Low-paid, precarious zero hours contracts and an enforced dearth of union organisation is the bind that unites much of the post-industrial service economy. The failure of the Tory-backed Taylor Review to advocate in favour of workers suggests that a solution will only come from struggle within the ‘gig economy’. Jamie Woodcock, author of Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, suggests we turn to Engels’ report on the conditions of workers in nineteenth-century Manchester, which could offer a glimpse into what a counter-offensive against atomised precarity could look like.
The government has become increasingly concerned about the rise of the so-called “gig economy” and other forms of precarious work like zero-hours contracts. A range of scandals, from those at Sports Direct to Parcelforce,[i] have given a glimpse of the exploitation and regular breaches of employment rights that are rife in this kind of work.
The recent publication of Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices[ii] was meant to provide the government with evidence and recommendations in this area. However, it has been met with widespread derision from workers and trade unions. In a particular, Jason Moyer-Lee (the general secretary of the IWGB – the Independent Workers union of Great Britain) has argued that ‘when one looks at the actual recommendations, it is full of vacuous fluff and light on substantive proposals.’[iii]
The report focuses on the idea of “quality work”, not recognising that the degradation of the modern workplace – from call centres, delivery, transport, and care – is not some kind of aberration, but central to the business models of these companies. However, this is no surprise given the constitution of the panel for the review. For example, one was a corporate lawyer who represented businesses in industrial relations disputes, while another had actually invested in Deliveroo! There were no workers’ voices included, nor was the IWGB consulted, despite it successfully organising workers in this sector.
In my ongoing collaborative research project with Deliveroo workers, a very different picture of modern work is emerging.[iv] We put together an evidence submission for the Parliamentary inquiry on ‘The Future World of Work.’ In the survey we organised, the overwhelming majority felt their current employment status did not accurately reflect the nature of their work, that the independent contractor classification was used to treat them unfairly (even that it was used deliberately to take advantage of them), and were in favour of greater employment rights.[v]
Yet instead of addressing these issues, the Taylor review failed on multiple counts. There are no serious suggestions for enforcement, with no measures to address breaches or remove the obstructive fees for employment tribunals. More worryingly, the review even goes on to suggest the introduction of piece rate legislation that would undermine the minimum wage:
platforms would be able to compensate workers based on their output (i.e. number of tasks performed), provided they are able to demonstrate through the data that they have available that an average individual, working averagely hard, successfully clears the National Minimum Wage with a 20% margin of error.[vi]
Part of the problem with this is that the companies involved in the gig economy have a history of obscuring the data. For example, Uber have used the ‘Greyball’ tool to provide false information to enforcement officials.[vii] So there is little chance of accurate information being used in these calculations. In addition to these issues, the IWGB has prepared a very detailed response to the entire review.[viii]
I want to take a different approach to thinking about the impact of the review. Just over a week after the report was released, a statue of Engels was unveiled as part of the Manchester International Festival. As part of the ceremony, I argued that the statue should be a call to action on work.[ix] However, it is particularly important to reflect on the legacy of Engels in the light of the Taylor Review. Engels came from a bourgeois background – coming to Manchester to oversee the running of his father’s factory – yet opened his eyes to the conditions of workers across the city. In The Conditions of the Working Class in England, Engels investigated how the new form of factory work was effecting workers in Manchester.[x]
If Engels were to arrive in London today and explore its neighbourhoods, what would he make of the working conditions? The rights that workers have fought for – and won – since then are increasingly being eroded by companies, whether through wage theft, misclassification of employment status, or masquerading as platforms rather than employers. Yet, Engels did not see these kinds of deleterious effects as an anomaly, but rather a result of the antagonism between workers and capital.
Marx later took a similar approach when writing chapter ten on the working day in Capital.[xi] He drew on the data collected by factory inspectors for government reports. Later in his life, Marx would then argue for a workers’ inquiry to understanding the experiences of workers.[xii] It is this approach that guides my own research, from call centres to Deliveroo, that does not see research on work as an end in itself.[xiii] To paraphrase Marx: there is no one better placed than workers themselves to describe work, and the exploitation they face can only be overcome through their collective actions.
Taylor claimed at the start of the process he would ‘tell Theresa May what’s wrong with modern work’[xiv], yet after the response to the publication, he is now arguing that the ‘report on work’ is, in fact, ‘brilliant’ – it is just that ‘people don’t get it.’[xv] This is a long way from the reports of the factory inspectors in Marx’s time. Unlike Leonard Horner, whose ‘services to the English working class will never be forgotten,’[xvi] Taylor’s review deserves to not even be remembered. It has clearly failed to deliver results for workers in the gig economy, but given its approach, this is hardly a surprise. Instead what is needed is to listen to those workers who already understand the problems – but also to understand that the solutions can only come from the struggles that are emerging in the gig economy and beyond.
Jamie Woodcock completed his PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is currently a fellow at LSE. His research interests include: digital labour, technology, management, critical theory, and the sociology of work. He is the author of Working the Phones (Pluto, 2016).
Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres is available from Pluto Press.
[i] Rob Davies, (2017) DPD and Parcelforce face MPs’ questions over working conditions, The Guardian.
[iii] Jason Moyer-Lee, (2017) Wishy-washy and full of fluff – the Taylor review offers little, The Guardian.
[iv] Jamie Woodcock, (2017) Automate this! Delivering Resistance in the Gig Economy, Mute.
[vi] Taylor review, (2017), p38.
[xi] Karl Marx, (1867) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I.
[xiii] See, for example: Jamie Woodcock (2017) Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centres, London: Pluto.
[xv] Rowland Manthorpe and Kelly Fiveash, (2017) ‘Matthew Taylor: My report on work was brilliant – but people don’t get it’, Wired.
[xvi] Karl Marx, (1867) Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I.