After a week of protests, UK workers for the takeaway delivery firm Deliveroo have won the right to continue their old contracts rather than being forced onto a new contract. Whereas the old contract guarantees an hourly rate of £7 plus £1 per delivery, the new contract has no hourly rate and only pays per delivery. The Guardian reports that:
Riders, who believe that the new deal could result in them earning less money and remove the certainty that they got from an hourly rate, cautiously welcomed the deal.
This is certainly good news in terms of worker’s rights, and I also think it is interesting from a feminist perspective. This is not for the obvious reason, however: it’s not the case, as far as I know, that workers in this type of job are disproportionately women (in fact I suspect there are more men than women, though I don’t have figures).
But feminists have had some very relevant insights to offer into the ‘gig economy’ – jobs undertaken on a self-employed, casual basis co-ordinated through technology such as apps – into which category Deliveroo riders fall (another big example is Uber). These jobs are presented as offering ‘flexibility’, which in practice means that workers cannot rely on fixed hours and that risks and costs of such work are placed squarely on the workers rather than on the (often large and extremely profitable) companies that co-ordinate the services. For example, Deliveroo riders supply their own bikes or motorbikes and are not eligible for sick pay or holiday pay. This is a pattern of work that was predicted by Maria Mies in her 1986 monograph, ‘Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale’:
The new strategy of obscuring women’s productive work for capital is propagated under the slogan of ‘flexibilization of labour’. Not only are women pushed out of the formal sector – as happened some time ago to Indian woman – they are reintegrated into capitalist development in a whole range of informal, non-organized, non-protected production relations, ranging from part-time work, through contract work, to homeworking, to unpaid neighbourhood work. Increasingly, the dual model according to which Third World labour has been segmented is re-introduced into the industrialized countries. Thus, we can say that the way in which Third World women are at present integrated into capitalist development is the model also for the reorganization of labour in the centres of capitalism. (126)
Mies links this shift to ‘the growing fear of an increasing number of marginalized people in the rich countries that they might all become as expendable as women in Third World countries’ (127).
In other words, the model of casualized labour presented under the banner of ‘flexibility’ (which Mies terms ‘houswifization’, since it developed from the idea of a housewife earning a little bit of money alongside her unpaid domestic work) proved so effective as a mode of exploiting Third World women that it has spread to other groups. (Nina Power explores a similar idea in her 2009 book One Dimensional Woman.) Another reminder that the relevance of feminist analysis is not restricted to women.