A new deal offered by courier firm DPD may just be the beginning of the end of the race to the bottom
It’s too early, perhaps, to say the tide is turning. But something is shifting inside the gig economy. The courier firm DPD announced this week that it’s offering its drivers the option of becoming proper workers, complete with all the trappings that people could once take for granted: sick pay, holiday pay and the right to a pension.
No more contracts for what looks remarkably like conventional work minus all the conventional benefits, unless that’s what drivers want. And no more insisting that people who wear your uniform, drive your liveried vans, and show up every day to help deliver your £100m annual profits don’t really work for you as such. What DPD has done allows us to test the gig economy’s own defence of its model, which is that some people genuinely do want to work this casually; that given a choice they’d prefer not to be tied down, to keep it as a side hustle or a halfway house between work and retirement rather than a proper job. Well, now they have that choice, let’s see what people make of it.
The catch – for there’s always a catch – is that those choosing the “worker” deal will be paid a lower rate per delivery than those on freelance conditions. But at least it’s clear to everyone what rights they’re signing away for the money, which was always the deal with genuine self-employment. And crucially, this case isn’t quite the outlier it seems. It’s part of a wave of small, hard-fought wins racked up by unions, activists and a broader swath of civil society over gig economy employers, which have shown that a race to the bottom is not inevitable; that companies make choices every day, and can be nudged into making better ones.
They may only be small victories, but it’s worth taking a moment to understand how they were won. Not via the government, for a start. Theresa May did commission a review of the gig economy from Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA, and ministers have accepted some of its recommendations; but they’re still consulting on the crucial question of how to differentiate in law between genuine self-employment and the bogus, exploitative kind. And even the shaming of DPD over the death of driver Don Lane – a diabetic who missed hospital appointments because he was frightened of being fined for taking the time off – didn’t lead to an effective consumer backlash.
We all talk a good game about boycotting Amazon, or going back to shopping on the high street. But in practice it’s so much easier to shop online from the sofa, and try not to think about the cut-throat market competition between courier firms to deliver it cheaply to our doorsteps. That pang of guilt on signing for a parcel and recognising the company name from some grim headline is all very well, but it’s a bit late by then.
What does seem to be working, however, is a pincer movement orchestrated by unions and activists, involving pressure from both the bottom up (the GMB led a driver walkout at DPD just before Christmas over threatened changes to conditions), and the top down, whether by taking test cases through the courts or lobbying the respectable high street names now tarnished by association with the couriers they employ. Do Marks & Spencer or John Lewis really want to be dragged into these scandals, to look complicit in such misery? If not, why don’t they use their clout as contractors to do something about it? The newly formed union the IWGB has used similar tactics to get several cycle courier companies to pay the London living wage.
These are all baby steps, easily reversed, taken by companies whose workers have had ample reason not to trust them. Nobody’s pretending everything is rosy. But small points of light in the darkness still matter, as they can be seen from a long way off. Even tiny victories can help to convince gig economy workers that they don’t have to sit back and take it, that the risk of being victimised if they organise should now at least be weighed up against the risk of being exploited if they don’t, that they aren’t as powerless as they think.
Success breeds success, and confidence that things can change – which is the essential first step to ensuring that they do.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
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