by Alex Marshall
Beast from the East … we’re out there! Hottest summer since records began … we’re out there! Hurricane Nebuchadnezzar or whatever stupid name they have come up with this time … we’re out there! Every time you look outside the window, think “screw it” and decide not to bother going out, you can guarantee there will be a load of couriers out on the road braving whatever the elements throw at them, desperately trying to make a piss-poor wage.
The unconventional way you operate as a courier, with the nomadic existence while at work – minimal interaction from bosses beyond a few orders over the radio, the (false) belief that you can work when you want, getting a job without having to produce a C.V. that symbolises putting glitter on a turd, and generally doing something that doesn’t entail being sat behind a desk for ten hours a day – is what draws a lot of people in. I work alongside musicians, artists, actors, activists, punks, squatters, people who suffer from anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and all other types that might struggle to fit into the conventions of society but still need to make a living. Being a courier is their lifeline.
You start out thinking that you are doing the work on your own terms – you are there because you choose to be – and that the job fits your lifestyle; however, soon after the reality of it all kicks in. The idea that you are “self-employed” and can enjoy flexibility is completely bogus. Companies frown upon people who try and exercise any flexibility and there are even rules in place (attendance bonuses, delivery ratings that boost chances of getting prime shifts etc.) that actually make it detrimental to your earnings to try and exercise the “freedoms” of being self-employed. The low wages mean you are shackled to working long hours so the bills can be paid, and leaves you chasing those extra drops that make the money for a ten-hour day in the cold, hard rain just about worth the pain you have endured.
My epiphany came one evening in a pub chatting to a group of mates, all employees. I had viewed them like battery farm chickens while I was out enjoying my no strings, lone-wolf existence on the road going against the grain of employment. I realised that not only was I working a hell of a lot harder than them for considerably less money, I was also working longer hours every week and taking less time off every year compared to them. Turns out this freedom I had been sold did not exactly do what it said on the tin.
The attitude ingrained into the industry, from couriers to management, is that this is how it has always been and how it will always be. If you don’t like it, you can go find another job. This has never sat well with me and the formation of the courier and logistics branch at the Independent Workers Great Britain (IWGB) showed me that there were others who felt the same way. I joined shortly after its inception but my membership lay dormant for a while as I believed that my personal situation was not as bad as others on the road, and didn’t feel entitled to the union’s immediate attention. As time went on I became conscious that just because my situation was not as terrible as others, I was still being just as exploited and it had to stop.
I started talking to couriers at my company, The Doctor’s Laboratory (TDL – an NHS contractor responsible for running pathology tests), and was amazed at how almost everyone in the fleet of over 120 was getting screwed-over in one way or another. The main issues were the denial of basic workers’ rights – including paid holidays and pensions, unpaid wages and overtime – bullying by management and a clear lack of process when being disciplined, amongst many other things. To be fair on a company that does not really deserve any fairness, they were no different to every business in the industry.
The dystopian environment at TDL made recruitment and unionising a fairly straightforward task. The hope of anything better than the couriers were currently enduring was enough to convince people to sign up and start pushing for better conditions. Before long we had a majority of the workforce as members of the IWGB and, in turn, union recognition.
In the two years that have passed since unionising started at TDL the wins have been coming thick and fast. After taking the company to tribunal we won reclassification from self-employment to Limb B workers, which means we are now entitled to holiday pay and pension contributions. Through campaigning we have driven up the salaries of long suffering van-driving employees by £5,000. We managed to get workers who were wrongly suspended, reinstated. Hundreds of pounds have been reimbursed that were wrongfully deducted from workers. Most recently, after twelve months of negotiations and the company failing to rectify a lacklustre and stagnated pay structure, the TDL couriers went on strike for two days and brought the company to its knees. They crumbled to our demands and the win saw a fleet-wide enhancement in pay and conditions. Unions work. Strikes work. Boom!
Clearly more needs to be done in all workplaces. A recent report from the TUC estimates 4.7 million of us are relying on ‘gig economy’ platform work and it’s plain to all that this erosion of workers rights combined with no guaranteed hours or wages is a grim and unacceptable reality.
Membership of the Courier and Logistics branch continues to expand, as riders have had enough of being mistreated and risking their lives daily to make a living. Internationally, seven workers have already been killed in 2019 whilst working for one of the many takeaway delivery platforms.
Earlier this year, IWGB-led Deliveroo strikes took place in Bristol, Nottingham and London that exemplify the discontent bubbling not only across the country but across the world. Spain, Italy and Canada have all seen similar strikes in the last month alone. The movement is spreading and growing. Connections with sister unions abroad have been established and are being strengthened, with the realisation that riders worldwide are all staring down the same issues of precarity and abysmal pay.
The IWGB’s victory at TDL sent shockwaves across the courier industry and all the other sectors continuing to exploit workers. The Union is on an upwards trajectory of success and the sense of unity amongst members is palpable. We now have a blueprint for victory and we will be tackling more places that choose to exploit our members.
With ongoing court cases, including back-dated holiday claims against City Sprint and TDL amounting to well over £1 million; an exciting project backed by trade union colossus the International Transport Federation commencing imminently; and membership being extended nationwide due to high demand for representation, the future of the branch has never looked so strong.
It’s time to rise up and get what we deserve: Unionise, organise, campaign, strike, win!
Alex Marshall is a bicycle courier at The Doctors Laboratory (TDL) and Chair of the IWGB Couriers & Logistics Branch.
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