Fatima, from Guinea-Bissau, wakes up in the early hours of the morning to be in with a chance of being able to use the bathroom at her small house in Stratford, east London, which she shares with nine strangers – some are Italian, she thinks, and some might be eastern European, but nobody socialises as they are all too busy working, so she can’t really be sure. Almost every possession Fatima owns remains permanently packed in two large suitcases, because she knows what the landlord is capable of: he demands payments in cash and retains a personal key to every room. “When he throws me out on to the street, I’ll be ready,” she explains. By 6.30am she’s on the tube and heading to the Ministry of Justice headquarters near St James’s Park for the first of two jobs. Over the next nine hours she will walk up and down 16 floors of UK government office space, cleaning each of the male and female toilets on every floor five times per working day. She will walk for miles and miles, until 5pm, when she will walk down the road for half a mile more, and begin another set of cleaning rounds – this time at the supreme court. For all this, she will be paid £7.83 per hour, the legal minimum wage for her age. By the time she gets home, it will be past 9pm, and she will be exhausted. “It isn’t any kind of life,” she says.
But today is a different kind of life. Today, she is spinning in the middle of a Westminster pavement as rain pours from the sky, with glitter on her face and strips of ticker tape in her hair. She is blowing a horn and dancing deliriously, flanked by a line of security guards on one side and police officers on the other. The air is thick with music and shouting and flare smoke and promise, and Fatima, 55, is at the heart of it all.
Work structures our world, outside and in. We use it to define ourselves, to weigh our own worth and that of others, to mark the passage from childhood to maturity, and most importantly to survive. Yet in modern Britain, work is in crisis. Following the financial crash, real wages in Britain have fallen by a percentage point every year; by the mid-2010s the typical worker was earning 10% less than they were before 2008 and some had lost more than a third of their earnings – compared to average wage rises over that period of 11% in France, 14% in Germany, and 23% in Poland. Seven in 10 workers in the UK are now “chronically broke”, according to a major study by the Royal Society of Arts. “Work is the best route out of poverty,” Theresa May declared on several occasions, wrongly. In fact, 7 million people in Britain living below the bread line – that’s two-thirds of all those in poverty – have jobs, but jobs that simply do not pay enough.
The story of what has happened to workers, of how that insecurity has been normalised, is part of a wider tale about the ways in which processes of economic production have been altered under the twin influences of globalisation and financialisation. Between 2016 and 2019 the number of people working for digital platforms in the UK doubled to 4.7 million, almost one in 10 of the entire workforce. Meanwhile younger workers in traditional professions are being “proletarianised” as their wages fail to keep pace with the rising cost of living: early career lawyers, lecturers, accountants or architects face lower pay, less stable jobs, poorer working conditions and higher levels of freelancing than their older colleagues experienced. Up to 10 million people in Britain are now estimated to be in some form of precarious work, a trend that stretches well beyond the “gig economy” and into occupations that have existed for centuries, such as teaching, caring and hospitality. Across all these sectors, talk of workplace “flexibility” is increasingly entwined with new forms of intensive management – often, in many industries, now conducted by algorithms rather than human bosses – and the growing surveillance of workers that goes with it.
These tendencies have atomised and fragmented workers, especially because they have been accompanied by a relentless political assault on trade unions. Whereas half of all workers carried a union card in the 1970s, only a fifth do so today. Among young people in the private sector, where most economic growth is concentrated, that figure falls to 6%. In 2017 the number of strikes in the UK was the lowest since records began and the number of total strike days lost numbered just 170,000 – compared to 29.5m in 1979, year of the so-called Winter of Discontent.
But an unlikely movement is currently under way to rewire the economy from within. Agency staff in maintenance cupboards are busy plotting wildcat walkouts, takeaway couriers are using their bikes and motorcycles to bring major roads to a standstill, gallery openings are being overrun by protesting workers and warehouse operatives are organising clandestinely through WhatsApp. The reality is that labour militancy hasn’t died at all. It is simply playing out on fresh terrain.
In 1906, Upton Sinclair published his novel The Jungle, which journeyed into the dark underbelly of the American food industry and revealed the indignities and abuses imposed on its workers. At the heart of these abuses stood the factory assembly line, a relatively new innovation in mass production that was relentlessly and unapologetically engineered to “use everything about the hog except the squeal”. “It was pork-making by machinery, pork-making by applied mathematics,” observed Sinclair, who had spent weeks labouring undercover in the Chicago meatpacking district to gather material. And it wasn’t only the pigs that he saw as being disembowelled by this technological leap forward; Sinclair feared the assembly line could destroy the power and militancy of those who worked on it too. “They were beaten,” he wrote of his two main protagonists, Lithuanian immigrants struggling to cling on to their humanity and survive on the edges of a brutal economy. “They had lost the game, they were swept aside.”
But the assembly line did not result in the collapse of labour militancy. In fact, the opposite occurred: by the mid-1930s, when a huge strike wave roiled the US’s auto industry, it was clear that this technology also provided workers with new pressure points to exploit, new opportunities to disrupt. After the great sit-in at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in late 1936 and early 1937, which lasted 44 days and saw workers using hinges and bolts to fend off armed police who were trying to seize the factory, it became apparent that even a small number of labour activists in a single plant were capable of bringing the whole assembly line to a halt, and that gumming up production in one location had a knock-on effect across a company’s entire corporate empire.
If Sinclair were writing a novel about dehumanising work in the post-crash economy today, it might be Amazon warehouses in towns such as Tilbury that he would seek out: the meatpacking assembly lines of our own age, where technological advances meld with capital’s need to extract every last ounce of efficiency from its workforce. Amazon employees complain of being seen as robots by their bosses, who electronically track the speed of their work, subject them to impossibly ambitious performance targets, and force them to toil through sickness and late-stage pregnancy to the point where staff claim to have suffered miscarriages on the job (“We don’t recognise these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings,” responded Amazon in a statement). In the US, Amazon has been granted patents for ultrasonic wristbands that, when attached to workers, are capable of tracking their every hand movement and providing “haptic feedback” (ie vibrations) if a worker is carrying out their tasks suboptimally. As far as monitoring goes, such wristbands may already be outdated. In 2017, a vending machines company in Wisconsin made global headlines by microchipping dozens of its workers who volunteered; when paired with a GPS app, anyone with the appropriate authorisations can track the wearer’s location 24 hours a day. “We decided to put it in employees as a form of convenience for them,” explained CEO Todd Westby. “We do not plan on taking it out.”
Stories such as these fascinate us because they appear to be quirky outliers, portending a dystopian future. But for many tens of thousands of workers in Britain’s gig economy, elements of that dystopia are already mundane. The work of most Deliveroo riders and Uber drivers, for example, is governed almost entirely by the companies’ smartphone apps; their only physical contact with the firms comes when they initially sign up, and even then it is likely to involve nothing more than a meeting with another precarious worker brought in to staff the recruitment centres. As James Farrar, an Uber driver and chair of the United Private Hire Drivers branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) points out, algorithmic management disempowers workers in relation to capital not only through the imposition of constant surveillance, but also through an imbalance in access to the data generated by it. “They do collect an awful lot of information,” he says. “My concern with it is … we should have access to the data, and understand how it’s being used.”
With this level of technological surveillance by bosses, what hope remains for workers’ attempts to challenge their decisions, especially when that technology is embedded within an employment system that classifies Deliveroo riders as self-employed contractors, shorn of many basic labour rights? The answer is: plenty. As Jamie Woodcock, a sociologist of work at Oxford University, puts it, the digital outsourcing model on which Uber and Deliveroo are built throws up a double precariousness: one for workers, and another for bosses – who, with virtually no human managers overseeing their workforce, have few tools at their disposal to deal with organised resistance.
And organised resistance by digitally outsourced workers has erupted repeatedly on the streets of major cities in recent years, usually beginning in the back alley spots where delivery riders are encouraged by their apps to congregate and then fanning out rapidly through WhatsApp networks, word of mouth and some technological trickery. In 2016, for example, an announcement by Deliveroo that it would soon be unilaterally altering its rider payment structure prompted a six-day “strike” in which riders acted en masse to make themselves unavailable for orders. Colleagues from Deliveroo’s rivals, Uber Eats, swiftly followed suit, and began taking advantage of a promotional offer within the app that granted new customers £5 off their first order. By repeatedly creating new accounts and ordering low-value meals to be delivered to the picket line, the strikers amassed both a mountain of free food at Uber’s expense and a steady stream of fellow riders, who would turn up with the order only to be met by a sea of radicalised peers cheering their arrival and chanting “Log out, log out!” In the words of one Deliveroo rider, the very technology that was designed to control workers was now being turned against their managers, allowing riders to “occupy the system in a way”. Not unlike the assembly line of the last century, and the auto strikes in Flint that subverted it, a tool engineered for capital was being hacked by the labour force. “It’s like a sit-in,” the Deliveroo rider told Woodcock.
This kind of fightback can be found throughout the contemporary economy. New apps abound that allow workers to log abuse by managers, read up on their rights, organise their workplace and compare pay rates both with those in similar jobs in their industry and with their own company’s financial results, a powerful weapon for agitating colleagues and rejecting management explanations for low wages. The information asymmetry at the core of digital platforms such as Uber is gradually being undermined by a vibrant network of driver forums with hundreds of thousands of members sharing stories, advice, communications from Uber received through the app and payment details, including screenshots of receipts and monthly income tallies. These enable drivers to collectively gain an understanding of how the app’s secretive ratings systems and dispatch algorithms actually operate. Among other things, this sort of crowdsourced information provides drivers with the opportunity to game the system, for example by agreeing to log off from the app simultaneously, thereby tricking Uber’s algorithms into thinking there is a shortage of drivers and implementing surge pricing to tempt them back.
Worker subversion of new management and surveillance technologies is merely one among many clandestine vulnerabilities inside the current economic system. Another can be found within those long, just-in-time supply chains that may appear to whip car parts and chicken meat and consumer electronics effortlessly across dozens of national borders but that are, in reality, almost entirely reliant on dense physical infrastructure. That network includes factories, warehouses and lorry depots, and the airports, stations, hotels, hospitals and schools that go with them: all firmly embedded in their geographical surroundings, and all highly susceptible to strike actions by those who maintain, guard and – like Fatima – clean them. In Britain, the cleaning sector alone employs 700,000 people. Since 2017, McDonald’s workers have organised themselves to fight back against conditions, and as this McStrike movement indicates, the very precariousness of work is itself a fuel for labour militancy; the more that low pay and casualisation become the norm, the more those on the wrong end of it have nothing to lose by striking back.
This struggle is global. It is not a coincidence that participants in the McStrike protests used chants adapted from the US “Fight for $15” movement against low pay. The strikes by Deliveroo riders in British cities have been inspired and replicated by colleagues in Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Australia and Hong Kong, to name but a few. Historian Eric Hobsbawm once described surges in labour militancy as “accumulations of inflammable materials which only ignite periodically, as it were under compressions”. Throughout the post-crash world, such compressions are piling up at pace.
In room L67, deep within the bowels of Soas University of London, a poet, a politician and a sex worker are making polite conversation. United Voices of the World (UVW), the IWGB’s sister union, is a small, grassroots union that relies on its website and on word of mouth to reach new workers, and lives or dies on its reputation among members. “For many in this room,” declares Petros – a lumbering, friendly bear of a man who co-founded UVW in 2014 and remains a key organiser – “the action next week will be their first strike, and that’s a big deal. The stakes are high for the workers involved, and they’re high beyond that: these strikes are important politically, socially and culturally. We can set an example here, and leave other unions with no excuse not to follow in our footsteps.”
The strike, when it happened in August 2018, unfolded like a fiesta. Outsourced cleaners from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and from the Ministry of Justice joined others to walk out of their workplaces as part of UVW’s first ever co-ordinated multi-employer strike, and the mood was celebratory. The loudspeaker, balanced perilously on a dodgy sack truck, packed a punch strong enough to shake walls, and the strike lasted for three days. On the final evening, UVW supporters infiltrated a Kensington and Chelsea council planning meeting at the town hall, demanding to know what the council was going to do about their cleaners’ campaign for a living wage. They sang and chanted and waved their banners until the councillors, who had barricaded themselves into an inner chamber, finally crept out and agreeed to a meeting, at 9am the following day, on the picket line.
The councillors were true to their word. They stood at the bottom of the town hall steps, surrounded by people who for years had tidied their desks, swept their floors and scrubbed their toilets. One by one they listened wordlessly, awkwardly, as the striking cleaners took turns to describe the impossibilities of their working lives, the challenge of surviving without a living wage. After more than half an hour of this, the council’s chief executive took a deep breath, asked for the microphone, and announced that the council would accept the implementation of a London living wage in principle, promising to set up a meeting between UVW and the overall leader of Kensington and Chelsea council to discuss the details. In the open air, a few feet below their offices but a million miles away from their comfort zone, they had been forced to fight a battle with low-pay Britain on unfamiliar terrain; they had been made to negotiate, made to supplicate, and they had lost. Later, when the jubilant UVW campaigns arrived back at the Ministry of Justice, where Fatima works, a flare was released, a cry went up, and they surged past the security barriers to begin another occupation.
It did not last long. Within minutes the police had arrived, security guards had been scrambled, and low-level managers were dispatched to identify strike leaders, set up meetings, and draw this immediate disruption to a close. In such a highly surveilled government building, ongoing protest inside the walls is virtually impossible, and besides, many of the cleaners couldn’t stay – they had second jobs to get to. But before the strike came officially to an end, one last rally was held in the street that runs alongside the front of the ministry, just as rain began lashing down. Someone produced a giant pink piñata and the cleaners took turns battering it with a drumstick as they danced and cheered. When it came to Fatima’s go, she ignored the drumstick and grabbed a large umbrella. She barely seemed to notice the deluge that ran down her arms and legs. There would be many more strikes to come for the Ministry of Justice cleaners, and many more leaps into the unknown for UVW; within a few months they would be organising new groups of workers – at strip clubs, at a city farm, at the London venue for The Lion King musical and at luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton and Chanel – and winning victories for underpaid staff.
But at that moment, all Fatima was concentrating on was the piñata, and all of the might and muscle that had been necessary for her to take so many leaps into the unknown appeared to be coursing through her body. “This has changed my whole life, because for my whole life no one listened to me, and now they do,” she had told me earlier. She brought the umbrella down with a crash on the piñata again and again, until it burst open and a flood of brightly wrapped lollipops and ticker tape and glitter spilled forth in the rain. Amid the celebrations, one of the ministry’s outsourced security guards who had been ordered to contain the strikers sidled up to a UVW organiser and asked for their contact details. He and his colleagues were fed up with their pay and working conditions, he explained quietly, and they wanted to join the union.
• Now We Have Your Attention: The New Politics of the People, by Jack Shenker, is published on 19 September by Bodley Head. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.