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Sacked for reading a book during break

Trade Unions
Work
Courier and cab in London

Contract and precarious workers in London face routine abuse of their rights. Couriers in the capital hadn't had a pay rise for 15 years, until the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain stepped in. DaveBleasdale under a Creative Commons Licence

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was set up in 2012 and we now have nearly 900 members. In four years, we have achieved big things. With our recently set-up sister organization, the Independent Worker Legal Services (IWLS), we are set to make an even bigger impact.

We have won unprecedented improvements in pay and conditions for some of the poorest workers in Britain – for example, a rise to the London Living Wage (currently £9.45 ($12.30) an hour) for contracted-out cleaning workers who were previously paid salaries of around £6 to £7 an hour.

The core of our membership are non-English speaking cleaners and porters working for contract cleaning companies in some of London’s most famous landmarks – Senate House, the Royal College of Music, the Barbican. In a sector that others have thought impossible to unionize, almost all of our members in the cleaning industry now receive the London Living Wage, and hundreds of them have benefited from the IWGB’s successful ‘3cosas campaign’ (‘three things’), for improved sick pay, holidays and pensions. These improvements were won after a long campaign full of noisy protests, culminating in a two-day strike by contracted-out workers at the University of London.

Cycle courier firms have been around much longer than the likes of UBER or Deliveroo, but they share many characteristics with these ‘gig economy’ companies – not least the fiction that the deliverers are self-employed. After a decade and a half of having things their own way, the leading courier companies had not offered a pay rise to their riders in 15 years. But after a typically noisy and creative IWGB campaign, industry leaders City Sprint and eCourier caved in, offering to raise their delivery rates so that an average rider would earn the equivalent of the London Living Wage. This amounted to a pay rise of nearly 17 and 30 per cent respectively.

Since this victory, the couriers have turned their attention to a host of smaller companies. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, all have so far been eager to avoid a campaign and reach an agreement: Mach1, for example, entered into negotiations immediately and offered a 20-per-cent rise. The IWGB Couriers and Logistics branch have been offering some of this hard-won campaigning expertise to the workers at Deliveroo, who went on strike recently.

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These campaigns have led to achievements that we are proud of, but we often need to establish workers’ rights in a more basic way. One of the things I have learnt as a volunteer for and member of the IWGB is that for many of Britain’s contracted-out workers, especially those in precarious jobs, the rule of law is absent from the workplace. Abuses are routine. We have had members who were summarily dismissed for getting pregnant, because a manager wanted a relative to take a position, or even for reading a book in their break. Illegal deductions of wages – from some of the thinnest pay packets in the country – are incredibly common.

Once we have established a presence in a workplace, this kind of obviously illegal behaviour by companies becomes a thing of the past. We have won thousands of pounds in back pay, and had a great many workers re-instated.

Such work is incredibly labour intensive, however, often involving tribunals and a very heavy casework load. We get top-quality pro-bono representation when we need it, but there is no getting away from the large number of person-hours needed to represent new members.

Because of this, we often lose money on new members and we only begin to break even once we have dispelled the ‘wild west’ aspects of their workplace. This means that, while we are approached every day by desperate people who want to join the IWGB, we cannot say yes to most of them.

As a way of trying to counteract this problem, we have set up the Independent Worker Legal Services (IWLS). This is a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to the relief of poverty, by providing employment-related legal advice and representation to IWGB members. We are hopeful that it will be declared a charity in the next few months. With a panel of trustees that includes a cycle courier, a cleaner and two QCs specializing in employment law, we hope to raise money for the IWLS from a wide range of sources, including foundations and individual donations. We have already been given a grant worth £30,000 ($39,000) a year for two years from the Trust For London, but this is only enough to stabilize our current workload.

Please check out the IWGB website for more information or to contribute.

Look out for the September 2016 issue of New Internationalist magazine exploring possibilities for a 21st-century revival of organized workers' movements around the world: Trade Unions – rebuild, renew, resist

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