“Our key recommendation to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is to enshrine in legislation the principle that anyone who is both logged into platforms like Deliveroo and readily available for work should be paid no less than the National Living Wage for those periods of time,” he writes.

“Alongside this reform, we call on the Department to ensure that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement is adequately resourced, and given additional powers where necessary, to enforce all aspects of employment law, in both letter and spirit, that relate to vulnerable workers.”

While Deliveroo has said it welcomes Field recognizing “the benefits that working in the gig economy can bring” the company has rejected his recommendations — arguing the changes he suggests would “remove the flexibility that riders value”.

It also claims his report contains “a number of claims that are incorrect and overlooks the extent to which riders value flexible working” — rejecting, for example, the accusation that the platform deliberately maintains an oversupply of riders and thereby puts rider earnings at risk.

In a statement responding to the report, a company spokesperson told us:

Deliveroo is proud to offer flexible well-paid work where riders on average earn well over £10 an hour, well above the National Living Wage.

In the modern economy people want to fit their work around their lives, not the other way round. This is why working with Deliveroo is so popular as it gives riders total flexibility. Riders choose how much they want to work and when, and are very clear they want to protect the flexibility that self-employment provides.

Deliveroo believes more can be done to increase the security for riders while protecting their ability to be their own bosses, which is why we have introduced free, market-leading insurance for all, covering riders in case anything goes wrong.

But we want to go further, and have called on the Government to update employment rules to end the trade-off between flexibility and security and enable platforms to offer riders even more benefits without putting their employment status at risk.

The UK government is currently consulting on a package of labor market reforms intended to expand rights to millions of workers, with the reforms intended to respond to changing working patterns driven by the rise of so-called gig economy platforms — following rising political pressure over precarious work and unsafe conditions for the people whose labor underpins the gig economy.

At the same time, a series of UK court and employment tribunal rulings in recent years have also bolstered the case against gig economy platforms as being predicated on exploitation of a workforce via circumvention of workers’ rights.

Uber continues to appeal (so far unsuccessfully) against a 2016 employment tribunal ruling which found that a group of Uber drivers were in fact workers and therefore entitled to rights such as holiday and sick pay.

While last month the UK Supreme Court backed a similar workers’ rights case brought against Pimlico Plumbers.

Also last month a group of couriers who had been defined as self-employed by the delivery company Hermes won their employment tribunal fight to be classed as workers.

Deliveroo has had more success at fending off employment classification challenges — although last month the UK High Court granted a union permission to challenge the company’s opposition to collective bargaining for its couriers on human rights grounds.

Last year the union challenged the company’s employment classification of couriers but a tribunal found they were independent contractors on the grounds that they had a genuine right to find a substitute to do their job for them.

Although the union disputes the sufficiency of the substitution clause in Deliveroo’s contract, and argues that rather than there being a trade-off between flexibility and worker rights in UK law — as the company has sought to claim — there is already an employment status that allows for both.

Deliveroo either fails to understand basic employment law or is trying to actively mislead the public,” said IWGB vice president Mags Dewhurst in a statement. “As has been established time and time again, under British law there is no trade-off between flexibility and worker rights. There is an employment status — ‘limb b workers’ — that allows for both and which Deliveroo has gone to great lengths to deny its riders, to the extent that we will now be facing the company in the High Court.”

On substitution, Field’s report notes: “We did not pick up from our evidence a great need or want among riders to use substitutes to cover their orders and Deliveroo was unable to tell us how many riders use substitutes.”

We also asked Deliveroo how many riders use substitutes but the company said it could not provide a figure — telling us: “Riders can freely engage substitutes to work on their behalf at any time, using their rider account, without needing to inform Deliveroo.”

Another of Field’s recommendations is for The Director of Labour Market Enforcement to conduct deep dives into sectors offering platform jobs — and report on “both levels of pay for different groups of workers as well as the reality of the self-employed status and the validity of each firm’s defence of that status, such as workers being able to substitute somebody else’s labour for their own and remain on the company’s books”.

We’ve reached out to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for a comment on the report recommendations and will update this story with any response.

Yesterday, ahead of the publication of Field’s report, Deliveroo sought to put its own spin on the findings — proposing in a newspaper article what it described as a “new Charter to allow companies to give greater security to the self-employed” by providing benefits to its workforce “without compromising their self-employment status”.

It argues that the manner in which benefits such as entitlement to annual leave are currently calculated for employees and workers is “not appropriate for the on-demand economy”. And its suggestion for the Charter is to make clear that such benefits “can be accrued on the basis of earnings rather than on hours or days work”.

​”This new proposition would both harness the desire for flexibility and address the need for more security, allowing on-demand companies to continue to prosper and make a significant contribution to the UK economy,” it adds.