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Hermes inquiry shows how unions are finding new forms of leverage

Multinational delivery company Hermes has been referred to HM Revenue and Customs following complaints by its couriers that they are being paid less than the minimum wage. The company, which delivers goods for major retailers including John Lewis and Next, has faced criticism since The Guardian revealed that the pay of some of its self-employed couriers back in July 2016 amounted to less than the hourly national minimum wage.

The self-employed status of these couriers removes the company’s legal responsibility to ensure they are paid the legal minimum of £7.20 an hour. Now, compliance officers will investigate whether couriers’ classification as self-employed is genuine and fair.

The referral marks a stride forward in the equitable treatment of workers without traditional forms of collective workplace representation, allowing their voices to be heard and potentially changing the way they are treated. Alongside similar cases recently of retailers Sports Direct and ASOS making such concessions to workers’ rights, it appears to be part of a growing trend.

These cases are markers of how intense external pressure can change the way that these firms treat their staff (whether employed directly or indirectly via agencies). With strikes at an all-time low and the membership of unions much depleted, these advances in defending workers’ terms and conditions of employment show how alliances between unions and other NGOs are beginning to bear significant fruit.

Hot potatoes

On various issues, including employers undercutting the minimum wage, taxing customer tips for waiters in restaurants, blacklisting construction workers for their political views or union membership, the bogus use of self-employment and imposition of zero-hours contracts, unions in Britain have developed a model of working with other concerned parties to pack a bigger than normal punch. In this, they have started to emulate their American counterparts in their campaigns for higher minimum wages such as the “fight for $15” campaign in the fast food sector.

The Fight for $15 movement in the US brings together unions, workers and politicians like Bernie Sanders. OFL Communications Department, CC BY

Consequently, what unions now do is create a political hot potato by gaining the support of progressive news outlets such as The Guardian as well as appealing to parliamentary committees, in order to exercise political leverage over companies and the government. They begin by getting members and supporters in the concerned companies to write to MPs and offer access to journalists whereby workers can share their stories.

News outlets turn these bad news stories into their own investigations which they then widely publicise. In the meantime, this supports the willingness of a small handful of key MPs to write to government ministers urging corrective action. Those who are chairs of important parliamentary committees can call employers to account by compelling them to give testimony.

Creating a tipping point

In the case of Hermes, 78 couriers wrote complaints to Frank Field MP, the chairman of the House of Commons work and pensions select committee. Field then sent a report to HMRC, which has led to its investigation into Hermes – something the company has said it will cooperate fully with while insisting it has done nothing wrong.

Actions by MPs provide news outlets with further stories. These, in turn, fuel outrage on the part of the general public which is widely shared – alongside links to the stories – via social media. This unfavourable attention is keenly felt by senior management and shareholders – the latter concerned about the value of their investments. Often marshalled together by shareholder activist groups, shareholders start questioning why this is happening and proffering solutions to resolve the situation.

Frank Field MP has pointed the finger at companies’ employment practices. Anthony Devlin PA Archive

A tipping point is reached when the government is forced to make statements that it will investigate certain employer practices and uphold the law where it believes it has not been adhered to. The whole process shows how external pressure on companies can cause internal changes in the way they treat staff.

This unfolding story of how unions can kickstart the process of creating political heat on employers shows that they have learned there is more than one way to skin the proverbial tiger. This does not mean that political campaigning has made traditional forms of industrial action redundant – rather, it shows that unions have realised that they must adapt to new situations and use other, more innovative means. Of course, there is some sense of déjà vu, whereby the long tradition of political campaigning that unions have always engaged in is simply being updated for the digital, social media age.

For the unions, these handful of victories provide the space and opportunity to create more general modus operandi to ensure that workers are not unfairly exploited by businesses and that they have fair working practices at their core. More widely, linking employees with external NGO and political support will be the key challenge to build a stronger force for change.

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