By Anna Baum, a member of the Free Workers Union in Germany. Originally published at OpenDemocracy
In the UK seven million people from working households are in poverty, and real wages have seen a 10.4% drop in the last decade (more than anywhere else in Europe). At the same time the 1,000 wealthiest people in the country got richer by billions after Brexit.
Platform companies are helping to widen the gap between rich and poor by paying poverty wages while producing bubbles with unjustifiably high asset prices and low productivity. Alisher Usmanov, the fifth richest man in Britain, initially made his money from mining steel and iron ore but has now grown his fortune by investing in companies such as Spotify and Airbnb. Deliveroo doesn’t own its restaurants or employ its riders, but is worth more than the UK’s second biggest food chain Wetherspoons.
Deliveroo saw its losses increase by over 300% in 2017. But that didn’t stop its founder giving out £4.5 million in share bonuses to directors and treating himself to a generous 22.5% pay rise, all while Deliveroo’s riders are denied a minimum wage, sick leave and holiday pay. With profits from share ownership going to a small minority, coupled with stagnating wages, the wealth gap between labour and the owners of capital in the economy is ever diverging. It’s time to think not just about a fair share of income but also fair distribution of ownership, something cooperative food delivery platforms could be a leading example of.
Couriers in Europe
After the first strikes of UK Deliveroo riders in 2016, mobilisations rippled through to France, Spain and Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, with strikes taking place in Bologna only two weeks ago. In Germany couriers began organising with the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers Union (FAU) last year.
The FAU provided a horizontal and open space for the Deliverunion campaign to flourish, mobilising over 100 riders to direct action and winning a pay bonus per km. With no paid staff or organisers, support came from members from other sections, such as primary school teachers and carers, a reminder that unions don’t act or make decisions in themselves but that workers act in their name and with their resources.
The FAU union has gathered a group of developers to create its own online platform, where riders can login to discuss what to include in their collective agreement and vote on it. This tool allows couriers to take an active part in developing demands and making decisions without having to be physically present at union meetings. It is also a mobilising tool, to vote on strike actions and spread messages across the workforce quickly. If digital platforms can connect customers and couriers on demand, then this is an example of how they can be used by unions to help organise “fragmented” workers.
The Potential of Cooperative Digital Platforms
This collaborative culture fostered among organised couriers is the first step to be able to co-develop their own food delivery platforms. That is the idea behind “coopcycle.org”, an open source food delivery app licensed under the peer-to-peer foundation and co-operatively managed by its developers and any riders who want to use it. A forum of food couriers from across Europe are planning to implement it in France and Germany, while riders in Spain are on the verge of launching their own cooperative version of the Deliveroo app in Barcelona.
These co-owned delivery platforms could offer a meaningful business alternative to Foodora, Deliveroo, Uber Eats and co where the profits of the company go to those who are actually “driving” it, and where workers can enjoy better working conditions, safe contracts, sick pay, holidays and above all, respect. Co-ownership wouldn’t just mean sharing the profits, it would also mean democratic governance and accountability, as well as transparency on the use of workers’ data, and the functions of the algorithms that dictate couriers’ day to day work.
A cooperative business could also offer competitive prices. While Deliveroo charges an extortionate 30% to restaurants for each order, a cooperative model could reduce this charge once core costs are covered. For example, once an order reaches over £15 the cooperative has made enough to cover the rider’s wage and other outgoings, meaning orders over that amount could become cheaper.
These cooperatively run food delivery platforms would present a different vision from that of Silicon valley, a radical move away from the obsession of attracting venture capital to make short term speculative profits for a rich few. The platform economy isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and monopoly digital platforms are further reducing workers’ slice of the pie. But examples emerging from Spain, France and Germany show how the power of unions and cooperatives can be combined to push back against gig employers, and offer a glimpse of hope for the future of delivery platform work.
Trystero returns! Or is it Thurn und Taxis….
What a WASTE.
Don’t just blame the billionaires. Their customers (and presumably shareholders) are doing much of the work in the “slavery through apps” economy.
I really hope this works out. The big question, in my mind, is whether the customers will be willing to pay enough to actually provide decent pay/benefits for the worker-owners, without subsidies from investors to deliver the service below-cost, a la Uber. Probably has a much better chance of being successful in Europe, where they have national healthcare and the like, than here in the US. However, I am going to pass this along to some friends-of-friends doing similar work here in Montana.
And my big question is whether individual riders are sufficiently engaged to do all the scut work that goes with a cooperative business. The dispatching software can probably be cobbled up by keen programmers for cheap, maybe free, and there have long been algos for scheduling and efficient geo routing, but the actual work of running a cooperative business, involves Lots of Thinking and Lots of Discussion, usually done via Many Many Meetings. Ideally, this can also be done via collaborative tech such as Pirate Pad and I sure hope so. In my experience, though, there are usu a few people who are interested in governance (or ‘being boss’, depending on your point of view), the rest just want to do the work, get paid and go home, and so the few end up running the shebang according to their own prefs. I hope their mileage varies.
You are quite correct that a lot of people have a hard time getting into an ownership mentality, or just prefer not to. However, there are also plenty of people who do want to be business owners and not just employees, thankfully.
If there’s a business model to be had there, they are actually in a good position to be able to organize it as a co-op, as upfront capital required is minimal, and that’s often the biggest stumbling block in co-op formation.
Having burned out doing the scut work referred to, I could not agree more. I don’t even have the motivation to learn platforms that would ease cooperative achievement of tasks much, much less to somehow convince others to make use of them, once I had discovered and learned them.
Drivers or delivery people perhaps?
Are they on bicycles? If so possibly Bicycle deliverers?
Yes, they are on bicycles, scooters and motorbikes in big cities such as London, for sure. Note tab “Become a rider” — they make it sound like such fun! And all the pictures are taken on sunny days…
I work near the Downtown Tucson location for Jimmy John’s. They have a fleet of bicycle delivery people, and I don’t get the impression that they’re having fun.
Riding a bike in London during the wet season (/s) is unpleasant and life threatening.
Why do you think that Pick-Up trucks are non-existant in the UK?
I’m all for cooperatives, not so much on the digital platforms. Seems like the energy being spent here to do a good thing could be put to a better use.
Why compete on the playing field that the squillionaires have developed, on their terms? Do coops have squillions of dollars to flush down the toilet like Uber’s investors do? If not, there’s no way a coop is going to compete with these companies.
You can regulate them out of existence, which I’m all for, or wait until the money runs out, which can’t happen soon enough. But you aren’t going to win by playing the game they created because it’s rigged.
I’m not sure what real advantage the incumbents have from their huge investment capability. Though they certainly have name recognition, they must still compete in local markets, not just for customers, but for workers. The apps are not insurmountably better, au contraire, I believe apps that were more transparent in intent and function would be easier to make better. Finally, a collective alternative to VC owned gigxploitation does not have to drive out the competition, it would be a huge step forward if it just forced them to treat their workers and vendors better to compete for them. Don’t forget that invisible hand my friend!
Has Lord Rothschild, the richest man in Britain, or the Queen, the richest woman, invested in it?
Love this. Remember it’s not just the ‘means of production’ that need seizing, but also the means of ‘distribution’ … ;-)
Bon Weekend All!
Corbin is proposing a sweeping worker cooperative initiative. For one, workers would get first right of refusal of the opportunity to purchase a company should it be sold. There are also loans provided to those workers to enable the buyout.