David Wolffe makes the case for legislation to protect the rights of workers in the gig economy, speaking after his own experience of mistreatment while working.
Over the past few years, it seems as if we have seen a significant shift in the discussions around zero-hour workers and the gig economy. Various legal cases have strengthened the rights of workers, while firms, such as Uber and Deliveroo, have been keen to advertise how they have changed. This period has also coincided with the entrance of new companies – which have often been referred to as the ‘new’ gig economy.
For 6 months, I worked for Gorillas - one of these new entrants, who have been keen to publicise their improved working conditions. Gorillas’ website presents their employment as an alternative to an exploitative industry. With hourly wages, part-time and full-time contracts, and incentive programmes, they market themselves as the change. It is a powerful branding that successfully convinces passing customers that they truly are a change from the status quo.
The key to their success is to market themselves as the change - even if this isn’t necessarily the case. Staff emails consistently present some idea of collective solidarity - whether that be announcing new ‘affinity groups’, opportunities to play for the company’s football league, or even to release music under their record label. But while these may sound like exciting benefits, their attempts to create a sense of worker solidarity that they can control, appear to be an effort to prevent a growth in union action. And this isn’t just my suspicion - leaked internal emails have suggested an active effort by management to prevent unions forming.
Last Summer, Gorillas (which is a German brand) struck controversy when they sacked 350 German workers for taking part in wildcat strikes. Staff were protesting the dismissal of a colleague, missed pay and poor working conditions. While Germany’s strict labour laws allowed Gorillas to dismiss the workers, and pretend the issue had been resolved, my own experience showed that these concerns hadn’t been fixed. Supervisors would frequently cancel the shifts that zero-hour employees had booked with no notice and ignore concerns made on the group chat. If issues were raised to HR, response times were slow and little concern was shown. When I complained about underpayment of wages, it took two and a half weeks to get a response.
When, over this summer, the fall in customer demand for orders meant virtually no shifts were available, I was dismissed for inactivity. When I complained to my manager, that the reason I hadn’t been working was because no shifts were available, I was promptly blocked. It was only after making a complaint to HR that I was eventually offered my job back.
But I know I’m lucky – for me, this was a job to top up my income while I was at school. I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills or putting a roof over my head, and so, while irritating, Gorillas’ policies weren’t disastrous for me. Though, for most people at Gorillas, this was their main income.
I know my experience in Gorillas is part of a wider story of how workers are treated in the gig economy, and while small steps may have been made to grant workers the most basic protections, it will only be through the extension of these legal rights that conditions for workers will improve. By petitioning for greater gig economy rights, including guaranteed minimum hours, clearer government complaint channels for safety and pay concerns, and protection against unfair dismissal, it will be possible to create a workforce that can retain the benefits of flexible working, while ensuring that the safety and income of workers are protected.
David Wolffe is a gap year student, currently working on partnerships projects in North London state schools. He previously worked for the grocery-delivery app, Gorillas, and hopes to study History at University. He (occasionally) tweets at @_davidwolffe.