It is no surprise to learn that language defines us – what we are told we are, or say we are, has a positive or negative effect on us. Hence our obsession with job titles.
Years ago when I taught at a large company in Central London I had an eight-o’clock lesson on the Strand, and used to arrive early enough to get a coffee at a branch of Pret a Manger on the corner of Waterloo Bridge. I remember there was a sort of greeting card on the table from the manager which I would study bleary-eyed over my bun and over-priced cappuccino, noting that every morning she and her team got together to think about the best way serve their customers (with coffee, if I may make a retrospective suggestion).
And then one morning I arrived early, a couple of minutes before the shop opened, and there was the manager and her ‘team’ getting together to discuss how best to serve me, and quite clearly not one member of this ‘team’ wanted to be there or had anything to say. They looked lost, tired and bewildered by whatever their manager was telling them, slumped over the tables and wishing they were anywhere but here. She might have thought of her staff as a ‘team’; they quite clearly did not. And she might have thought of herself as displaying ‘leadership’, but if a leader’s followers are trapped in a low wage economy and don’t have any real say in the matter, perhaps it is not leadership but a very tiny tyranny that is being exercised.
And so now one of the gig-economy standard-bearers, Deliveroo, has provided guidelines for how its managers should talk about its riders (read all about it, here). The riders, according to the company, are not ’employees’ but ‘independent suppliers’ (although a number of these ‘independent suppliers’ are hoping to prove they are nothing of the sort in an ongoing courtcase); hence they cannot be employed at an ’employment agency’, rather they must be ‘onboarded’ (?!) at a ‘supply centre’. Riders do not ‘work shifts’; they ‘accept orders at a previously agreed time’; the word ‘shift’ is doubly taboo; managers and riders must talk in terms of their ‘availability’. They also do not ‘clock in’ but ‘log on’.
And so on. The whiff of some idiot lawyer lingers all over this language, of course. The idea that if I do not call you an employee, then you have no rights, even though in your day-to-day actions you clearly work for me and for me alone, is an absurd but nasty fiction, one which covers the progenitors of Uber and Deliveroo in nothing but ignominy (and a considerable amount of dirty money, not incidentally).
The only compensation if you ride for Deliveroo or drive for Uber – and it is it not negligible – is that you will never experience the humiliation of being cast as one of the ‘team’ in someone else’s dream of ‘management’ and ‘leadership’. You are, by definition, ostracised, cast out, on your own, bitter and resentful, litigious and probably ripe for unionisation, if not – who knows? – revolution.