It’s Wednesday 8th April and one day into the third week of the UK lockdown and I’m confident that the people will prevail over the corporate death vultures circling the bones of the dying corpse of late stage capitalism. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying my daily cycle tour of Bristol’s suburbs bringing burgers to the locked-down masses. First up is curry from East Street to Knowle West. East Street’s become my bread and butter these days. There’s so much green space in south Bristol and I’m daydreaming as I cycle along the Hengrove way, following the path of the Malago south towards its source in Dundry on the edge of the Mendips. I hear that the UK government is advertising for Uber these days in this weird promotional video about ordering takeway in the lockdown, and is going to use Amazon to deliver coronavirus test kits, taking full advantage of the zero hours web built by these companies in the era of the tech start-up. Amazon might be a low-cost option for the government to perform this risky work, but at what cost to the workers?
The people will prevail because they have class power over their tech bosses and they’re exercising when they’re able to. Amazon employees in the US recently organised a strike in protest at the lack of safety and protective equipment in a New York warehouse, and one of the key organisers was then fired. In the same week, workers at Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, staged a ‘sick-out’ to demand hazard pay and proper protective equipment at a time of increased demand for home delivery services. Whole Foods had in the previous week contacted employees suggesting that they ‘donate’ their paid leave to colleagues who are sick, and offering ‘unlimited unpaid leave’ in March to anyone who falls ill. Instacart (a US shopping platform) workers are also striking for the same reasons: lack of hazard pay and protective equipment. While workers are striking over inadequate pay and unsafe conditions, Amazon is encouraging workers from other sectors to work in its warehouses to fulfil the surge in demand resulting from state lockdowns but I can’t help thinking that instead of a $2 an hour pay rise, can’t Amazon provide hazard pay as a recognition of the high risk of contracting the virus in its warehouses, and guarantee adequate sick pay (not only for covid but across the board)? Workers’ struggles are central to challenging the divide-and-rule exploitative tactics of tech (and other) companies and I’m optimistic that the people prevail in the face of dehumanising and individualising; zero hours labour models. We’ve all heard talk that the virus is the ‘great leveller’ and that ‘it doesn’t discriminate’ and look, even the British Prime Minister has it! No one is spared! But while our economic model posits us all as the executives of our own fate we know that we’re not all in this together, and the lowest paid are those who are expected to bare the burden of risk.
At the same time, while not offering adequate protection and sick pay, Jeff Bezos off-loaded $3.5 billion in Amazon shares just before the coronavirus crisis hit Western economies, seeing an ill wind blow from China. Although, according to Bezos, this sell-off was not the action of a cynical billionaire (net worth: $124 billion) looking to profit from the looming economic disaster that would cause a crash in financial markets, like the market vultures did in the days after 9/11, but was in fact part of a longer-term project to fund a private space travel project. And this week prince Bezos visited the minions in a US factory to congratulate them on continuing to work for miminum wage doing backbreaking work in mega-warehouses literally risking their lives and safety in a global pandemic while he’s making billions betting on a stock market crash that has left over 6 million Americans instantly unemployed, and many in debt and without job prospects for the foreseeable future, so he can go to space. Luckily, ordinary people know better than to take this bullshit and workers are rising up where they can to resist the predatory zero hours model. Soon I might be working for the uber-greedy tech-astronaut death vulture known as Jeff Bezos, although Amazon’s buy-out of Deliveroo is still being investigated by competition regulators in the UK. Of course Amazon is not the only one urging workers to carry on risking their lives in the midst of a public health emergency, and billionaire Charles Koch is pushing a message through its right-libertarian think tank that businesses should stay open as much as possible, while its own employees work from home. Likewise, Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon corporate employees are safely working in comfort on their laptops while subcontractors and frontline staff (delivery riders, warehouse staff) take the hit when it comes to risk and carry on. As this article points out, this disaster highlights the stark divisions in the tech labour force between the worthy and unworthy worker, shown up not only in pay and benefits but in this disaster, risk.
While I’m in Knowle West I start thinking about whether I want to go to space. Maybe in virtual reality. My friend has started mountain climbing in his virtual reality headset and he asks me for a chalk bag and I’m not sure where reality ends and the virtual begins or if it matters so much right now. Wednesday’s as beautiful evening as any lately in this balmy unbeleivable spring we’ve been waiting for all our lives if it wasn’t for the whole pandemic situation. And from Knowle West down the hill back to Bedminster and I’m getting fish and chips from East Street and the guy behind the counter is impatiently taking an order over the phone. He slams the phone down and says “I hate people who talk slowly, a lot of people they talk too slow, they think too slow, they move too slow. I don’t like those people”. I wait outside. “Hey lady, come here” he shouts when the order’s ready, and it goes to Windmill Hill. As I’m cycling over Pero’s bridge later on to pick up burritos from the harbourside, two PCSOs, the pretend-cops, are asking two homeless people sat on the floor to move on. One PCSO is stood back and the other is standing over a homeless guy sat on the floor, and I start filming them with my phone. The mini-cops clock me and she stops looming over this guy and walks back a few metres. Makes you wonder what they want to get away with when people aren’t watching and filming. I speak to the other person who’s been moved on from their pitch on Pero’s bridge. They tell me the police are moving them on every day. I give them £2 and take the first order to Southville, and when the customer opens the door she throws me a £2 coin and I think well how about that for karma. The next one goes to a hospital in south Bristol and I stop on the way to look at the sun going down behind the trees in Arnos Vale. From there I get an order from a petrol station on Brislington Hill to Hanham and its a long and slow cycle at sundown along the Bath Road and the ring road and the sun has disappeared from the sky as I cross the bridge high over the Avon river. The clocks went forward, Easter is coming, time is passing and so it goes.