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Deliveroo accused of ‘soft union busting’ with GMB deal

Smaller grassroots unions have criticised Deliveroo and GMB for making a “hollow” deal that will ultimately undermine workers’ self-organising efforts

App-based food delivery firm Deliveroo has been accused of “soft union busting” after signing a deal with GMB, which smaller unions have condemned as a “hollow and cynical PR move” designed to scupper the grassroots, self-organising efforts of the company’s workers.

Announced on 12 May 2022, the voluntary partnership agreement – which covers more than 90,000 riders – gives GMB rights to collectively bargain on pay, consultation rights on benefits (as well as issues such as health and safety) and allows it to represent individual riders in dispute with the company.

While Deliveroo has also pledged to pay its riders at least the minimum wage, this only applies while delivering an order, not from when they log into the app for work.

“This deal is the first of its kind in the world,” said GMB national officer Mick Rix. “Tens of thousands of riders for one of the world’s largest online food delivery services will now be covered by a collective agreement that gives them a voice – including pay talks, guaranteed earnings and representation in times of difficulty.

“Riders deserve respect for the work they do, and Deliveroo deserves praise for developing this innovative agreement with GMB – a blueprint for those working in the platform self-employed sector.”

Deliveroo founder and CEO Will Shu added: “We are delighted to partner with the GMB in this first-of-its-kind voluntary agreement, giving self-employed riders flexibility, guaranteed earnings, representation and benefits. Deliveroo has long called for riders to have both flexibility and security, and this innovative agreement is exactly the sort of partnership the on-demand economy should be based on.”

Unions react to GMB-Deliveroo deal

However, with Deliveroo’s annual general meeting set to take place on 20 May, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) said the “announcement is nothing more than a hollow and cynical PR move” aimed at putting the minds of investors and customers at ease, rather than delivering meaningful change for workers.

The union also said the agreement’s recognition of Deliveroo riders as “self-employed” rather than “workers” further undermines their organising efforts, as this employment status means they are not legally entitled to sick pay, holiday pay, or the minimum wage.

“This backroom deal is a cynical PR move and does little to tackle Deliveroo’s documented history of eroding worker rights,” said Alex Marshall, president of IWGB. “Under this deal, couriers will still lack basic rights like holiday pay and pensions, and because it accepts couriers’ status as independent contractors, it undermines the ability of workers to enforce their rights and minimum earnings outside of time spent directly fulfilling orders.”

“Under this deal, couriers will still lack basic rights like holiday pay and pensions, and...it undermines the ability of workers to enforce their rights and minimum earnings outside of time spent directly fulfilling orders”
Alex Marshall, IWGB

Responding to the GMB-Deliveroo deal, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU), James Farrar, said the abandonment of “worker” status in favour of an agreement that riders are self-employed was “unfortunate”, adding: “It’s potentially going to have a corrosive effect on the way the courts may look at other workers seeking worker status in the future.”

In February 2021, the UK Supreme Court ruled that drivers for ride-hailing firm Uber should be classified as workers rather than self-employed individuals, giving Uber’s roughly 70,000 drivers the right to be paid the national minimum wage, receive statutory minimum holiday pay and rest breaks, as well as protection from unlawful discrimination and whistleblowing.

In the wake of the ruling, Uber agreed to pay its UK drivers the minimum wage, but only for the time they are assigned to trips, rather than, as the Supreme Court explicitly ruled, from when they log in to the app.

The ADCU’s Farrar noted that Deliveroo’s pledge to only pay riders the minimum wage while assigned to jobs and not from when they log on echoed the situation with Uber.

“You can’t tackle the gig economy problem until people are paid for all their time at work,” he said. “We can’t have an efficient model until people’s time is paid for. That decision by the GMB is going to lock in that model potentially, unless it’s challenged by others in the future. It’s not helpful the GMB has taken that decision.”

Deliveroo courier Mohaan Biswas, who joined the IWGB’s Couriers and Logistic Branch in 2016, said: “[The agreement] must be seen as GMB supporting Deliveroo’s whitewashing of its own corporate image in an attempt to stop its share price plummeting any further, following last year’s disastrous IPO [initial public offering]. Only democratic, worker-led organising will win us better pay and conditions, not cynical backroom deals.”

Although Deliveroo’s float is still London’s biggest IPO since mining giant Glencore went public in 2011, it is widely regarded as a flop after shares slumped as much as 30% after a number of major investors pulled out of buying shares over concerns for workers’ rights, reducing the company’s overall valuation from £8.8bn to £5.5bn.

IWGB further added that while it had organised thousands of couriers – as evidenced by numerous public actions since 2016 – GMB has no record of organising any action or strikes with Deliveroo workers.

Computer Weekly asked IWGB how many riders were organised with it, but the union said it did not publish its membership data publicly.

Computer Weekly contacted Deliveroo about the GMB partnership and IWGB’s claims, including that the deal amounts to soft union busting, is simply a PR move, and only benefits both organisation’s management.

A Deliveroo spokesperson said: “Our partnership with the GMB is a first-of-its-kind voluntary agreement giving self-employed riders flexibility, guaranteed earnings, representation and benefits. The GMB has a proud record of standing up for workers’ rights and we’re focused on what matters most to riders – flexibility and security.”

“Our partnership with the GMB [gives] self-employed riders flexibility, guaranteed earnings, representation and benefits”
Deliveroo spokesperson

Computer Weekly also contacted GMB about how many Deliveroo riders are currently with the union and the claims that it has no history of organising riders.

“This is a strong trade union recognition agreement covering pay bargaining, the right to dispute resolution, representation over health and safety and wellbeing, diversity, inclusion, benefits and rider disputes. This puts riders at the heart of the agreement, and GMB will now negotiate pay deals on behalf of all 90,000,” said Rix in response.

“The overwhelming majority of Deliveroo riders tell us they want to remain self-employed, but as self-employed riders they want rights, which have become the focus of attention for many self-employed people since the pandemic.

“There is real disparity of rights between employed and self-employed workers, yet they all pay tax and national insurance. GMB has a long track record of organising in the platform and food sectors and will continue to lead the way through this ground-breaking deal.”

Ongoing IWGB-Deliveroo legal battle

In June 2021, the UK Court of Appeal ruled – in a case originally brought by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain in 2017 – that Deliveroo riders are “self-employed” and do not have the right to organise via a trade union.

The decision found that Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights – which protects the right to form and join trade unions – does not apply to Deliveroo riders because they do not have to conduct the work personally and are allowed to arrange a substitute.

One of the judges in the IWGB-Deliveroo case said the Uber Supreme Court “workers status” case was different because it did not engage Article 11, adding that unlike Deliveroo, “Uber did not rely on any substitution clause”.

The judge added, however, that the decision could be seen as “counter-intuitive” because “it is easy to see that riders might benefit from organising collectively to represent their interests, as against Deliveroo”.

Computer Weekly asked Deliveroo why it had now chosen to recognise GMB after years of fighting IWGB’s recognition effort in court, but the company did not directly answer the question. Computer Weekly also contacted GMB about Deliveroo’s sustained opposition to the IWGB recognition attempt, but received no response to that question.

The IWGB said it was in the process of appealing the case to the UK Supreme Court. “The company [Deliveroo] is seeking to undermine the UK legal system in preventing a successful statutory recognition agreement with the IWGB by securing a voluntary agreement with another union,” said the IWGB in a statement. “This partnership benefits nobody except Deliveroo and the GMB leadership, and we call on the government to review the union recognition legislation as it has been routinely undermined by union-busting companies who partner with yellow-bellied unions.”

Referring to a collective bargaining agreement signed by GMB and Uber in May 2021 – which allowed GMB to represent tens of thousands of UK Uber drivers in negotiations with the company on issues such as pensions and workplace safety, but not pay – the IWGB added that: “Uber drivers in the IWGB report that, one year on from the Uber-GMB partnership, conditions are worse than ever.”

Chair of the IWGB’s United Private Hire Drivers Branch (UPHD), Nader Awaad, said at the time that the agreement was a “PR exercise for Uber” that signs away workers’ rights to negotiate over pay.

“Thanks to the ground-breaking recognition deal GMB and Uber struck last year, GMB is now the go-to union for drivers across the country. When gig economy companies and unions work together, everyone wins”
Mick Rix, GMB

“Unions should not sign deals which tie their hands behind their backs. Trade union recognition agreements at their best are only useful when backed up by workers and unions who are willing to fight fiercely for their rights,” he said.

“Celebrating a deal that signs away workers’ rights sadly says a lot about the state of the trade union movement in Britain today. This is precisely why grassroots worker-led unions like UPHD have grown to represent more drivers than any of the older, larger unions: workers need a fighting alternative and are willing and able to build it,” added Awaad.

Computer Weekly contacted both GMB and Uber about the claim that conditions for drivers were worse than a year ago under their deal.

“Thanks to the ground-breaking recognition deal GMB and Uber struck last year, GMB is now the go-to union for drivers across the country. We regularly work to help ensure that processes for dealing with complaints are fair and the interests of drivers are properly represented,” said Rix.

“This is what a modern trade union can do in the digital economy: solving real-world problems using bread and butter methods and working for proper worker representation – not meaningless protests and slogans. When gig economy companies and unions work together, everyone wins. We urge other digital private hire platforms to follow Uber’s example.”

An Uber spokesperson added: “The historic agreement with GMB ensured that Uber was the first in the industry to ensure all of its drivers have access to full union representation, as well as holiday pay, guaranteed National Living Wage and access to a pension plan. By working constructively with GMB we aim to show the rest of the private hire industry what can be achieved, ensuring that all drivers, no matter who they choose to work with, receive the rights and protections they are entitled to.”

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