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‘Uber drivers feel they’re viewed almost as a servant class’

Peter Gruner talks to James Bloodworth whose new book Hired explores the world of zero-hours contracts and lifts the lid on the likes of Uber and Amazon

05 April, 2018 — By Peter Gruner

James Bloodworth, author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain

IN undercover research he interviewed cycle couriers in Camden and Uber drivers in Islington for his damning new book on low-pay Britain.

Now James Bloodworth – whose highly praised work Hired has been likened to George Orwell’s classic Down and Out in Paris and London – tells Review the Government must take action against exploitative employers.

The book highlights problems in the world of cycle couriers who have to compete for jobs.

“Pop down to Jamestown Road in Camden in the evening and stand outside the restaurants,” James writes. “You can see at least half a dozen bicycle couriers hanging around, one foot on the floor and another up on the pedal, waiting expectantly for algorithms and controllers to send a ping to their devices.”

He got a job as an Uber driver for three months and met and interviewed other drivers at the Shepherdess Café in Old Street, Islington.

Although the service may be good for the passenger in terms of low fares it’s not all sweet for the drivers.

“Drivers felt they were viewed almost as a servant class who existed for entitled Londoners to order around,” James writes. “At the end of a typical week, I took home only a little more than the minimum wage of £7.50 an hour, and that was before deducting the inevitable expenses or loss of earnings that would result from illness or time off.”

He spent six months travelling across Britain, including working 10-hour shifts at an Amazon internet warehouse in a town in Wales where he claims even going to the toilet was monitored.

He found that one in six adults in the town, a former proud mining community, were being prescribed antidepressants.

James later got a job as a home carer in a poor area of Blackpool where he visited the sick and elderly in their homes providing between 15- to 20-minute “clockwatch” care.

“One care worker told me she had to hide from management that she was a member of the union Unison.”

Most elderly and infirm people rely on home care visits for help such as washing and dressing. They are often served by a minimum-wage workforce of whom nearly a quarter is on zero- hours contracts.

The author is calling for existing work regulations, which include reasonable hours and minimum wages, to be enforced.

He told Review: “There were no repercussions for employers who forced staff to work long hours or paid below the minimum wage. I found examples where workers were disciplined for being off sick, even with a doctor’s note.

“How is it that the Government is not coming down hard on this?”

While not totally against all zero-hour jobs, he argues that at least after a month workers should get the opportunity of regular hours.

He wants more union recognition in places of work and government financial support for deprived regions of Britain and also incentives for companies to move to some of the poorer parts.

The poorer parts are not always immediately identifiable. Camden and Islington may boast areas of great prosperity, but there are also huge hidden pockets of deprivation.

Figures available online reveal that 35 per cent of children in Camden are living in poverty, according to the Trust for London, and in Islington – with the fourth highest child poverty rate in the land – the figure is 38 per cent.

At the same time, according to the Trust, at least 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty after paying out for the cost of housing.

Significantly, James believes work has become much harder. In some ways society has regressed. He points to 50 years ago when there was more union representation, people had days off without being penalised and they could walk into another job.

Compared to the picture his book paints of today’s working lives, half a century ago sounds almost like Utopia.

Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain. By James Bloodworth, Atlantic Books, £12.99.
James Bloodworth is giving a talk at Conway Hall to the Conway Hall Ethical Society this Sunday April 8 at 3pm. Admission £8 or £4 concessions. https://conwayhall.org.uk/events/category/thinking-on-sunday/

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