The California state legislature has passed a landmark “AB5” bill to tighten legislation in the so-called “gig economy”, extending basic workers’ rights to many who had been deprived them.
In the USA, as in the UK, companies such as Uber or Deliveroo falsely categorise most of their workers as “independent contractors”. This deprives us of basic workers’ rights such as minimum wage, holiday pay, a pension, and collective bargaining rights. The number of workers with such jobs has more than doubled in the last three years, to around one in ten working-age adults.
Companies, when attempting to justify this miscategorisation, spout hackneyed phrases about allowing our “flexibility”. This flexibility is seriously exaggerated, plus, flexibility would be fully compatible with correct categorisation and workers’ rights.
Flexibility counts for little for a Deliveroo motorcyclist having to work 70 hour weeks, week-in week-out, to cover costs and make a living, because of low pay and high costs. We are paid, not per hour, but per delivery, sometimes earning as little as £3 to travel to a restaurant, wait, collect the food, travel to the customer, and deliver it. There have been whole afternoons where I have earned well under the minimum wage.
Many gig-economy employers use complex incentives systems, performance-management style usage of stats, and the ever-present threat of having your contract “terminated” to behave every-bit like an employer and boss.
IWGB and other unions in the gig economy in the UK have consistently fought — including in the courts — that we should have “worker status”. A legal case against Uber was successful. Days before the court-case against them, Deliveroo added a bogus clause giving us the right to “substitution”, to hire others to perform the work on our behalf. Management have won, for now.
The AB5 bill places tighter conditions on what classifies as an independent contractor, places the burden of proof on the “employer”, and strengthens the ability to sue companies for infringement. Unions and workers there are rightly celebrating at the shrinking of this loophole.
Uber and other similar companies have already stated their intentions to both fight the bill and argue that their drivers fulfil the criteria to count as independent. The battle against denial of these basic workers’ rights is far from won in California, even further in most other places.
A lot of waffle is chatted about the “gig economy” as something supposedly very new and different. In the not-so-distant past, most work was very precarious, not dissimilar in the important respects from today’s gig economy. Workers organised against that, won improved working conditions, pay, and security, and won legislation to protect them.
The “gig economy” is simply another implement in the bosses’ toolkit to bypass those hard-won rights. We fight them within those terms of reference, as with our strikes for higher pay, and we fight to close that loophole and break that tool.
The rest of the labour movement and Labour party can and must help us win this basic struggle.