IGP Stories

Inspiration for our times: precarious workers fighting for our future

Nicola Vimalanathan

18 May 2023

In a recent conversation with a friend who was about to move to another country, she bemoaned the state of the UK, and said something along the lines of, ‘I feel like people just sit back and take it, no matter how bad things get’. Initially defensive, considering I was included in her denouncement, her words stayed with me. I asked another friend who works in campaign organising if they agreed, and why this was the case. They pointed to the discouragement people feel around previous actions that seem to have made little difference, such as the Tuition Fee or Iraq War protests. Although the recent wave of public sector strikes perhaps now prove her wrong to some degree; people are taking action, it is becoming hard to argue with the assertion that this action will struggle to achieve its desired outcomes. The UK government’s response to these strikes has been to propose an anti-strike bill, and the general climate is one of trying to quell protest; see the recent plans to give police increased powers to shut down protests.

There are a lot of things to potentially unpack from my friend’s initial words, but when studying the actions of precarious workers in London, they came back to me, and I am happy to now be able to disagree. There are people fighting back against their circumstances, and they are making a difference, maybe we just do not always look in the right places to see it happen.

An overlooked majority

Precarious workers, who have often been overlooked by traditional larger unions, are forming their own unions, and taking action in the form of strikes, pickets, boycotts, public campaigns and confronting those in power directly. Two of these unions are the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW). They are taking action to fight against the impacts of being in work which is insecure, or precarious; a state of work which is becoming more common and is often associated with a lack of employment rights, regulation of employment conditions, and identifiable organisations and workplaces, particularly in the gig or platform economy.

Worker victories

Workers are often outsourced to external contractors, and experience significant pay cuts as their previous employer puts pressure on their new one to cut costs9; an example of this being workers at St Mary’s Hospital in London who experienced pay cuts of between 27% and 52% when their jobs were outsourced. They also experienced significant health risks due to their new employer not providing up to date vaccinations, payslips which did not include all their hours, and ended up working long hours or taking on extra jobs to make up for the drop in pay. Approximately 170 workers at the hospital went on strike for three days in both October and November 2019 and won. It wasn’t only a victory for them, but for all 1200 cleaners, porters and caterers covered by the same NHS Trust. These workers are not only winning changes to their terms and conditions, but are a reminder that less tangible things such as empowerment and dignity are also important. For workers like those at St Mary’s, this empowerment comes from fighting for something with others in the same position and succeeding, and dignity comes from receiving the same level of treatment, pay and benefits as those who work in the seat next to you but happen to have a different employer.

Building public and other support

Workers have been able to gain a huge amount of support from the public and other groups and their own colleagues. Workers at the University of London (UoL) waged multiple campaigns over ten years for improvements in their terms and conditions, and finally to be insourced, which they won in 2020. One of the key parts of their campaign to be insourced was a boycott of Senate House, the administrative centre of the UoL. This boycott would only be effective if the majority of staff who used the centre joined it. The University and College Union (UCU), which represented most staff at the university voted to support the boycott, and 215 events and seminars had to be relocated. This backing was not automatic, when the campaign first started the UCU was not supportive, but efforts to engage them over time were successful.

Unions run by and for precarious workers

Unlike more traditional unions where there is more of a top-down approach, workers themselves decide what actions to take, and what they want to achieve. For example, Ocado Zoom drivers in London whose contracts were outsourced from Ocado to a new delivery partner, rather than being insourced as employees, wanted to have Limb-B contracts, which classed them as self-employed, but eligible for employment rights. Whilst couriers with Stuart Delivery in Sheffield decided to only strike for 3 hours a day which enabled them to make the maximum impact, but still keep working. These same couriers also didn’t wait for most couriers to join the union to take action; they started a WhatsApp group, built up what they considered to be enough support and then went ahead. As a result, support built up over time, and they were responsible for the longest strike in gig economy history, which spread to other cities and at points resulted in all McDonalds branches in Sheffield having to stop taking orders. Their unions are also a place where they can receive much needed support that is not available for them elsewhere, such as learning about the UK employment and legal systems, and union meetings where they can be encouraged and find others in the same situation as them.

Flexible structures

Their small memberships mean that they have a lack of central resources, relying mainly on donations for strike funds, which can inhibit participation in strike action. In addition, they generally do not have official recognition agreements, which means companies do not have to negotiate with them, and it is harder for them to enforce or regulate the terms that companies agree to outside of these official agreements. For example, Stuart Delivery agreed to paid waiting times, but the conditions that they put on receiving it, meant that the way this plays out in couriers’ actual work does not result in a significant benefit to them. Despite this, these factors can actually work to the unions’ advantage and result in them being more flexible and adaptable, which is potentially more of a benefit in sectors that are changing rapidly. Having a limited central infrastructure, not being affiliated to particular political parties, and not having recognition agreements means they can bypass industrial action legislation, and act more quickly and freely.

Not just workers

Both unions recognise that there are wider issues that may confront workers, particularly given the majority of their members are migrant workers or from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and as such seek to address wider social justice concerns that workers may be facing. They seek to change narratives around immigration, highlighting that it is companies rather than migrant workers who are responsible for lower wages, and that these workers are actually the ones being exploited, with companies profiting from their ability to pay migrant workers less.

Showing us change is possible

Not only are precarious workers showing us that it is possible to fight back against precarity more generally; (their strategies of coalition building, and forming connections across divided workplaces are relevant to us all, and directly combat the root causes of precarity), but they are also fighting our future battles for us on the front line; we will benefit directly from all of their wins. When they reverse the tide of outsourcing to prevent our jobs being the next ones to go, or when they bring an employment tribunal against a company or institution we might currently work for or end up working for, or a court case to fight for better employment status, which set precedents which can then be depended on by everyone else in the same position. In this current political and economic climate it appears that there is not much standing between us and a precarious future except those fighting against it now. So let’s join them.

Nicola Vimalanathan is a student in the IGP's MSc Global Prosperity program and graduated this year.

Photo: Josh Barwick on Unsplash


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