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Where Next for the Labour Market? Interview with GMB on Uber

As we come to the end of 2016, it's clear that this has been a year in which existing trends in the labour market have worsened. While it was announced earlier this week that unemployment is down, the truth is that job quality is poor, with over half of those living in poverty now from working households. 2016 has been characterised by the rise of the ‘gig economy’  – with the ONS stating that 930,000 people in the UK are now employed on zero-hours contracts in their main job, up from 747,000 in 2015 – the proliferation of low paid self-employment, and the increasing mechanisation of labour.

However, this year may also mark a potential tipping point in the labour market. In the past two weeks alone, we’ve heard strike announcements from postal workers, cabin crew, rail workers and Argos staff, with investigations into Sports Direct, BHS, Deliveroo and Uber earlier in the year. Have workers been pushed too far? Are things coming to a head? In order to answer these questions, I talked to GMB's General Secretary Tim Roach about the battle against Uber and the future of the labour market.

Tell us about the Uber win. How did it come about? What’s the importance of this case specifically?

“The issue of employers finding loopholes to drive down wages and terms and conditions while keeping their profit margins healthy is not new – in that sense the gig economy is old style exploitation updated with 21st century technology. Workers used to queue for work at the docks or factory gates; now they sit by their phones and wait for jobs to come in. We need to ensure protections for workers’ rights are fit for the 21st century.”

“Last year, GMB found that a member working exclusively for Uber was paid just £5.03 an hour after costs and fees were taken into account. That’s way below the minimum wage, and is basically daylight robbery. We took two members’ cases to an Employment Tribunal and won on all counts. The Tribunal decided Uber drivers are workers, and are therefore entitled to the basic rights that title affords people. It was the biggest employment case of 2016, and it could end up being the biggest case of this decade.”

“This case is so important because it was the first time Uber has faced legal action in the UK, and brings into question a model of employment that has exploded in the last five years. It was a shot across the bows of employers who are using modern technology to exploit the workforce.”

“It’s not just a big ruling for the two members we represented. It will have a knock on effect for tens of thousands of other drivers and thousands more workers throughout the gig economy, which is exploding right now.”

Uber are appealing – what do you think will happen next?

“This is how desperate they are to avoid their responsibilities as an employer. We were pretty sure they wouldn’t just accept it, because it brings into question their entire business model – a model built on the insecurity of their workforce.”

“According to law firm Leigh Day who are working with us on this, there are now 50 Uber workers taking claims against the company. We’re clear that the ruling applies to all UK Uber drivers, and it’s no surprise that on the back of this case and the publicity around it, Uber drivers are coming to us and signing up as members. We will do what we always have: keep fighting to get a better deal for the people we represent.”

Does your win mark the beginning of the end for these kinds of employment practices?

“GMB’s victory against Uber could be a watershed moment. No doubt we are going to see a string of similar cases in 2017 because Uber is just one company in a fast growing gig economy. But the ruling made it clear that companies like Uber do have responsibilities to their workers – and that’s a big step.”

“As a movement, I do think we need to be clear that this isn’t about arguing against change, it’s about ensuring a decent standard of life for people who are working incredibly hard but not making much – however they are employed. We’re not saying ‘down with apps to run businesses’. We’re saying ‘down with employers who run apps to run bad businesses’.”

“Unfortunately, big businesses are quite attached to their profit margins, so we know they’re going to fight back. But that’s never stopped us before.”

What are the battle lines for 2017?

“Back in the summer, Theresa May promised to put herself at the service of working people – but we’ve seen precious little evidence of that commitment being put into action.”

“There are some big challenges ahead – what will Brexit look like? How can the government deliver on their want to restrict free movement of labour without causing an economic meltdown? How do we stem the rise of pernicious right wing populism? Those will be big questions for everyone, and someone has to grasp the nettle and that might mean accepting some hard truths on the left as well as the right.”

“Investment in a real industrial strategy will be a big one – we’ll see in 2017 whether the government is serious about investment, or whether changes will be gestural. We’ll also see if the rhetoric of helping working people is mirrored in the Taylor review of employment rights – after the all-out assault of the Trade Union Act on our members, we could be forgiven for thinking the Tories don’t necessarily want us to have many employment rights or the ability to organise.”

"Aside from Brexit and the issue of employment rights, which is always on the agenda whenever the Tories are in power, battle lines for 2017 will be around local government, the NHS and the care sector – which all interlink. Austerity has failed. Public services are stretched to breaking point, as are public servants who have seen their wages cut in real terms for a decade now. Employers, councils and unions are united in saying that the care sector is in crisis.”

"No wonder the public is frustrated and telling politicians to get off their backsides and change something. That’s where we’ll be in 2017 – fighting for our members, for public services for all of us and demanding better from government. 2016 just wasn’t good enough.”