Ocado Zoom workers protest outside the company's depot in Acton. Image: IWGB
The minister for employment has suggested that workers protesting about losing work with grocery delivery company Ocado in a “botched version of fire-and-rehire” should just find another job.
Around 80 workers have been fighting to save their jobs since October 4 after Ocado Zoom, the company’s same-day service, ended its contract with gig economy delivery firms Ryde and Stuart, putting the drivers out of work.
Ocado initially said it would rehire workers who had lost their job, but union Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) has said the new roles are on considerably reduced pay, lack flexibility, and so far only 10 workers have been employed.
Drivers say they were previously earning around £15 an hour and are now being offered pay of £10.85, which is the London living wage.
“This is an employee market with over a million job vacancies, and many of them in London. I hope [the protesting workers] will turn round to that employer and say, ‘Do you know what, we’re off somewhere else’,” said employment minister Mims Davies, responding to a question from local MP Rupa Huq over the matter.
Some drivers say they have bought new vehicles and feel they have “invested time and money” to help build the Ocado Zoom business, so are aggrieved at now being forced to accept worse terms or find work elsewhere.
The government blocked a bill brought by Labour MP Barry Gardiner to protect workers from fire and rehire practices in October.
There were 1.1 million job vacancies in the UK as of September, according to labour market statistics released by the Office for National Statistics, with just 1.45 unemployed people per job opening.
“Ocado Zoom is treating it’s workforce appallingly,” said Rupa Huq, Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton in London, where the Ocado Zoom depot is based.
“They’ve not taken them in-house as they promised and they’re getting a lot worse terms and conditions.”
Huq fears that her constituents who worked for the fast grocery delivery service will fall into poverty and need to claim universal credit, as she asked Davies to look into the case.
“It’s like a really botched version of fire and rehire, because they’ve just fired them. They’ve either rejected them or not finished the hiring process,” said the president of union IWGB, Alex Marshall, who has been supporting members in the dispute.
“The new offer is less pay, less flexible, it’s not financially viable, and for many of our guys, it’s not even worth applying to.
“People have invested their time and money to build up the business, they have invested in these companies. They shouldn’t just have to walk away. They should be given the pay and conditions they’re entitled to.”
Some drivers invested in new vehicles to use while working for Ocado Zoom, and are now unable to afford the repayments, with one driver having to sell his car, according to the IWGB president.
“We have ended our relationship with existing third party suppliers and offered all drivers employment directly with Ocado,” Ocado said in an announcement on its website in October.
However, a company spokesperson told The Big Issue all drivers have been offered “the chance” to come in house.
Marshall said that just four of the IWGB union’s members have received contracts to work for Ocado Zoom through Job and Talent, and estimated that 10 of the original cohort of drivers have received employment.
In response to the employment minister’s suggestion that the drivers find new jobs, Marshall said: “We have to stay and fight and hold exploitative employers to account.”
He added: “If we don’t, Ocado just get away with exploitation, and continue to drive down pay and conditions, and the conditions for workers will constantly deteriorate.”
The Big Issue approached Mims Davies for comment, but was referred to the Department for Work and Pensions. A DWP spokesperson said: “We expect all employers to treat workers fairly and in a spirit of partnership. Every business, irrespective of size or sector, is required by law to pay the correct minimum wage to their staff.
“Where disputes exist, we strongly encourage employees and employers to make use of the expertise and free conciliation and mediation services of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas).”