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Libya — Battle of the Arab Spring

If Gaddafi is defeated, it will be through the kind of fighting now raging on the streets of Misurat

It is 2 May, my twelfth full day in Misurata, and I'll start with a man I met at a private clinic that had been turned into the city's main trauma hos­pital. The uprising against Muammar Gaddafi was two months old. Loyalist forces surrounded Misurata and controlled parts of the city centre, but the thowar - or revolutionaries - were putting up fierce resistance despite being outgunned. The battle crackled and boomed day and night.

Dr Tahar Alkesa, a surgeon, was sitting on the curb outside one of the white tents erected in front of the clinic to serve as a makeshift emergency ward. He is 31 years old and undoubtedly handsome, but the hours and stress had marked and changed him. He was sallow and unshaven, with dark rings under his puffy eyes. The evening light was soft and fading fast as we chatted. He rubbed his arms for warmth.

I had seen Alkesa at work earlier in the day, when fresh casualties were arriving at the hospital every few minutes. An ambulance or pick-up truck would screech to a halt outside the tent, amid cries of "Allahu akbar". If the victim was a thowar, he usually had a bullet wound, having been picked off by a sniper. Civilian casualties generally had shrapnel injuries caused by shells or missiles, the most vicious of which was a Grad, a long, tubular projectile fired out of a 40-barrelled launcher known as "Stalin's organ". When they were fired into Misurata, you heard a whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, and then bang, bang, bang.

One Grad victim arrived in the back of a blue sedan. Both his legs had been blown off at the knee. A crimson stream of blood trailed on to the tarmac as he was carried into the tent. Within a few minutes he was wheeled out, covered by a blanket. People gathered outside and launched into an anguished but beautiful refrain: La ilaha illa Allah,/La ilaha illa Allah,/ al-shaheed habib Allah. ("There is no God but Allah, there is no God but Allah, the martyr is dear to Allah.")

Alkesa worked without interruption, stitching, cleaning, talking softly to the patients, offering words of reassurance. His expression changed little, even when a grimacing man in his mid-twenties was rushed in. The man's face was blackened by smoke and his eyes were white and wide with pain and terror. His filthy khaki pants were bloodstained and torn. His forearms were shredded. He was a tank driver. The thowar did not have tanks.

His first request was for a lethal injection, because he was convinced that he would be tortured or beaten for fighting for Gaddafi. Alkesa politely said no, assuring him that he would be looked after. He cleaned the man's leg and groin wounds and sewed up the strips of flesh on his arms. The tank driver said he was from Tripoli, and that his commanders had told him that Misurata was under the control of foreign-ers and terrorists who had been destroying mosques. He said he felt he had been cheated, and was sorry.

Now, sitting on the curb, Alkesa told me: "Inside me, I really did not want to look after that man. I did not enjoy treating him. But it was my duty to look after a human being."

It pained him even more that the tank driver was a Libyan, unlike those of Gaddafi's forces, a minority, who are mercenaries from elsewhere in Africa, usually Mauritania, Chad or Sudan. "I just ask myself, what has Gaddafi done with their brains to make them fight us like this? He is not a human being. He is evil. Satan."

Until a few days earlier, he had not seen his wife, his four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son for a month. So intense was the workload at the hospital that he had been sleeping there; his family had become trapped after government troops overran his neighbourhood. Because the mobile-phone networks in the city had been cut, he had no way of reaching his family. "For two or three days I was completely dissociated from this world," the doctor said. "Even though I was working, I was asking myself: 'Is this real? Am I even real?' Then I came round and started feeling myself again."

Still, he said, every night when his shift ended, he would walk to his car, open the door and sit in the driver's seat. He had nowhere to go. He just needed a private place to weep.

Misurata is Libya's third-largest city, about 200 kilometres east of the capital, Tripoli, where the Mediterranean coastline dips south in the Gulf of Sirte. In better times, if Gaddafi's rule in peacetime could be described that way, you would drive there from the capital with a government-approved guide by your side. But since the beginning of the revolution, the only way in to Misurata has been by boat. First, you fly to Cairo and drive west for 14 hours, crossing the Libyan border roughly halfway. That gets you to Benghazi, the eastern city where Libya's revolution began in mid-February.

From there, you travel on a local fishing boat, carrying emergency supplies and most likely weapons for the rebels. The voyage takes over 40 hours.
Another way in is on the Ionian Spirit, a Greek ferry chartered by the International Organisation for Migration to pick up foreign workers stranded in Misurata. That journey takes just under a day, assuming loyalist forces are not bombing the port - as they often were.

Misurata has a proud history. An important trading post since ancient times, it provided determined resistance to Italian occupation a century ago, prompting one commander to declare that Libya was a snake and Misurata its head - something local people love to tell you. In modern times it became Libya's industrial hub, with its port and one of Africa's largest steel factories. Low-slung and sprinkled with palm trees, the city is well laid out and mildly prosperous. Most of the 300,000-plus residents had enough food to eat and many had cars and decent houses, too. Yet, given the country's vast oil reserves and small population, Libya should be much wealthier, more akin to Dubai or Abu Dhabi, in the view of many people you meet.

Since seizing power in a coup d'état in 1969, Gaddafi has squandered tens of billions of dollars on vanity projects and misadventures, such as sponsoring international terrorism. Meanwhile, countless public works projects, such as the renovation of Misurata's main hospital, were allowed to drag on for years. Yet that was not the main reason Gaddafi was so despised here, Alkesa told me. He explained that by the time he was born, in 1979, Gaddafi had come up with his "Third Universal Theory" of government, which he claimed was superior to democracy and communism and would lead to "a state of the masses". Its principles were laid out in his Green Book, which became required reading in schools and universities.

Most Libyans thought it was quackery, but very few dared question it openly. Those who did so were hanged. As a public service, Gaddafi ensured that the executions were shown on state television. "I remember watching them as a child," Alkesa said. "Some loyalists would run up to the bodies as they hung and jerk them downwards, to make it more violent. My father would have tears in his eyes when he saw that. That is why we have always hated Gaddafi. Not because we lacked money or food, but because we had no freedom . . . We also believed that nobody could destroy him. We were resigned to waiting for God to take his life."

Then, in January this year, there was a revolution in Tunisia, which borders Libya to the west. And then the turmoil in Egypt, to the east. The despotic leaders of both countries were toppled by people power. Libyans were inspired, especially the youth, but still they had no idea how they could emulate their Arab neighbours, Alkesa said. Compared to Libya, Egypt and Tunisia had seemed like liberal democracies even before their revolutions. “Despite our dreams, nobody could imagine that this could happen in Libya," he said. "No one. Really, no one."

On 15 February, there was a small protest in Benghazi over the arrest of a lawyer representing victims of a prison massacre. Two days later, a protest had become a city-wide uprising. The ripples reached Misurata. Nothing had happened yet, but people sensed it might. Alkesa's two brothers, who sell gold jewellery, removed all the stock from their shops and brought it home. Something was about to happen.

On my arrival at the port in Misurata on 20 April, I was taken to a girls' school that had been turned into a media centre for local journalists, some of whom accompany the thowar to the front line each day. They post video footage on YouTube, or send it to al-Jazeera, to which every television set in the city appears to be tuned.

At the media centre, I met a 23-year-old man whom I'll call Ahmed Ali. He worked in the graphic arts and he spoke good English. He was one of Misurata's first revolutionaries. He told me that, on 17 February, he and a few dozen other young men, most of them in their early twenties, held a demonstration in support of the people of Benghazi.

They were arrested by the security forces, who beat them before hauling them away. "During interrogation they showed us our Facebook pages, where we had been talking about plans for a protest. They had been watching us even before," Ali told me.

Some of those arrested, including Ali, were held overnight, others for two days. It was the spark that Misurata needed. The editor of a newspaper where Ali sometimes worked announced he would not publish again until all the men were released. On 19 February, some of their families and friends went on to the streets to demand the same. “We were 30 people, and then in a few minutes we were 100. Soon we were 5,000," Ali said. "It was incredible."

The security forces opened fire. The first martyr of the revolution, Khalid Boshahma, was shot dead. For his funeral the next day, tens of thousands of people turned out in the city centre. Tear gas was used. Snipers who had been positioned in nearby buildings began firing in the air. People in the crowd started hugging each other, believing the army had taken their side by refusing to shoot at them. But then the snipers started picking people off. Dozens were shot in the head or chest. None of the protesters had guns - keeping a weapon was prohibited in Libya under Gaddafi - but their rage was enough to shake the army. As demonstrators began setting fire to buildings associated with the regime, state security hastily left Misurata, perhaps having been ordered to, or maybe out of fear. Tension was mounting in Tripoli, and so the government was unable to spare troops to mount a counterattack for two weeks. For many people in Misurata, it was the best fortnight of their lives, Ali told me. But they knew Gaddafi would be back.

Under the guidance of a hastily assembled judicial council, the people of Misurata prepared to defend their city. By looting the local armoury, they had acquired some AK-47s and grenade launchers but most of their weapons were home-made. Young men were instructed to prepare thousands of Molotov cocktails as well as fist-sized bombs known as gelatina, made from TNT.

When Gaddafi's forces finally attacked on 6 March, they met no resistance and were allowed to drive into Tripoli Street, the main boulevard, a few miles long, with its smart shops, coffee houses, banks and office blocks. Then, when the order came, hundreds of young men positioned on the rooftops along the street started hurling their bombs. The thowar joined in with their light weapons. Taken by surprise, the loyalist forces battled
for four hours to fight their way forward, but could not. Many of Gaddafi's soldiers were killed, and the survivors were driven back to the edge of the city.

The next attack, on 19 March, was on a different scale. Troops entered the city from several sides, Russian-made tanks leading the way. This time they forced their way into Tripoli Street. Out of armoured personnel carriers poured many hundreds of snipers, who raced up into Misurata's office buildings and residential apartment blocks.

Other units took over the city's vegetable market, the college of medical technology and the unfinished hospital. The urban conflict had begun: terrifying, old-fashioned war where men fired at each other at close quarters. The daily casualty count rose remorselessly. Ali's maternal uncle was shot in the leg by a sniper. One paternal uncle was killed. Another was kidnapped from his home and has not been seen since.

Like thousands of other men, many of them students or workers in their early twenties, Ali volunteered to join the fight. His father gave him an old hunting rifle that he had kept hidden in the house for years. Others in Ali's unit joked that while Gaddafi's forces were pounding the city with anti-aircraft guns, Ali was fighting back with an anti-duck gun. "We were at the front line, but I never wanted to be right at the front. It was really scary, as we did not have a leader yet and the situation was very confused," Ali told me as we drove around the city one day. "I don't have a strong heart like some of the guys."

Nor was he sustained by faith. "You probably think that I am a Muslim, because of this," he said, pointing to a Quran on his dashboard.

“I did shout Allahu akbar when we fought, but I don't believe in God and that virgins for the martyrs stuff, and neither do many of my friends. We like to listen to music, get drunk on the beach on home-made alcohol. I just can't tell my family how I feel, because my uncle is the head of a mosque."
After a few days at the front, Ali's colleagues suggested he might be more useful working in the media centre. He agreed, and gave his hunting rifle to another member of his unit. Two days later, that man was shot in the stomach. “I never found out where my father's gun went," Ali said.

By the time I arrived in Misurata, the street battle had been raging for weeks. Most of Tripoli Street was controlled by snipers, but Ali agreed to drive me and two other journalists to the side roads that intersected it, where units of thowar were in combat with the snipers.

The car belonged to his brother and was a mess, cigarette boxes, shoes, biscuit wrappers and a few tins of sardines littering the floor. The boot was filled with tins of canned food. Ali slipped a CD titled Alternative Ballads into the car stereo: soft rock for a hard war.

We passed bakeries where men and boys were queuing for rations of bread. Despite the scarcity of goods, supermarkets had kept most of their prices stable. A shop manager told me: "This is a war, not a time to make money."

Cigarettes were the one exception. Rothmans, Ali's brand of choice, had quadrupled in price to ten dinars (about £4). There were thowar checkpoints every few hundred metres, reinforced with huge berms of sand brought from the beach, or large pieces of concrete pipe. At one roadblock, twisted remnants of missiles and shells fired by Gaddafi's soldiers into Misurata had been placed on top of one pipe. Next to it, with an arrow pointing towards the display, was a sign that read, "These are his weapons." Poking out of the pipe was a rake and spade: "These are our weapons."

Closer to the city centre, the tactics used by the thowar in the guerrilla war became evident. Giant shipping containers filled with wet sand and metal filings had been used to block off streets to prevent armoured columns getting through. Petrol-soaked blankets lay on the road, thrown there in the hope they would get caught in the tanks' tracks, allowing a Molotov cocktail or rocket-propelled grenade to set one of them on fire.

Leaving the car, we walked carefully down a side road to the main street, where several destroyed tanks hinted that the strategy had been successful. There had been an almighty battle; all the buildings were pockmarked by bullets. In places whole walls had been blown away. Splinters of glass and chunks of metal littered the street. A mosque had sustained heavy damage. There were burnt-out cars everywhere.

Closer to Tripoli Street, the damage had extended to residential homes, long abandoned by their occupants. Some of the side streets were within sight of the snipers, so Ali drove along new roads that been created by the thowar by punching holes in garden walls.

We were now very close to the vegetable market, where Gaddafi's troops had a base, protected by seven tanks. A group of about 20 fighters was having a breakfast of tuna and bread. They had been slowly clearing Gaddafi soldiers out of the neighbourhood, fighting house-to-house battles.
The leader of the unit was the only one wearing a uniform, which he'd taken from a captured Gaddafi soldier. He was a cartoonist's image of a rebel fighter - muscular, with a trim beard, a knife tucked into his belt at the back. Most thowar commanders had nicknames, but he was a replacement and new to the job; the previous leader had been killed by a sniper the day before. Ali suggested that we call him Mr Smile. He liked it.

He had been working in construction in Malta before the revolution, but had quit his job and taken a boat to Benghazi, where he received three weeks' basic training in light weapons. Now, as the leader of his group in Misurata, Mr Smile had control of a battle wagon that looked like something out of the Mad Max movies. A heavy machine-gun had been fixed on the back of a pick-up. Two giant rectangles of 12-millimetre-thick steel had been welded on to the front and rear of the vehicle. Mr Smile walked quickly towards Tripoli Street, waving his arm for us to join him. Coming to a crossing, he lowered his head and charged across.

“Snipers," he said. With gunfire zipping nearby, we bid Mr Smile goodbye. "Please come back and visit tomorrow," he said.

In this city, the abnormal quickly became normal. After a few nights sleeping on the AstroTurf floor of a basement gymnasium where journalists were put up, I no longer jumped at the rat-a-tat of gunfire, or the explosions or the ambulance sirens that pierced the night. Ordinary people in Misurata, who in January could barely tell the difference between a gunshot and a car backfiring, were - in their own minds at least - aural experts on heavy weapons.

Boom. "That's a Grad." Bang. "That's a mortar." Boom. "A tank shell."

Bang. "Katyusha rocket." Boom. "Nato must be bombing again."

War became normal for children, too. The schools were all closed, and for a while parents kept their children inside, but after a few weeks they were let out again to play. Ali's ten-year-old cousin started a game with his friends where they tried to find a full set of bullet shells, from a 7.62mm AK-47 round to a 50-calibre heavy-machine-gun round. Inevitably, there were accidents. One afternoon, on a visit to a clinic on the western outskirts of Misurata, I saw a 14-year-old boy, Abdishakur. He was sitting in a wheelchair because of his osteoporosis. It looked like he had measles, but in fact his face had been blasted with tiny fragments of shrapnel. His 11-year-old brother, Ibrahim, had even more severe injuries, sustaining damage to both eyes. His father, a local imam, explained what had happened.

“The boys were looking after my sheep when Ibrahim found a bullet still in its shell," he said. "They did not realise it was dangerous. They took it home. Ibrahim was hitting it when it exploded."

Family life had acquired a strange new reality. Neighbourhoods close to Tripoli Street or in other areas controlled by Gaddafi forces quickly emptied out. Families moved in with relatives or friends. If they had nowhere to go,

a stranger might offer up his house, and move his own family in with somebody else. One evening, I visited the home of Mohamed Tag­ouri, a 50-year-old who owned two water tankers. It was a large, well-maintained house with four bedrooms, ideal for Tagouri, his wife and their five children. Now, there were 11 families living in the house, 62 people in all. Tagouri's sister and her three children, all under five, were among them. Her house, near Tripoli Street, was now "junk", Tagouri said. Her husband was dead, killed on the front line a few days earlier. "Every family in Misurata has lost a relative," Tagouri told me as he sat on the floor, drinking coffee. "But we cannot stop resisting. We have to finish the situation. We have no regrets."

Most days, the shelling was not too heavy and he would drive one of his tankers to the desalination plant near the port, which had become the city's main supply after Gaddafi had cut the water mains. He would then sell the water in town, or give it away if someone was low on cash. Many were, as no salaries were being paid and no banks were open, although neighbourhood committees were handing out small sums of money to all families. They were handing out food parcels, too, but Tagouri said they lacked a crucial item. “There is no macaroni in Misurata."

Despite the best efforts of Mr Smile's team and other bands of thowar, the snipers of Tripoli Street were still causing havoc. No target was off limits: not the mosques, which broadcast "Allahu akbar" over and over to give the thowar strength, and not ambulances. Children, too, were seen as fair game.

At the hospital, I saw a ten-year-old boy who had been shot in the head while stepping outside to play with his friends. Such was the fear of snipers that some people had been too terrified to risk fleeing the city centre when the snipers came in. These included 101 orphans housed close to Tripoli Street. After huddling together in the basement of their orphanage for weeks, they had nearly run out of food. The power and water had been cut.

Selima al-Teer was one of two social workers trapped with the children. "My colleague and I were so afraid of snipers, but we decided we had to run to try and find food," she told me. "We took a hammer, ran about 500 metres to a supply store, and broke the door down. We put food in a wheelbarrow and ran back to the orphanage."

They made the journey three times. “Each time we just said to each other: 'May God help us,' and then ran," she said. Eventually, with the help of the thowar, all the children escaped and found refuge in a Quranic school in a safer suburb of the city.

As the days passed, it was clear that the thowar were gaining the upper hand on the snipers. By blocking the streets, they had managed to cut Gaddafi's resupply lines and began clearing buildings along Tripoli Street one by one. To identify the snipers' hideouts, the revolutionaries crept along side roads and then held out small pieces of mirror to look up the street, examining the reflection for the tell-tale puff of smoke whenever a shot was fired. Then they attacked the buildings with their Kalashni­kovs, heavy machine-guns and RPGs. Finally, they sent fighters into the buildings. They worked through the floors, sometimes tossing burning tyres into rooms to smoke out the last of the snipers.

One night, at the media centre, Ali told me that the eight-storey insurance building, the tallest in Misurata, which stood at the very centre of the city at the top of Tripoli Street, had been declared clear. We drove there early the next morning. For the first time the extent of the war here became obvious. Many of the buildings near the insurance tower resembled those of Mogadishu, in Somalia, where bullets have flown freely for 20 years. There were four destroyed tanks. A handful of local people wandered around in a near daze, struggling to grasp what had happened.
With Ali leading the way, we entered the darkened reception area of the insurance building, picking our way up the rubble-strewn stairs. We soon came upon some mattresses where a few snipers had been sleeping, and empty tuna and tomato paste tins. Spent shells lay in heaps on the floor. There was graffiti on the wall, which Ali translated. “If we survive, we are warning you gays and dogs. We will not forgive anybody from Misurata. We will fuck your daughters and your wives."

On the roof of the building, snipers had been sleeping in the elevator maintenance room, mattresses packed tightly together. Outside, there were thousands of spent shells on the terrace, along with several cases that had held anti-tank missile launchers. The roof had a panoramic view of the city and of the epic destruction below. To be up here with a gun was to be a master of downtown Misurata. However, after weeks of starving the snipers of food and ammunition, and hitting the buildings with gunfire, the thowar had cleared all the snipers from Tripoli Street.

And yet the death toll mounted. One day, I saw Mr Smile at the hospital, looking harried. He had lost a few men, he told me. The war had entered a new phase as the revolutionaries tried to push Gaddafi's soldiers out of their bases in the vegetable market and other locations. On the back foot - Gaddafi's minions called it a strategic retreat - the loyalist forces had increased their long-distance shelling of the city.

“Do you think this is over?" asked Hassan Mohamed, a 51-year-old man who was showing me around a destroyed house where 16 of Gaddafi's troops had been killed. He had already lost several family members in the conflict. He expected to lose more. Then he answered his own question: "This is not over. Gaddafi will send more soldiers. He is much bigger than the devil himself."

As the thowar pushed forward, there were terrible battles on the southern and western outskirts of the city. The scale of the missile and mortar attacks by the pro-Gaddafi troops increased, loyalist shells often falling on civilian neighbourhoods, whether intentionally or not. On one night of particularly heavy bombardment, Ali frantically searched the internet for information on the best place to take shelter in a house when bombs were falling. He then took the microphone at Radio Free Libya, which had become the voice of Misurata's revolution, and told people what he had learned.

As the first uncensored medium in the city in 42 years, the station offered an insight into some of the challenges that Libya might face once Gaddafi was gone. People of Ali's father's generation had pushed for Radio Free Libya to adhere to conservative values, with a strong focus on religion. But Ali and his friends, of the generation that had started the revolution and was dying on the front lines, wanted something more progressive. "Look, us young guys don't just know about camels or how to fix a car," he told me. "We have the internet. We know about the world."

I saw Tahar Alkesa in the emergency tent two nights before I left Misurata on 3 May. His stubble had turned into a beard, with patches of grey. He looked even more fatigued than when we had first met. The casualties had not slowed - ten to 20 killed most days and dozens of others injured. We could hear the boom, boom, boom of Grad missiles being launched by Gaddafi's troops in the distance. As they were slowly being pushed back outside the city, government forces had trained much of their attention on the port, determined to cut off Misurata's lifeline. A few days earlier, a small naval team sent by Gaddafi had been intercepted as it laid floating sea-mines outside the harbour.

Inside the hospital, while trying to ascertain the day's casualty figures, I bumped into Suleiman Ibrahim, a prominent businessman in Misurata who had been helping out around the hospital for weeks with Haythem, his younger brother. Haythem had left for Malta that morning on a boat - one of the very few able to enter the harbour in days - to sort out business in China. The men's two younger brothers, twins in their early twenties, were both working for the hospital, one as an ambulance paramedic, the other as a doctor. "This war is disastrous. Misurata has paid a big, big price," Suleiman said.

He was desperate to get his parents out of the country, but his mother had refused to leave unless all her sons did, too. They would not.

I had heard the reason many times from different people: we win, or we die.

Xan Rice is a contributing writer of the New Statesman.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

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The gig economy: freedom from a boss, or just a con?

Why tech firms that use smartphone apps to match independent workers with tasks are facing a backlash

When in August 2015 Michael Lane was made redundant from his job testing computer software, he needed to find work. A keen cyclist, Lane had noted the rapid rise in the number of bike couriers on the roads near his home in south London. Many of these riders wore the uniforms of app-based food delivery companies that enable customers to order burgers and pad thais using their smartphones.

Lane, whose curly, shoulder-length hair is pulled away from his eyes with an elastic band and whose earlobes are stretched by black plugs, was tempted by the chance to escape office life. So in November that year he signed up as a courier for Take Eat Easy, a Belgian-owned food delivery start-up. There was no interview or assessment of Lane’s cycling ability. “I remember in our ‘onboarding’, one applicant was late because they couldn’t find the building. It amused me to think that this wasn’t a big negative when being offered a job delivering things around London,” Lane tells me over a cup of black coffee at a branch of Leon, the chain where he often used to pick up super-food salads to despatch to customers.

In June last year, eight months in to his new life as a cycle courier, Lane also began to work for UberEats, part of the American car-hailing company Uber. He was lured by its higher rates – and it was just as well. Within weeks, Take Eat Easy ran out of money and ceased trading. A blog post by the company’s co-founder Adrien Roose marked the closure: “On-demand delivery is dead. Long live on-demand delivery.”

The offer from UberEats proved too good to be true, Lane says. At the start, it was offering up to £20 an hour for deliveries. Then the company changed its payment structure so that riders received a fee per delivery, and his hourly earnings fell substantially as a result. Lane now sees the early lucrative shifts as a cynical attempt by UberEats to lure couriers away from the competition.

“They wanted to destroy Deliveroo,” he says, speaking softly with a Shropshire accent, referring to the fast-growing British food delivery firm.

UberEats says that the incentives were meant to be only temporary and were communicated as such. The company insists that its couriers still make between £9 and £10 an hour on average. But the couriers and logistics branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain says the hourly rate falls by at least £2 once insurance, cycle repairs and all-weather clothing are factored in.

It was not just the reduction in wages that angered Lane. He was dismayed by UberEats’s lack of support for its couriers when, for instance, there was a problem with an order: “There is a call-centre number . . . but all they will do is tell you to keep calling the customer and wait 15 minutes before cancelling the delivery.” Moreover, he says, the company would deactivate couriers’ accounts, stopping their work, “without warning or reason”. (The response from UberEats is: “We take any decision to deactivate a courier very seriously and this is always done as a last resort following a breach of our partner terms. Courier partners are always made aware of this decision.”)

Lane, who is 28 and single, and has no children, knows that he is better off than his co-workers with dependants. “I don’t know how people manage with children on this wage,” he says. Nonetheless, he has had to reduce his expenditure, budgeting carefully for everything. “I drastically cut down on social activities so most of my money goes on food shopping and bills.”

 

***

 

Michael Lane’s move into the food delivery business was a dispiriting introduction to the “gig economy”, the term used to describe a workplace dominated by digital labour platforms such as Uber, Deliveroo, Freelancer, Fiverr and TaskRabbit, on which independent workers are matched with jobs – or rather, tasks and gigs: everything from deliveries to cleaning and graphic design work. For the workers, the flexibility and the lack of barriers to entry are appealing. They can just log on to an app on their phone and start working.

Estimates of the number of “gig workers” vary. The term has been used to describe everyone from a freelance consultant to a person letting out a room on Airbnb. Recent research by McKinsey Global Institute found that 20 to 30 per cent of the working-age population in the United States and the European Union, or up to 162 million people, engage in independent work. If you look solely at those using on-demand, online work platforms for paid gigs, it is far smaller – just 6 per cent of the independent workers surveyed. However, the report said, this is a trend that cannot be ignored.

“Digital platforms are transforming independent work, building on the ubiquity of mobile devices, the enormous pools of workers and customers they can reach, and the ability to harness rich real-time information to make more efficient matches,” the report said.

But is it a positive trend? Some argue that the platforms liberate those who use them, giving them an opportunity to be their own boss. Others criticise the digital companies for making work more precarious and for mislabelling workers as self-employed – thereby shirking their duty to pay tax, decent wages and benefits.

If Lane was sick or if he got knocked off his bike, for instance, he would receive no compensation for time away from work. UberEats (like the Uber car service) is attractive to workers, he says, because they can start work at any time. “But you would make virtually no money unless you worked peak hours at lunchtime and evening.”

Some claim that the much-vaunted flexibility of the gig economy isn’t always what it seems. When my colleague Izabella Kaminska tried working as a Deliveroo courier, she found that workers were expected to work mandatory shifts and could not opt out without a penalty. She was also told she would need to give notice if she was on holiday and expecting to skip the shifts. (Deliveroo maintains that the work is flexible.)

As Hillary Clinton put it in 2015: “This on-demand or so-called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.”

In October, Theresa May ordered a review of workers’ rights in Britain’s gig economy, saying she wanted to be “certain that employment regulation and practices are keeping pace with the changing world of work”. Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and former chief of policy to Tony Blair, has been given the job of leading the review.

Taylor is wary of the doom-mongers talking down the gig economy’s strengths, which he says are a high participation rate and flexibility. The growth in self-employment, he told me, is driven not only by employers imposing new work arrangements but also by workers seeking autonomy and a good work-life balance.

“What we want is a labour market which is productive and suits employees and employers,” Taylor argues. It’s a complex issue: “Some people like piecework. You can decide on the intensity of your work. What doesn’t work is if you can’t earn the minimum wage. You don’t want to incentivise behaviours that are not economically productive or fair to workers: we don’t want to reduce innovation and flexibility.”

Yet, for all the attention the gig economy has received, some argue that the only thing new is the name. Hannah Reed, the Trades Union Congress senior policy officer for employment rights, says: “These casual working terms are an extension of old practices, just accelerated by technology.”

 

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The company that is the lightning rod – or poster child, depending on your point of view – for the on-demand economy is Uber. The ride-hailing app, which was launched seven years ago in California, is privately owned and was recently valued at $68.5bn. Since 2009 it has established operations in almost 550 cities worldwide, disrupting the taxi business and attracting sharp criticism and protests from established cab drivers, who complain that Uber is pushing down fares while avoiding costly taxes and regulations.

Last month Travis Kalanick, its chief executive, apologised after he was filmed arguing with an Uber driver who complained about his earnings. “You know what, some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit,” Kalanick told the driver. “They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck!”

Uber has also drawn protests, including court action, from its drivers. In October, an employment tribunal in London found that its drivers were “workers” and had been mislabelled as self-employed; consequently, the drivers were entitled to rights including the minimum wage and paid holiday. The tribunal ruling said that Uber had been “resorting in its documentation to fictions, twisted language and even brand new terminology”. “The notion that Uber in London is a mosaic of 30,000 small businesses linked by a common ‘platform’ is to our mind faintly ridiculous,” the judges said.

This dispute was one of a number of tussles around the world between Uber and various courts and regulators, trying to determine whether drivers for the firm were employed or self-employed. In the UK, employment law offers another category: that of “worker”, the one in which the tribunal placed Uber drivers. Workers enjoy some employment rights, such as holiday pay, and the right to receive the minimum wage, but lack others, such as the right to claim unfair dismissal and redundancy settlements.

Annie Powell, an employment solicitor at the specialist law firm Leigh Day, who worked on behalf of the GMB trade union on the case, says that Uber is one of many firms operating in the gig economy that are not complying with the law. “Lots of companies appear to be mislabelling their staff as self-employed and denying them their rights,” she told me.

The tribunal decision has emboldened others, including Deliveroo riders, to mount legal challenges to their status as ­independent contractors.

Uber said it will appeal the UK employment tribunal ruling, asserting that its drivers should not be classed as self-employed. Jo Bertram, the company’s regional general manager in the UK, says: “Tens of thousands of people in London drive with Uber precisely because they want to be self-employed and their own boss. The overwhelming majority of drivers who use the Uber app want to keep the freedom and flexibility of being able to drive when and where they want.”

Before the ruling, Uber published its own survey, together with the market research firm ORB International, based on interviews with 1,000 licensed private hire drivers across the UK who use the Uber app. More than three-quarters of the drivers said that being self-employed and able to choose their own hours was preferable to having the perks of employment, such as holiday pay. According to the survey, 94 per cent of drivers said they “joined Uber because I wanted to be my own boss and choose my own hours”. Just 6 per cent said they joined “because I couldn’t find other work”.

Steve Rowe, a 66-year-old part-time Uber driver in London, is concerned about the implications of the employment tribunal ruling. “I was dumbfounded by the case,” he says. “Self-employment has been normal for private hire firms. Minicab companies put customers in touch with drivers, just the same as Uber.”

Having been a self-employed businessman for decades, Rowe took time out of the workforce to look after his three children after his wife’s death. Today he drives for Uber part-time while juggling various creative projects. His fear is that the ruling will force the tech firm to put its prices up, which, in turn, will reduce demand.

But Asif Hanif, 45, an Uber driver who is a GMB member, welcomed the ruling, which he sees as important not just for his peers at the ride-hailing app, but for the broader gig economy, too. “Why should we have to turn to tax credits when a company is abusing the workforce?”

As in the food delivery business, the drivers and the tech firms that pay them disagree on how much they earn. Hanif says that drivers can earn less than the minimum wage, once Uber has taken its commission and he has paid for his car insurance, fuel and other running expenses.

Uber insists that the average payment is £16 an hour after its service fee. Maria Ludkin, a GMB legal director, says this “does not represent the position for the hundreds of drivers we represent”. Hanif, who has two young children and is on tax credits, says the
temptation for drivers is to work long hours. This is risky behaviour for drivers and passengers – and it puts workers in a bubble, “cut off from their families and society”.

The Uber decision has also highlighted the vexed issue of how to define self-employment. Citizens Advice, the charity that advocates on welfare and consumer matters, has produced research indicating that up to 460,000 people could be falsely classified as self-employed when their status should be that of employee or worker. And as such, the government is missing out on tax and employer national insurance contributions. The discrepancy was addressed in the spring Budget in the Chancellor’s proposed increases to National Insurance contributions for the self-employed. Philip Hammond subsequently dropped the plans following an outcry from Conservative MPs.  

Matthew Taylor of the RSA says that probing employment status, particularly at a time of austerity, is important because of the cost to the public purse. “If an average worker moves from being employed to self-employed, doing the same work on the same remuneration, it costs the Exchequer up to £3,000 a year in lost revenue.”

 

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While aspects of the gig economy can be traced to the past, one that is new is the clever technology. Consumer gratification can be met instantly by workers with smartphones: downloading an app, as Michael Lane discovered, was all it took to start work. Yet he also found the tech that matches couriers with hungry customers and sets the rate and routes, in effect replacing the old radio-controller role, to be alienating. It meant that he rarely met or spoke to colleagues. There was no staff room in which to let off steam or chat about the spring sunshine, no ongoing relationship with a line manager.

“In a normal courier company . . . people both love and hate their controllers,” he said, and either way there was at least a “human connection”. If the tech went wrong, there was nowhere to vent, he says. Couriers just had to deal with it.

As Julian Sayarer, a former bike courier whose book, Messengers, recounts his experiences in the industry, says: “Where once ‘sacking’ a worker was a very loaded move, the new, clinical ‘deactivation’ seems quite clear evidence of the perils of app-based employment without any human ties.”

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organ­isational behaviour at the Yale School of Management, says that gig workers are more susceptible to anxiety than employees. “Organisations are a good home base for parking people’s anxiety,” she says. “Membership of an organisation tethers people.” She worries that, with faceless technology, “workers divest from the relational investment” and are cast adrift.

Cathy O’Neil, the author of Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, believes that tech brings both advantages and disadvantages for workers. “It can be clarifying if it’s fair and consistent. Or it could be a way of distancing responsibility.” Algorithms, she notes, can be like the hand of God. “It’s a tool of power. They are built to optimise results for the company . . . If they cause suffering for the workers, they are often ignored. The mistakes that get corrected are the ones that cost the company.”

In August, after two months of working for UberEats, Lane left – though leaving just involves not logging on to the app. He moved to become a courier at Gophr, an on-demand delivery service aimed at business clients that allows cyclists, motorcyclists and van drivers to log in for work over their smartphone. Though the app is similar to UberEats and Take Eat Easy, Lane was heartened by the company’s responsiveness to couriers’ concerns and problems.

Seb Robert, Gophr’s founder, says that it has been his ambition to do right by couriers “in what we viewed as a very exploitative industry”. This is a noble aim, but the company has not met its goal of paying its couriers the London Living Wage of £9.75 an hour. The problem, Robert says, is that the industry is fiercely competitive – and most customers are unconcerned about the couriers’ wages. “Their primary motivation when finding a courier service is getting the cheapest price. They tend not to think too much about the quality of the service, much less the couriers’ quality of life.”

So, though in many ways this is a great time to be a consumer, with access to cheap on-demand services, it may not be so great for the people doing the work. Asif Hanif, the Uber driver, thinks that consumers’ expectations are too high; cab journeys, which were once a luxury, are now cheap.

Robert said that Gophr called nearly 700 companies that were London Living Wage-accredited to find out if they would like to use a courier service that paid fair rates to its delivery workers. A handful of firms signed up, including one large corporation that had made the Living Wage a priority for 2016. It requested one job a day so that it could fulfil the Living Wage requirements. Five months later, it stopped using Gophr’s services. “We’re not that expensive in general, but would certainly come out more expensive for companies who do hundreds of jobs a day,” Robert says.

Jason Moyer-Lee, the general secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, believes that companies can be persuaded to pay a bit more. “My experience has been that when it is put to customers that they are complicit in exploitative labour practices, they often do care.”

Even if that ever happens on a large scale, it is unlikely to occur overnight. And the likes of Lane cannot afford to wait. When I caught up with him again in January, I discovered he had moved to a courier company that pays a daily rather than a piece or hourly rate, because he could not bear the anxiety over the fluctuations in his earnings. He does not think the work will be sustainable unless the law changes soon in favour of gig economy workers, leading to better wages and holiday pay. “If I end up sick or injured I have no protection,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to afford to live.”

Emma Jacobs is a features writer for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain