Uber rights U-turn is just the latest stage of the journey to decent work

By Tim Sharp

A screeching U-turn by Uber on wages, pensions and holiday pay is the just the latest stage in the journey to ensure that all work – including in the gig economy – is decent work.

Uber’s PR machine has gamely sought to present  its announcement that it will provide holiday pay, minimum wage (at least for some hours) and offer pension contributions as a strategic decision.

The reality is that years of trade union campaigning and a comprehensive defeat in the Supreme Court have forced the change on the company.

Uber’s reversal is also just the latest in a succession of court battles at home and abroad won by gig economy workers as they enforce their rights against employers.

In the UK, and indeed across the world, gig economy workers are winning court battles to secure their rights.

But workers still face having to conduct lengthy campaigns and court battles to enforce their rights.

Studying the small print

For years Uber has sought to dodge its obligations by seeking to claim it is just a technology business, not a cab operator and its drivers are self-employed with few rights.

But the Supreme Court was clear earlier this month that even the most elaborately written contract cannot be used to block the purpose of legislation intended to protect workers.
Now, of course, workers and unions will be scrutinising the small print on Uber’s new offer.

Will there be a fair deal on drivers’ expenses? What protection will young workers get? What about Uber Eats, its food delivery operation?
And most crucially, does Uber really think that it can avoid the judges’ instruction that a driver should be paid for the whole time they are logged into the Uber app?

Employers can’t cherry-pick

Uber’s court defeat should serve as a reminder that it is not up to employers to decide when protection applies to those who work for them.

Gig economy firms often like to portray themselves as slick technology innovators. But the tactics it employs are familiar to trade unions.

Just as in the past, desperate workers were forced to queue at the factory gate for work, so it is in employers’ interests to have drivers idling, unpaid waiting for taxi work.

Unions have a long history of fighting employers in the docks, in construction and the newer gig economy who believe they can just follow those bits of the law that leave their business model undisturbed.
But in the meantime, those who lose out are workers and those good employers who are trying to do the right thing by those who work for them.

Flexibility

One argument that has been comprehensively demolished is that there is a trade-off between rights and flexibility.

But in the UK and overseas, the courts routinely find that just because someone has the flexibility to choose if and when to work, they don’t lose their employment rights.

Indeed, Just Eat, a rival to Uber in food delivery, has said it is paying couriers UK wages, sick pay and pension contributions.
The sensible way forward for Uber and others like it is to belatedly sit down with unions and discuss the best way to proceed.

Government needs to act

Meanwhile, the government can’t just sit by. It promised to “protect and enhance” employment rights after Brexit .

But a long-awaited employment bill has yet to appear. And cases like Uber show that far more needs to be done to ensure workers can exercise their rights.

Taking tribunals cases is both costly and time-consuming.  To tilt the balance, there should be a statutory presumption that individuals have employee status unless the employer can demonstrate otherwise. For self-employment should be a choice for individuals, not something that is imposed.

Employment tribunals need to be given the power to make wider recommendations so that their decisions can be applied to an entire workforce rather than forcing worker-after-worker to take tribunal cases.

In many workplaces trade union reps help workers understand and enforce their rights. Trade unions need the right to access workplaces and make contact with workers so they can explain the benefits of joining.

And there needs to be beefed-up state enforcement to ensure that employers meet their obligations in areas like payment of the minimum wage.

First published by the TUC on  17th Mar 2021

Posted in Campaign For Trade Union Freedom News, UK Employment Rights | Leave a comment

Former BA Union General Secretary Faces Life Imprisonment Under Hong Kong’s Anti-Subversion Laws

Carol Ng, who worked for BA for 30 years and had led the British Airways Hong Kong International Cabin Crew Union. up until 2018

A former British Airways flight attendant who was General Secretary of the airline’s powerful Hong Kong cabin crew union and President of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions,now faces the prospect of life in prison after being arrested under the Chinese territory’s controversial national security laws that criminalises anything that could potentially undermine the power or authority of Beijing.

Carol Ng, who worked for BA for nearly three decades and had led the British Airways Hong Kong International Cabin Crew Association up until 2018, was detained in a dawn raid at her home on January 6 by officers from the national security department who have accused Ng of subverting the power of the state.

Carol was part of a group of 53 suspects rounded up in the biggest use of Hong Kong’s national security law since it came into force in June 2020, with nearly 1,000 police officers involved in the operation. The group of activists and trade unionists are accused of holding primaries for pro-democracy candidates in the postponed Hong Kong elections.

“Carol’s arrest, along with that of 52 other activists, is an outrageous attack on workers that will only breed more resistance,” slammed Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).

“Their arrest represents a serious violation of fundamental human rights and freedom of speech, as well as the further erosion of democracy in Hong Kong.”

Carol holds British nationality and her supporters have called on the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office to take diplomatic steps to secure her release.

Suspects found guilty of breaking the national security law face up to life imprisonment. Critics have labelled the law “evil” and say it severely curtails freedom of speech and what would be considered lawful protest in other countries.

Carol worked for British Airways until 2018 when the airline suddenly closed down its international cabin crew base in the territory. At the time she was credited with mounting a high-profile medial campaign to highlight what was seen as the rights of long-serving workers being ignored.

Although British Airways says it always followed the rules and laws of Hong Kong in handling the base closure, Carol’s activism secured a better pay off for affected workers.

Statement by the International Transport Federation

Statement by IndustriALL Global Union

This blog first appeared on the Paddle Your Own Canoe site.

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How Collective Bargaining Can Tackle The Race To The Bottom

By John Earls, Ben Norman, Andrew Waterman

Neoliberal globalisation has led to a ‘race to the bottom’ as free trade policies force workers and whole industries to compete across borders – but there is a solution: trade union representation.

In 1966, the first transatlantic container ship arrived into the Port of Grangemouth. The ship’s 226 containers were loaded with Scotch whisky for return sailing to the United States. In 2020, HMM Algeciras, the world’s largest containership, arrived into the London Gateway from Qingdao, China with a capacity of 9,800 containers. The development of international trade in the half century between those two events has repeatedly shaped, disrupted, and re-shaped the jobs and lives of workers in every part of the UK far beyond the docks.

The history of trade over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is not one of a smooth transition to globalisation, but one of sharpening economic and political tensions, disruption, and repeated crises. The costs and benefits of trade are a constantly evolving issue that is representative of the structural tensions between labour and capital. Reducing the costs and increasing the benefits of trade for workers is what ultimately makes trade a collective bargaining issue. Trade would simply not exist without workers—even taking into account huge technological advances and the drive towards automation—and cannot simply be left to the trade experts and policy advisors.

Unite has just published a report which seeks to close the gap between trade as an abstract issue and its real-world industrial impact on workers. To do this, workplaces must no longer be seen in isolation – but as connected within supply chains and networks of fragmented production. As the report shows, this is a conclusion which has also been drawn by corporate consultants who are now tasked with finding the vulnerabilities of this same system in the light of both Covid-19 and Brexit. Importantly, the report also argues that this disruption can be countered by a collective bargaining approach that draws on the structural power of workers and develops strategic links between shop stewards in supply chains to build new industrial leverage.

Trade is an Industrial Issue

The report contains original research exploring to what extent the industrial impact of trade can be seen as an issue which can be countered by Unite workplace reps and shop stewards at the bargaining table and beyond. Of the 30 reps (across a number of sectors and predominantly from workplaces that are vulnerable to trade disruption) interviewed in detail for the project, 70% saw trade as a threat to their members.

Reps identified the ‘race to the bottom’ and rivalries between international sites for investment as two significant ways this industrial impact manifested itself. The overwhelming view, shared by 97% of interviewees, is that there is either an immediate or potential value for a collective bargaining strategy for trade to counter these issues. Understandably, Brexit dominated responses to the issue of potential trade threats (interviews were conducted before the conclusion of the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement).

Due to the nature of free trade, increased costs, insecurity and disruption all lead to increased competition between employers who are seeking to secure their investment, gain a competitive advantage and increase market share. Employer strategies to seek cheaper labour and production costs precede neoliberalism but have been intensified by the globalisation of the world economy, aiding the ability of multinational corporations to move capital, goods, services and labour across borders.

Brexit and increasing tensions between the major trading powers have created conditions for employers to exploit uncertainty and rising costs to potentially move sites to countries with cheaper labour or rely more heavily on existing sources of cheaper labour.
The government’s proposals for new freeports extends the dynamic of competition between workplaces to industrial sectors and whole towns, but it also shows the practical importance of union representatives coordinating their response across industrial sectors.

Lessons from Covid

The report presents changes to post-Brexit trade primarily as a disruptive event. It therefore makes sense to consider how employers are reacting to Covid-19, an indisputably disruptive global event, to see if any precedents have been set. The interviews suggest that in workplaces with strong organisation, the employer worked with Unite reps on strategies to make the workplace safer, although cases of employer opportunism and hostility also began to emerge as the research progressed.

80 percent of the reps interviewed believed that their employer had initially acted responsibly during the pandemic, partially attributable to the fact that half of the reps interviewed reported a union density of 90 percent or higher. This is not inconsistent with the findings of a separate survey of some 1300 Unite reps conducted in May 2020, which found nearly two-thirds reporting their employer behaving responsibly to Covid-19 (with a likely wider range of density levels between respondents).

90 percent of reps interviewed for this latest report claimed that Covid-related changes had come about through negotiation with the union. This is a testament to the importance of strong collective bargaining agreements and the role of reps in negotiating changes in members’ interests. 13 percent of reps also believed that their relationship with their employer had actually improved during the pandemic, largely due to the positive role of Unite health and safety reps and the need for cooperation between the union and the employer in a time of crisis.

Despite this cooperation, some reps were left under no illusions that some of the positive changes made by their employers have been entirely out of self-interest. Though relations between reps and their employer have generally been good during the pandemic, 20 percent of those interviewed reported that they felt that their employer had done the bare minimum to keep their members safe. Notably, three of the reps who reported this also claimed that the changes the employer made were imposed and not negotiated with the union. These examples highlight the importance of strong union density in the workplace and a willingness and ability to take action. This emphasises the need for a collective bargaining renaissance in this country and a political commitment to it.

Recent weeks have seen warnings that the controversial practice of  ‘fire and re-hire’ has become widespread during the Covid-19 pandemic. What’s more, the government has a review of workers’ rights in its sights, notwithstanding the recent U-turn. It must make good on its promise to ‘protect and enhance workers’ rights’ and do so in the much-delayed employment bill. It is therefore vital that unions increase pressure on the government, which is waiting for an opportunity to use the fallout from Brexit and Covid to attack workers’ rights.

Supply Chain Solidarity

Regardless of the government’s plans, union reps will always fight to maintain and improve density levels and collective bargaining. One way to do this is to consider density beyond the immediate workplace, and across the supply chain. This would mean identifying and proactively using positions of organisational strength for the benefit of all workers within the chain.

Economic disruption, whether through trade or Covid-19, can be seen as both a threat and an opportunity. This is certainly the view of the reps interviewed for the project. The threat of neoliberal free trade policies to workers and trade unions is well-established and has contributed to a major decline in union membership and power over the last 50 years. More recent phenomena like the rise of freeports, automation, and e-commerce companies like Amazon also place new strains on workers and create challenges for trade unions working to defend and improve their members’ rights, pay, and conditions.

However, these new and pre-existing challenges also offer opportunities. Despite capital’s efforts to undermine the power of workers through the atomisation of production and distribution, global capitalism still relies on supply chains that are prone to significant vulnerabilities and ‘choke points’ (points in the chain that, if disrupted, can slow down or stop supply altogether). This potentially gives workers in these vital choke points—particularly transport and logistics workers tasked with moving goods along the chain—a huge amount of structural power and leverage, a fact employers are keenly aware of. As such, there is a growing body of research that deals with strategies to organise across and within supply chains that the report draws on and contributes to.

As the UK and Ireland’s largest multisector trade union, strategically building and sustaining connections between workers in supply chains is something that Unite is uniquely placed to develop. ‘Supply chain solidarity’ elevates the role of rank-and-file union members and shop stewards to active participants and leaders in their own efforts to increase power in the workplace, but also, by extension, the global economy. By placing workers at the centre of a strategy to resist the negative industrial impact of free trade, it emphasises organising, collective bargaining, and international solidarity over advocacy. Such a strategy would be a key step forward in rooting union influence over world trade in the workplace—where workers can use their power—instead of the elite-level negotiations that fundamentally affect workers’ lives and yet offer minimal avenues for union input.

The dominant economic model of ‘free for all’ trade seeks to divide workers and have us compete in a winner-takes-all ‘race to the bottom’. The ideas presented in the Unite report propose a starting point for piecing together what has been broken. It is a strategy based on an understanding that we do not work in isolation, but within the networks of supply, service, production, and delivery. The power of working people in the system of global trade comes from where it has always come from – our collective strength, and the solidarity between us.

You can read the full report, ‘A Collective Bargaining Strategy for Trade’, here.

This blog first appeared on the Tribune blog March 5th

Posted in Campaign For Trade Union Freedom News, European Employment Rights, International Employment Rights, New Generation Of Trade Agreements, UK Employment Rights | Leave a comment

Historic Win For GMB As Supreme Court Rules Against Uber

The GMB scored a ‘historic’ win as the UK Supreme Court on February 19th passed judgement in the union’s landmark worker’s rights case against Uber.

Judges ruled in GMB’s favour – determining that Uber drivers are not self-employed, but are workers entitled to workers’ rights including holiday pay, a guaranteed minimum wage and an entitlement to breaks.

After four court wins in four years, the GMB will now consult with Uber driver members over their forthcoming compensation claim

“This has been a gruelling four-year legal battle for our members – but it’s ended in a historic win. Uber must now stop wasting time and money pursuing lost legal causes and do what’s right by the drivers who prop up its empire” said Mick Rix GMB National Officer.

Lawyers Leigh Day, fighting the case on behalf of GMB, say tens of thousands of Uber drivers could be entitled to an average of ÂŁ12,000 each in compensation.

Today’s ruling is the fourth time Uber has lost in court over its treatment of drivers.

Uber engaged an army of lawyers to try to defeat the GMB but the decision by the Supreme Court is the end of the road for Uber’s mistreatment of drivers.

The TUC welcomed Supreme Court ruling against Uber on the employment status of its drivers.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “No company is above the law. Uber must play by the rules and stop denying its drivers basic rights at work. 

“This ruling is an important win for gig economy workers and for common decency. Sham self-employment exploits people and lets companies dodge paying their fair share of tax. 

“Unions will continue to expose nasty schemes that try and cheat workers out of the minimum wage and holiday pay. 

“But we also need the government to step up to the plate. Ministers must use the much-delayed employment bill to reform the law around worker status. 

“Everyone should qualify for employment rights unless an employer can prove they are genuinely self-employed.” 

Posted in Campaign For Trade Union Freedom News, European Employment Rights, International Employment Rights, UK Employment Rights, Uncategorized | Leave a comment