The language of exploitation in the online labour market



When you are in the business of exploiting people, and you want to get away with it, language matters. This is what a recently leaked document from Deliveroo teaches us.

Deliveroo bicycle delivery personThe list, given to managers at the app-based food delivery company, provides a number of 'dos' and 'don'ts' that guide supervisors when talking to Deliveroo's workers, and can be read as a kind of exploitation manual. The document is geared to emphasising that the people who deliver food for Deliveroo are and should remain independent contractors, not employees: do say 'On boarding'; don't say 'Hiring'.

The difference matters. Employees are afforded a number of entitlements that independent contractors are not: the minimum wage, superannuation, overtime allowances and others. Of course, correctly classifying workers is not a new issue, but the online gig-economy, its employment arrangements, and the language used to disguise them, are putting a glossy façade on old models of worker exploitation.

Essentially, Deliveroo is trying to make sham contracting — when a business deliberately disguises an employment relationship as an independent contracting arrangement in order to avoid paying employee entitlements — sound like an 'innovation'.

The leaked document showed that Deliveroo maintains a level of control over its workers' performance standards, availability and work patterns normally associated with an employment relationship, but gave managers instructions on how to avoid using language that would reflect this fact.

I am not the first to point out the issues of worker categorisation in online labour markets. In 2016, a Unions NSW report into the employment practices of gig-economy company AirTasker categorised the online labour market as 'unregulated Taylorism within a Dickensian marketplace where workers compete for bite-sized fragments of labour'.

But the Deliveroo document demonstrated the importance of language in underpinning these new models of exploitation. For the most part, these developments are euphemistically reported as 'disruptions' or 'innovations'. Once this linguistic smokescreen is cleared, however, the reality of the app-based services economy is remarkably straightforward: a handful of 'tech bros' in Silicon Valley are getting rich on the back of millions of contingent workers around the world who are denied basic employment entitlements.

Sociologist Wolfgang Streeck has examined a number of these terms — 'innovation', 'disruption' and 'resilience' amongst others — in the context of the continuous mutation and evolution of capitalism.


"It reflects a philosophy of economic Darwinism: the strong will survive, and the weak will drive them around and deliver their food, for less than the minimum wage."


He points out that innovation has a decidedly mixed history. In the case of the 'innovative' and often elaborate employment arrangements of online labour markets, the term can be seen simply as a set of new technologies designed to bypass employment regulations and worker protections. Uber, Deliveroo, AirTasker and others have come up with innovative ways of not paying workers what they would otherwise be entitled to or taking any responsibility for their broader wellbeing. In this and other contexts, 'innovation' is hard to differentiate from 'rule-bending' or simple 'rule-breaking'. Infamously, it was the 'innovative' financial products conceived of and created by bankers on Wall Street and elsewhere that brought the global financial system, and the global economy, to the brink in 2007-08.

'Disruption' has not always been a good thing either. Streeck notes that historically, the word has been used to denote an 'unanticipated, destructive and even violent discontinuity — with disasterfor those affected by it'. In other words, we have not envied those whose lives or incomes have been subjected to a disruption. But the word has evolved in the language of the new capitalists to denote a kind of benign, Schumpeterian creative destruction. 'Innovative disruption', that destroys jobs, communities and ways of life is celebrated as 'creative', 'entrepreneurial' and exciting. It reflects a philosophy of economic Darwinism: the strong will survive, and the weak will drive them around and deliver their food, for less than the minimum wage.

This brings us to 'resilience', a term in vogue with both Silicon Valley and neoliberal management schools. Resilience is the enabling virtue that supposedly allows everyday people — workers and citizens — to survive (and 'thrive'!) in the exciting new world of perpetual innovation and disruption. The term has migrated from bacteriology and engineering to be applied to the human beings who are subjected to the technological and social changes wrought on them by gig-economy capitalism. Streeck points out that 'resilience' is not 'resistance' or a refusal to accept or comply. Instead, it is adaptive adjustment, either voluntary or forced. The more that resilience is developed at the individual level, the less collective solutions are required at a societal level.

This phenomenon is not limited to the terms discussed above. While 'sham contracting' becomes an 'innovation', longer working hours, job losses and insecure work become 'productivity', 'efficiency' and 'portfolio employment'. The Deliveroo leak proves that once the lingo of these 'innovations' is stripped away, old methods of exploitation are revealed.


Daniel NicholsonDaniel Nicholson is an industrial relations researcher at The University of Melbourne and a director at the progressive think tank The John Cain Foundation. He is a member of the Australian Labor Party and the National Tertiary Education Union. He has also published in Overland and the Conversation.

Topic tags: Daniel Nicholson, Deliveroo, exploitation



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Existing comments

Yet people don't join unions. Don't they want to protect themselves? Conservatives demonise unions with MSM-engineered myths of corruption when true corruption lies with the relationship between Conservatives and business, and it is incalculably more corrupt than the silly smokescreen of union demonisation. The LNP maintains itself in power by employing dirty tricks lies and deceit. There has not been a legitimately elected LNP government since Menzies (if that). The ALP is too principled to get down and dirty, so they have trouble attaining power and keeping it. People have given up on the ALP as they are almost as neoliberal as the LNP. Now that thew LNP wedges itself further and further to the right. There is a vacuum in the centre which could be filled by a resurgent ALP. Social democracy, what I like to call neo-socialism, is the only workable framework for social cohesion and progress. The Nordic, ex-viking countries provide a working model. The progression: neo-classical, neo-conservative, neo-liberal, now neo-Nazi have all been tried. It's time for a neo-socialist, neo-Viking revolution.
Zarathustra | 25 April 2017

Surely the independent contractor is simply an independent, has some initiative and is capable of making up his or her own mind regarding hours they choose to work and for what wage. If the unions are such great champions of the worker, why is membership falling? Why do unions that now represent only 6% of the Australian population, occupy over 50% of ALP parliamentary seats? That is hardly democracy.
john frawley | 26 April 2017

Can someone explain to me why these startups like Uber and Deliveroo hold so much power and influence over people ? As far as I can see, they are simply IT companies using apps and programs that anyone can develop and apply. Why can't drivers and delivery people get together and create a booking/admin app like a workers' coop? Like a union!
AURELIUS | 28 April 2017


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