Why gig economy workers are on the front lines of the climate crisis
The Deliveroo spokesperson said: “Passengers are always free to accept or decline any order offered to them and at no time will they receive a negative rating or review from Deliveroo.” But Shaf said that flexibility is illusory — couriers have to work when there’s a demand for food, usually at typical mealtimes.
“You have to leave the house at 6 a.m. to start work at 7 a.m.,” he said, explaining that the breakfast shift lasts until around 10 a.m. “Then you have lunch, then you have dinner. That’s it. You must work during these fixed hours to earn money.
Shaf’s lack of control over his working conditions stems from his status as an independent contractor. Deliveroo’s platform-based model means workers are treated as independent businesses rather than employees – a distinction that allows the company to escape employment protections.
This means that in the event of an external shock, such as the pandemic or extreme weather events, this army of precarious workers assumes magnified personal risk while undertaking essential work that keeps society running.
“These pressures are compounded by extreme weather conditions such as storms or heatwaves, during which Deliveroo has repeatedly pushed couriers to work despite obvious safety concerns. Together, these pressures create the perfect storm for couriers. traffic accidents and injuries,” the IWBG spokesperson said.
For Shaf, the risks he had to take to work crystallized what he had long suspected to be a courier. “We are treated like disposable cattle, we are cows that are fed and slaughtered to provide them with meat,” he said bluntly.
Join the dots
Despite the growing implications of climate breakdown for workers, the ties between environmental groups and the labor movement have been slow to forge. The more immediate demands of poverty wages and zero-hour contracts have kicked the seemingly intangible impacts of climate breakdown into the long grass.
Restrictive anti-union laws have also hampered the formation of coalitions. The Employment Act 1980 prohibited sympathy strikes or actions around issues outside of industrial disputes.
“There have been disagreements” between environmental activists and workers’ rights activists, said Clara Paillard, a founding member of Extinction Rebellion Trade Unionists, a sub-group of Extinction Rebellion. During the wave of strikes this summer, the group appeared on the picket lines in a show of solidarity.
“The climate movement has focused on what we are against, not alternatives. [But] what about fossil fuel workers, for example? ” she says. “The labor movement was concerned about its workers and its jobs…poverty wages, zero hour contracts – the two sides failed to make the connection.”
Finlay Asher, co-founder of Safe Landing, a climate action group advocating for a just transition for aviation workers, is another activist trying to fill the void.
“We get a lot of emails every week from people saying…I’m so frustrated, I work in the industry and I thought I was the only one with these concerns,” Asher said. But the senders are mostly anonymous – job insecurity silences many workers.
For Asher, the heavy structure of the big unions is a stumbling block to the work of Safe Landing – spaces for debate at the local level are rare.
This is why Safe Landing has developed a model of “workers’ assemblies”. Borrowing from the concept of citizens’ assemblies, it is a process by which workers can engage in open debate with their peers on a given issue.
Assemblies, Asher pointed out, could also serve as a recruitment tool for unions to attract younger members.
“Despite the fact that young people hold the most precarious jobs, [unions] struggle to recruit people in their 20s and early 30s. But these people care a lot about the climate crisis.
During the COVID shutdowns, the prevalence of low-paid frontline workers has forced a reassessment of their work as “essential”. But thereafter, the recourse to precariousness accelerated. Porous labor protections are at risk of being further eroded.
In the context of a rapidly warming world and increasing extreme weather events, these workers will be forced to take on more risk. They are “eco-precariat”.
It’s the inmates of the prison on a dollar a day who are battling the 2018 wildfires in California. The 195,000 volunteers on the front line of the 2019 fires in Australia. In Egypt, the Zabbaleen, an army of poor garbage collectors responsible for recycling the city’s waste. In the UK, volunteers lead relief efforts during floods.
Under Liz Truss, misguided climate policy and anti-union laws will go hand in hand. Along with lifting the ban on fracking and the proposed removal of green levies on energy bills, Truss has promised a series of anti-union laws.
Keir Starmer’s announcement of plans for a green, public renewable energy company and the insulation of every UK home promises a seismic shift in Labour’s environmental policy.
Despite Labor’s pledge to strengthen protections for precarious workers, the presence of major gig platforms at the party’s conference this year – including an event organized by Deliveroo, which drew anger after it omitted to include couriers – suggests that even if the party came to power, construction workers might continue to be left behind.
The threads that connect work and climate are woven tighter than ever – workers like Shaf know that and they know we can’t wait.