Cheap labour are the new slaves

There is nothing innovative or new about food delivery to the workplace or to the home. Your correspondent was munching on foil packed meals at the trading desk in the 1970’s and 1980’s in London, Singapore, New York and Paris. They were delivered from neighbouring restaurants at midday with a smile.

Today however, the way things operate has changed. We all know that there are now many businesses that have few concerns about exploiting working folk for high returns to enrich management and investors. Here exploitation means that employers knowingly use uninformed or desperate people to work for them below a living wage and without little, if any, legal, moral or social support. Cheap labour has become the latest and milder form of slavery.

You have seen the Uber drivers who earn almost nothing and work long hours, or the Wolt and Foodora cyclists trudging through ice and snow to deliver meals for a pittance, and you must have read about foreign restaurant workers who also endure poor working conditions in Asian and Pizza restaurants… and this is just about Helsinki, where working people are well organised in unions and enjoy wide legal protection against abusive employers. 

The rise of this food delivery business has also impacted parts of the restaurant business. As the demand for lowering costs to attract more customers continues, restaurants are forced to give away a larger part of their revenue to the delivery company. This in turn forces the restaurants to cut the income costs of their staff… it is a vicious circle…

These companies push many of the risks of business on top the “freelance” riders who must invest in cars and bikes at their own expense. The riders are subjected to algorithms that entice them to do more work and earn a little more by working even longer hours with overtime or holiday benefits. In American cities, but not yet in Helsinki, reports have emerged of these companies even taking the tips from customers as part of their earnings while only paying the riders a fixed fee for each delivery!

Big established companies are also jumping on this band wagon – elderly care homes, restaurants, hotels, and many others.

It is understandable that some hotels and restaurants are subject to seasonable factors. Most of the big media companies are also using freelance journalists rather than taking them on as full time workers. That too is understandable. They have suffered from huge losses of revenue from advertising and content because a few of the FAANGS (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) have stormed into the markets with International corporate structures that result in them paying just a fraction of taxes paid by the incumbents. Their global reach is almost unassailable given the political clout of coming from the USA.

The strong growth of such companies has been supported by big institutional funds that are attracted to such high returns. It appears that they do not object to the exploitation of riders, quite the opposite, that is precisely the reason they love the system! The entrance of the big funds has also brought with it highly paid lawyers and lobbyists. The lawyers design employment contracts that appear to turn these workers into “entrepreneurs”, which further enrich the lawyers who then get to argue their case in the courts! The lobbyists fight for new laws with lawmakers, MP’s and MEP’s and the like, that enhance the rights of the owners against the workers. 

In the elderly care-home business the list of rent-seekers is long. Construction companies build new homes funded by investment funds, who deliver properties to private care home companies, who in turn have big private equity shareholders. They then rent out space to the elderly with contracts that promise certain standards. It all looks great until you start to see the cracks in the system. Staff at the homes is inadequate, care is not according to the contracts, premature deaths and illness are recorded… More stories emerge as more family members  and staff decide to brave the risk of discrimination and job losses in the homes. Low cost inexperienced staff and other methods of cutting corners and reducing costs to enrich management and shareholders come to light. 

Finally, it turns out the national regulators have too few resources and that the municipalities are too lazy to intervene – some of the latter are also found to be managing such places too with dreadful results. Some much for small government and self regulation, the war cry of the neo-liberals.

This whole above story is linked over your life-time. Eating fast food, with sugary drinks and beer, delivered to your home so you can watch Netflix and read free news means that the onset of obesity and diabetes, heart disease will get you earlier into the care home. Have fun while you enjoy this “dream life”. 

On the other hand, there are alternative life styles and there are also plenty of good family run restaurants that offer excellent meals just down the road. Naturally not every business seeks to kill the golden goose with outrageous behaviour, but consumers should think twice about the consequences of their actions when ordering the next pizza home. Why not stretch your legs and try cooking something new and healthy too. That is also fun… 

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