Corporate Counter-Mobilization: Uber and Deliveroo’s ‘Charter of Good Work’ Is Nothing but Fairwashing

Yves here. One bit of good news with Uber and its allies’ launch of an empty charter to pretend to deal with the job conditions of gig workers is it appears to have gotten little notice in the US. Perhaps the fact that it was launched at Davos was more than a bit of a tell.

The pretense that Uber and its fellow service operators are somehow not in charge, along with a lack of enforcement mechanisms, were other tells of that this charter was an exercise in optics. It’s still worth a look, if nothing else to see how the spin-meisters go about selling empty boxes as if they contained something of value.

However, the fact that these companies bothered to do even that much says they feel the need to address their critics, but they aren’t yet willing to do anything serious.

By Srujana Katta, Kelle Howson, Funda Ustek-Spilda, and Mark Graham. Originally published at openDemocracy

Every week seems to witness a new tragedy in the gig economy. Gig workers are injured and killed without the platforms that they work for acknowledging or shouldering any responsibility. Many workers take on these risks for below the minimum wage.

It is therefore noteworthy that the CEOs of Uber, Deliveroo and four other large platforms have come together to “strengthen workers’ rights” with a ‘Charter of principles for good platform work’ that was published at the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos.

This kind of corporate strategy isn’t new, and similar tactics have been deployed in many industries. In 2017, Sainsbury’s announced that its own-brand teas would no longer carry the Fairtrade label. Once positioning themselves as the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade products, the supermarket giant said they would be certifying their tea supply chain under a cheaper in-house scheme, ‘Fairly Traded’, which mimicked some of Fairtrade’s key features, but was less accountable to farmers.Sainsbury’s was betting that consumers wouldn’t have the time or inclination to scrutinise the difference.

Sainsbury’s strategy is part of a wider trend of corporate counter-mobilisation that researchers have observed in the world of ethical certification. Corporations are increasingly wise to the fact that, absent meaningful independent regulation, they can make their own rules: asserting ever-greater control over the less powerful actors in their supply chains.

Being familiar with these tactics in other sectors, we were not surprised by last week’s release of the ‘Charter of Principles for Good Platform Work’ by a group of powerful digital labour platforms, or that the Charter bore the seal of the World Economic Forum (WEF), which has a long track record of diluting economic regulation in favour of elite interests.

On first glance, the Charter resembles the Fairwork Foundation’s principles that we have developed and refined over years of consultation with workers and labour researchers. At times, it even copies text directly from the Fairwork principles. At each step, however, the document is a watered-down and inadequate response to the challenges faced by platform workers. Indeed, the danger of such corporate masquerades of fairness is that they serve to muddy ethical standards, legitimise the status quo and stave off meaningful reform.

Progress in decent work standards in the gig economy is certainly to be recognised and celebrated. However, progress is not possible unless it includes workers’ voices. We cannot leave it to companies who profit from undermining conventional labour protections, to define decent work. That this Charter was released at all suggests that gig worker activism and resistance, as well as advocacy such as our own, is finding more purchase in public consciousness and that platforms are feeling the pressure to respond. However, the WEF principles fall woefully short of a meaningful agenda for ‘good platform work’ in five core ways.

First, the companies should have brought workers, their representatives, and governments to the table and consulted with them in good faith to set benchmarks for ‘good platform work’. The Charter claims that “All stakeholders, including platform operators, governments and workers themselves, have a role in ensuring the wellbeing of people engaged in platform work.

This unashamedly deflects responsibility from the actors — i.e. platform operators — who overwhelmingly control the conditions of platform work. Platforms set wages, and use algorithmic management, as well as incentives and penalties, to control workers. The interests of managers often do not align with the interests of workers. Moreover, the Charter’s tone of inclusiveness belies the fact that it has been written without any apparent input from the other stakeholders it identifies. If, in addition to platform operators, governments and workers too bear responsibility for workers’ wellbeing, they should also be involved in defining its parameters. To develop an effective, multi-stakeholder pathway to action, platform CEOs should — instead of issuing a unilateral agenda — commit to genuine, tripartite dialogue involving worker organisations and governments at an independent venue such as the International Labour Organization’s International Labour Conference.

Second, platforms are unaccountable to the Charter’s commitments. What will be the penalties for non-compliance? Will they seek third party or independent verification that they are conforming to their principles? Both Uber and Postmates (another signatory) have fought tooth and nail to block and circumvent California’s AB5 legislation that would provide gig workers some of the protections they espouse in their Charter, including benefits and minimum wages. Deliveroo, another of the Charter’s signatories, recently failed to provide time off or injury cover for a driver who had suffered a horrific racially motivated attack at work, saying that he was ‘free to take a few days off’ (without pay).

Only 72 hours before that, another Deliveroo and UberEats driver, Takieddine Boudhane, was stabbed to death while working in London. Deliveroo’s indifference to workers’ wellbeing casts their vague pledge to “help protect workers from health and safety risks, and […] endeavour to protect and promote the physical and mental wellbeing of workers”, in an even more superficial light. Safe in the knowledge that this Charter will not be officially policed, companies have signed on to pledges that they frequently flout.

Third, the Charter’s principles are startlingly permissive of practices we know to be harmful and unfair. One principle reads, “Where minimum wage thresholds exist, workers classified as employees should earn at least the minimum wage of their jurisdiction, proportional to the time spent actively working and accounting for reasonable expenses for their mode of work.” Across the world, the vast majority of platform workers are not classified as employees. So, with their provisos about who can be entitled to fair pay, platforms are attempting to legitimise their practice of paying workers wages that can fall dismally short of the legal minimums for employees. Moreover, the specification of ‘time spent actively working’ means that much of the work day goes unpaid. A food delivery driver wearing the company’s logos, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for an order is clearly adding value to the platform. But the time they spend doing so is entirely uncompensated.

In another instance, the Charter reads, “Where non-payment for tasks by users/clients is permitted, it should be subject to clear rules.” The problem here is that rules are normally already clear. They allow wage theft. Such rules allow workers to put time into a job and walk away uncompensated should the client deem something about the job unsatisfactory. Clarity alone will not solve this problem. What we instead need are rules that don’t place all of the risk of any job onto the backs of workers.

Fourth, many of the principles are overly vague. For example, the Charter recommends that “Contributions to public or private social protections and benefits could be made by stakeholders as appropriate, subject to employment status, jurisdictional context and local conditions”. By passing the buck to unnamed stakeholders, and attaching various qualifiers to these protections, they leave ample space for creative interpretation of their self-imposed responsibilities. In the eyes of the CEOs who created this document, social protection is optional, discretionary and selective.

Finally there are fundamental tenets of fair work which the Charter has conspicuously left out. The International Labour Organization’s Conventions 87 and 98, which enshrine workers’ freedom of association, and their right to organise and collectively bargain, are binding on all 182 member countries of the ILO, by virtue of their membership. While the CEOs who drafted the ‘Charter of good work’ chose to copy text from some of our other principles, we’re not surprised that they didn’t touch the Fairwork principle which states that all workers have the right to organise and collectively bargain. Platforms are notorious for their union-busting tactics. Our research in India, for instance, shows that Uber workers who participated in strikes faced ID blocks, incentives being rolled back, and a decrease in the number of rides they were allocated. It is only through collective representation that workers enjoy many of the protections we take for granted today, and which are being quickly eroded by gig work.

Until it provides space for workers’ interests to be meaningfully represented, and sets out an accountable pathway to action, this document is nothing more than fairwashing. This is not, as the WEF proclaims, a ‘ground-breaking initiative’. It is an attempt to undermine the forces of resistance that have begun to chip away at the power of platforms.

As ever more jobs become subsumed into the gig economy, we must ensure that the future of work we are hurtling towards is one of fair standards, safe conditions, and decent wages. In light of this Charter’s release, activists and advocates for workers’ interests need to redouble their efforts to expose unfair labour practices, hold platforms accountable, and ultimately shape a fairer future of work.

Letting CEOs unilaterally define ‘good work’, without any scrutiny into whether they even adhere to their own watered-down vision, undermines this mission.

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  1. Thuto

    I’ve lost so much trust in corporate institutions that I reflexively dismiss such initiatives as window dressing. A binding commitment to abide by the ILO charter in its entirety would have been the strongest testament to their willingness to substantially move the needle on worker protection. That it was watered down to the extent that the post’s author suggests points to the deliberate weaving of a tangled web, in an obvious attempt to deceive. We’ve all been trained to accept such woeful attempts by corporations as “progress” while lamenting the fact that they “don’t go far enough”. They were never meant to go far enough, they were meant to pull a wool over our eyes and feign corporate interest in improving the conditions of workers.

    We should expect nothing less though, the culture of exploiting workers for profit is as old as the hills and and a deeply rooted tenet of capitalism. Until people at the top start treating others as they themselves would like to be treated, no meaningful change is going to take place in the long running, adversarial relationship between labour and capital.

    1. shinola

      “They were never meant to go far enough, they were meant to pull a wool over our eyes and feign corporate interest in improving the conditions of workers.”

      Neolib. bidness as usual – There’s no problem that can’t be “solved” by better PR.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I have been trying to think of where I have seen this Uber/Deliveroo model before and I think that I have it now. Newspaper delivery boys! No, really. So years ago you had a kid delivering newspapers in an area using his own bicycle and earning what is basically pocket change no matter what the weather is.
    So what do you have now? That kid has grown up but now he is delivering rides or foods in an area using his own car/motorcycle and earning what is basically pocket change no matter what the weather is. But now it has a high-tech app bolted on and that guy has less protection from his employer than he did as a kid.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      throwing papers is what i thought about, too…but from a car or truck, rather than a bike.
      after my cafe folded(post-9-11 doldrums and freedom fries), i took over my MIL’s paper route.3am-6am 7 days a week. but she, and people before her, had the accounts all screwed up…bunch of dead people still getting papers, but not thrown, so bunch of leftovers.
      book keeping standards were so weird that it took me 2 months(with new baby/Mr Mom=no sleep) or more to figure out that i was actually paying the paper money to throw their newspaper.MIL always had a bunch of quarters from the machine, so thought she was doing well.(sigh)
      complaints to bossman, 100 miles away, got me nowhere. So i went on strike,lol.
      whole town was mad at me, and i got no satisfaction. part of the fine print said i had to train my replacement or face fines/liens.
      i did that as quickly as i could and walked/ran away.
      same sort of nonsense…involving opacity and confusion and threats, but without the algorithm.
      like with amway….some people manage to make a lot of money(or at least appear to)…but it’s still a scam…especially if one is honest and above board.

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