Why is it so hard to unionise in the gig economy?

Battling isolation and ‘corporate dictatorship’, workers share their challenges of organising in the gig economy


Labelled the Amazonian Era, the work place is transforming as we witness what the Institute for the Future of Work has called the ‘gigification’ of work.

Data by TUC shows 14.7% of working people in England and Wales now undertake platform work at least once a week, with almost a quarter of workers having done platform work at some point.

As casualisation and the rise of algorithmic management threaten workers’ rights, trade union representation in the gig economy is made all the more important.

However, workers in the industry struggle to have their voices heard in the face of isolation and surveillance.

Catherine Meechan, a courier driver from Manchester emphasised the difficulty of even talking with fellow workers about unions due to the isolating nature of the job.

“I don’t know how many people in the industry know that they have a union”, Catherine told LFF.

“I try to tell people as much as possible, but it’s quite difficult as you don’t get a lot of time to talk to each other, especially at depots.”

Catherine juggles working for Amazon Flex, Deliveroo and UberEats across the North West of England.

“It’s a lot easier for food delivery drivers to talk when you’re waiting at a restaurant to pick up food, sometimes for 15 or 20 minutes.

“You can try to get to know people outside restaurants or who you see on the road quite a lot.

“With Amazon Flex drivers you’ll see each other in the warehouses when we’re picking up so we can get to know each other there.

“But in general at depots you’re inside, pack your bags, then you’re out.”

Catherine, whose been a delivery driver for three years, said she also battled with stigma and wished there was more collaboration with postal workers, who she sees as facing similar challenges against their employer.

“The postal workers going on strike hit me really deep because I felt embarrassed going around with an Amazon top on.

“I had to get over that really and say no, we’re both doing the same job and both worthy of being here.

“Now I say hi to them and support them in their strike, we should be teaming up a lot more than we are.”

In an industry that actively discourages worker collaboration, isolation was also a key reason why Catherine joined a trade union in the first place.

“When you’re out on the road all the time it’s really isolating.

“Yes you can chat with people at restaurants, but feeling like you’re part of a bigger team is important.”

She emphasised the role of union chat groups for coordinating action but also for sharing support and comradery among workers.

“One driver had broken down on the side of the road and asked on our chat group if anyone could help him out, it turned out another driver could come down and helped him.

“It’s nice to know that if you were really in an emergency somebody can say, ‘I’ve got your back’.”

Industry instability

In a sector that is made to pit workers against each other through algorithmic systems and instability, space to come together and share experiences is made even more crucial.

A full-time delivery rider in Romford, who wishes to remain anonymous, shared with LFF his experience of trying to organise his fellow workers against the enforcement of unfair parking restrictions.

He received a £55 parking ticket for a 3-minute take-away delivery drop off, worth £2.80.

“It was a really difficult location with no parking at 9:30pm, there was nobody around.

“I came down and three ticket wardens were there laughing and gave me a £55 ticket.

“That night I just went home as I felt so demoralised, I thought, what am I doing here anymore.”

He has been trying to organise fellow drivers against the parking restrictions for a few months, however he has found the process ‘demoralising’.

The unstable nature of the job has made it hard to persuade his colleagues to pursue action.

“People are more worried about their home situation and finances so they don’t care so much about the issue, especially if your young and living day by day.”

He noted the difficulty of motivating riders when many of them are attracted to the role due to its flexibility and therefore less likely to put time into pursuing changes in the area.

“With the apps you can technically just move city as you don’t have to be in that area to work, that’s the hardest part about organising people.”

He said himself that the flexibility of the job is appealing but that the ‘terrible conditions’ make it hard to sustain.

GMB recently won a campaign with Deliveroo drivers in Derby to stop unfair parking charges for restaurant couriers, proving that it is possible to improve working conditions in the gig economy.  

However, in Romford, the struggle to persuade other drivers of the benefits of joining a union has left their campaign struggling to receive support.

Fear from employers

Amazon workers in Coventry are also proving the power of joining a union as they take on their multi-billion-pound employer.

However, workers at the warehouse faced fear and surveillance when attempting to organise, as Coventry worker Conor Geraghty referred to the ‘corporate dictatorship’, ‘ruled by fear’.

He said: “It’s a corporate dictatorship because they rule by fear all the time, it’s their main way of keeping that building running.

“Everyone is scared to do anything because they hand out disciplinaries like sweets all day every day and make policies that are impossible to follow.

“Getting a disciplinary for discussing unions is wrong, that’s our legal right, people were worried to begin with because of fear and retaliation from Amazon for that.”

He added: “But we know they’re not going to give us a disciplinary for joining a union because they’re not stupid, however they will find the smallest thing to discipline you for.”

Workers found ways around these challenges by using hidden messages and relying on colleague support to encourage and educate around unionising.

Coventry striker Darren Westwood told LFF: “I’d send little notes like, ‘meet in smoking shelter’ and then put my break time down so they could come and speak to me.

“Silly things like that, it was hard especially when Amazon said there could be no speak of unions.”

Conor added they had ‘lots of barriers to overcome’ particularly around people not understanding their rights and strike action.

Trade union information had to be translated into 40 languages, to make sure they were reaching everyone in the diverse team of workers.

“Even now after the first strike we have people asking whether we do a few hours on the picket line then have to go back to work, because they don’t understand that we’re withholding our labour for the whole day.”

However, workers overcame these challenges, with union membership rising from 1 in 50, to 1 in 5, proving the ability of employees to come together with the common goal to improve their pay and conditions.

Hannah Davenport is trade union reporter at Left Foot Forward

(Photo credit: Creative Commons / Flickr)

Left Foot Forward’s trade union reporting is supported by the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust

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