Sunday, July 01, 2018

We are the Union

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), is small but rapidly growing.  Established in 2012 and now with about 2,500 members. It has just constituted its eighth branch, the IWGB Electricians’ Workers branch.

 It is a non-bureaucratic, grassroots, “bottom-up” organisation. At a time when only one in five workers aged 25 to 34 are in a union, less than 14% of the private sector is unionised and the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, concedes that the image of unions is “male, pale and stale”, IWGB is recruiting strongly from previously neglected, non-English-speaking immigrant workers. It is championing the rights of the lowest paid in the most precarious jobs, the young and those outsourced to private companies and in the gig economy. IWGB and its sister union United Voices of the World are taking on the multimillion-pound giants of the tech and app business world, such as Deliveroo, to win the most basic rights for their members – the minimum wage, sick pay and pensions. As the TUC celebrates its 150th anniversary, the IWGB could provide clues as to what the trade union movement as a whole needs to do – not just to survive, but to thrive. The “bogus self-employment model” applies to a large proportion of IWGB’s members. 

Jason Moyer-Lee, 32, is general secretary. He heads a staff of 11, based in cramped offices in north London. All pitch in, employing an imaginative use of Google, Facebook and other social media, citizen journalism, community action, alliances with students and pro bono legal help. Finances come from sources such as crowdfunding and grants. Members pay £6 to £9 a month, far less than in larger unions, and the caseload of abuses is time-consuming and constant. Moyer-Lee, an American, has an astute knowledge of the law, and a robust approach.
 “For the most part, the law does give rights,” he says. “But some companies are unlawfully able to deprive people of those rights because the law is not enforced.”

Liliana from Colombia, who became a cleaner at the University of London five years ago. Then, she was earning a little over £6 an hour, and says she was bullied by her supervisor. Now, she is paid the London living wage (£10.20 an hour). “I am not alone,” she says. “We have solidarity. They cannot make injustices against us because we stand together.”

“This isn’t just about the gig economy. All business is going more and more digital, leaner and leaner,” says Mags Dewhurst, part-time bicycle courier and vice-president of IWGB. “Next, it will be banking and retail. These bad practices have to be stopped now.”

Two months ago, the breathtaking scale of employment rights abuses was revealed in the first strategy report published by Professor Sir David Metcalf, the director of labour market enforcement, who reports to both the home and business secretaries. Unpaid wages in 2016 amounted to a staggering £3.1bn; incredibly there is no regulator to ensure holiday pay is given, so “wages theft” of £4.5bn – 15% of the industry – is misappropriated from agency workers annually. In addition, the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate has only nine inspectors overseeing 18,000 employment agencies, and there have been only 14 prosecutions for non-payment of the minimum wage since 1999.
IWGB has recently successfully brought several employment tribunal test cases around the issue of what’s called “worker status”. Moyer-Lee’s demand is that the correct legal label is applied to current working practices. In general, as in the Hermes case, if couriers and private hire car drivers, for instance, work for another business and not for themselves, in law, they are part of a sub-category of the self-employed called a “limb (b) worker” (under the 1996 Employment Rights Act). They are self-employed but entitled to “worker” status that includes trade union rights, a minimum wage, paid holidays, automatic employer pension contributions and protection from discrimination.
“Judges are not saying these cases are murky areas. Their judgments are excoriating and extremely critical of the companies,” Moyer-Lee says.
Another of IWGB’s effective tactics is to target the clients of gig businesses. “In the case of eCourier, the CEO made an offer, we rejected it,” Moyer-Lee explains. “We emailed his clients constantly. Four gave the CEO an ultimatum to do something about his business model. The couriers received, on average, a 28% pay increase.
“Companies will argue that the law is confusing,” he adds. “The law is clear and many companies are on the wrong side of it. The companies know exactly what they are doing – it’s their core business model.”
A similar spotlight of unwanted publicity has been shone on Deliveroo. IWGB is fighting the food delivery company for the human right of its drivers to collective bargaining. A win could upend yet another major player in the gig economy. A crowdfunding campaign to raise £50,000 to fight the case attracted donations of £9,000 within hours. Commenting on paying riders as workers with employment rights, Will Shu, co-founder of Deliveroo, said: “It’s not a cost thing … the whole point is flexibility. It’s what people sign up for.”
Moyer-Lee points out: “Flexibility does not need to come at the expense of employment rights. The main problem with the so-called gig economy is that existing law is not enforced,” he adds emphatically. “An agency or government department is needed that has the mandate and the resources to look at an employer’s operation, build a case, prosecute and impose severe sanctions. That’s fair – and that is what we don’t yet have.”
“Most bicycle couriers cycle 50 miles a day, five days a week. On average, they do two and a half ‘drops’ [of packages] an hour. It’s hard on the body and hard on the bike. It’s a price war between the companies, which are reducing prices to win contracts, so it’s the couriers who take a bigger and bigger hit with longer hours and less and less money. Let’s call outsourcing what it is – a way to drive down costs." - Mags Dewhurst, 30, Part-time bicycle courier and vice-president of IWGB.
"We have no employment rights, no holiday pay, and 50% of foster care workers are given less than £100 a week, which hardly covers the basic needs of the children in their care. Foster care work is the only trade where the regulator and the employer are the same entity. A local authority or a private agency employs us directly, and directs everything we do with a child. " - Sarah Anderson, 59, Chair of the first foster care workers’ branch of IWGB

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