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Stuart Delivery strike highlights UK’s bogus self-employment problem

By misclassifying workers as ‘self-employed’ companies can trample over labour rights. Liam Kennedy reports on the striking couriers fighting back

4 to 5 minute read

Stuart Delivery Workers strike in a large group outside a high street McDonalds

Stuart Delivery couriers are now into their third week of strike action, in what has become the longest continuous strike in UK gig economy history. Action that begun in Sheffield has now spread to across the north of England: Chesterfield, Huddersfield, Blackpool and Sunderland.

In response to a proposed 25 per cent pay cut, resulting in a circa £700 reduction in monthly earnings, couriers have collectively demanded: a £6 base rate for drops, plus mileage; paid waiting time after the first ten minutes (at £10 an hour); a hiring freeze in Sheffield and a resolution to glitches with the app through which they find work. Their demands have been covered in-depth by some great reporting direct from the picket lines.

Stuart Delivery, which is contracted by Just Eat, clearly has the financial clout to meet workers’ demands. Its latest accounts show that Stuart’s sales increased by more than 100 per cent (£20.49 million to £41.14 million) for the financial year ending 31 December 2020. At the same time, the highest paid director saw their salary increase by a staggering 964 per cent, up from £210,000 in 2019 to over £2.2 million in 2020.

The couriers’ union, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), has gained notoriety for its successes organising in workplaces that the big unions have long deemed ‘unorganisable’. This strike speaks to their wealth of experience, with workers only picketing outside McDonald’s Sheffield between 5pm and 10pm, allowing them to resume work outside of peak hours and sustain the strike for longer. Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB, has also been clear that winning this battle requires action across multiple cities and sites.

Tip of the bogus self-employment iceberg

The experience of Stuart Delivery couriers is typical of the UK’s sizeable ‘bogus self-employment’ problem. When classified as self-employed, workers are not entitled to the minimum wage, denied sick pay, have no access to guaranteed weekly hours and can be fired and rehired at the click of the button.

While there was public outcry – and parliamentary inaction – on companies’ use of fire and rehire earlier this year, that risk still sits at the heart of what it means to be bogusly self-employed: companies can drop you and pick you back up at whenever they want.

This misclassification of workers essentially shifts all risk and costs associated with the job away from the employer and onto couriers or drivers. Couriers stuck waiting outside a restaurant or parcel delivery drivers (another sector where bogus self-employment is rife) travelling between jobs are unpaid for this time and only receive a tiny fee per drop, collection or successful delivery.

The self-employed also have to cover the cost of their own uniform, vehicle, insurance and repairs. The resulting dynamic (and its appeal to employers) is simple: companies get to squeeze their labour costs and maximise their profits.

Documenting the extent of bogus self-employment in the UK is borderline impossible as there is next to no record keeping or detailed information on this workforce among official government datasets. The Labour Force Surveyand Annual Population Survey, which detail the size of self-employment in specific sectors and occupations, does not contain information on self-employed earnings.

The Family Resources Survey does include information on both size and earnings but the sample size for the self-employed is too small for any substantive analysis on specific sectors. As even the Chancellor admitted on the Andrew Marr show earlier this year: ‘we don’t have perfect information about the self-employed, we don’t know their particular circumstances.’

What little we do know about the self-employed is cause for concern. For instance, we know that self-employed earnings have grown much slower than those of employees over the past few decades – and let’s not forget that there has been next to no growth in real employee earnings since 2008. The bogusly self-employed also lack any real sense of autonomy or influence over decision-making in their job, while health and safety provisions are scant and regulatory oversight over working conditions almost non-existent.

So, what is to be done?

The European Commission recently announced long-anticipated proposals that would make the default legal status of platform workers that of employees, not self-employed. As opposed to the current status quo, in which platform workers often must engage in lengthy disputes to prove their employee status, the onus would now shift onto employers to prove otherwise. The measures also include recognition that algorithmic management is a risk for workers’ rights and document the need for greater transparency regarding the use of artificial intelligence.

While these proposals are welcome, they do not go far enough. They provide little reassurance to those working outside of platforms, who will remain bogusly self-employed. Neither do existing proposals deal with the often-byzantine web of umbrella companies and subcontractors that employers can use to shirk their obligations.

Obviously, there is no requirement for the UK to adopt these proposals. In fact, there seems to be very little appetite amongst government to deal with any labour market issues – despite the so-called levelling-up agenda. There is still no sign of the much-hyped Employment Bill on the horizon and even then, the provisions it offers will do little for those who are bogusly classified as self-employed.

In the long-term, regulation remains necessary. In the short-term, change must continue to come from the ground-up. For example, in order to counteract missing data, workers are collectivising and collaborating with organisations like the Worker Info Exchange to understand their rates of pay and basic terms and conditions.

Building collective power in highly atomised workplaces remains the only route to securing improvements for bogusly self-employed workers. It’s in this context that the Stuart strike is such an impressive achievement. All power to them.

Liam Kennedy is a Red Pepper editor

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