LONDON — Nat Whalley launched her startup after seeing two friends get made redundant at their jobs when they were pregnant.
“I thought, ‘That happened to my mum 30 years ago. I didn’t think it would happen to people our age today’, but it did,” she told HuffPost.
One of her friends, in her late 20s, had lost her job at a university. Questioning the legality of the move, Whalley — who has worked for activism groups 38 Degrees and Avaaz — used her campaigning knowhow to try to reverse the decision. She turned to online crowdfunding to help, pleading for donations to mount a court challenge.
“It was the threat of that alone that was enough for the university to offer my friend a new job, with all the benefits,” Whalley said. “The power of the crowd is something that I experienced then, and I knew there was something there.”
As employment issues at companies like Deliveroo and Uber increasingly hit the headlines, her startup, Organise, hopes to help workers take concerns from the office, shop floor or workshop all the way to the boardroom. It has 20,000 users on its online platform and has managed to make big companies like fashion chain River Island clarify their policies for staff.
“I don’t think there’s ever a right time to step out and do it,” the 28-year-old said of giving up a salaried job to start her company in the hope of revolutionizing the fight for workers’ rights.
Organise wants workers to “team up” with others in their company, or sympathetic supporters, and make their workplace better. Anyone can become a member of the website and start a campaign.
Users sign up and can find others in their company and in similar industries, and start petitions, open letters and surveys. Whalley monitors fledgling campaigns and can quickly spot those that begin to resonate. “If there’s energy behind it, it will grow on its own,” she said. Organise will also help successful campaigns to reach more people affected by the same issue, primarily through Facebook ads.
Whalley notes that despite concerns around workers’ rights blowing up, union membership in the U.K. is at an all-time low. She hopes Organise offers a digitally savvy alternative. “We’re giving people the tools to represent themselves,” she tells HuffPost. “The idea is, simply, that wherever people are at work, whatever the problem, there is something they can do.”
The startup now has a two-person staff. Lead campaigner Usman Mohammed, 27, joined Whalley to speak to HuffPost in their shared office space at a trendy tech incubator in Shoreditch, east London. “You look at union membership going off a cliff, workers’ rights being screwed, Brexit on the horizon,” Mohammed said. “This is the perfect moment for something like this.”
A selection of Organise’s membership also receive an email survey each week which constantly provides the startup with anonymous insights into different workplaces. Engagement, the pair say, is surprisingly high. And tips from the surveys can turn into campaigns affecting thousands of workers.
They’ve already heard from aggrieved workers at big names like Amazon, U.K. television channel ITV and River Island, where they found that workers claimed they were forced to lie that they were sick to swap shifts to go to essential appointments.
“It was funerals, picking up kids and hospital appointments that were the top three things people couldn’t attend because they weren’t allowed to swap shifts,” Mohammed said.
After initially hearing from two workers at the chain, they asked one to set up a petition and sent it out to workers through targeted Facebook ads. “Within a week, we had 400 workers sign it,” Whalley said. While users sign the petition with their name and email, the organization does not share personal information with companies.
The pair also used the survey data and personal accounts to compile the sort of report you might expect to see in a corporate boardroom, and sent it to family-owned River Island, which employs around 12,000 people in Britain.
“This was then on their radar,” Mohammed said. It turned out that workers were allowed to swap one shift a month — but managers were not telling employees.
River Island told Organise that it would reiterate its policy to all shop managers. The company declined to comment when contacted by HuffPost.
“Now we’ll go back to our 400 River Islanders and see if things have changed,” Mohammed added, saying that both he and Whalley have been frustrated at the slow pace of change in big companies.
Whalley thinks traditional unions need to better adapt to digital technology. “I think unions are going to have to start shifting their communications and be open about working in a slightly different way,” Whalley said, pointing to McDonald’s and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union that represents some of its workers as an example. “The Bakers Union got two branches out on strike for the first time in history [over issues of pay and contracts which gave no guarantee of work], incredible — but there were so many workers across the country wanting to do the same, yet [the union] had no method of capturing them.”
“Which is how we ended up with such a big petition,” she said of an Organise campaign which includes over 2,000 McDonald’s workers from across the U.K. pushing the company on the same issues. “We are struggling to find a way of getting these workers into a union — for that particular union, you have to join on paper.”
“You have to print off two sheets and send them in ... who owns a printer?” Mohammed said.
“It is stuff you wouldn’t expect in the ’90s, potentially, let alone now,” Whalley said. “So for us, we think the unions will catch up with some of the tech and we can work in parallel with them too.”
While the startup invites comparisons with unions, Organise is not an official representative body and doesn’t pretend to be. Whalley says the focus is on providing the tools and direction to workers who can then represent themselves.
“We are a startup and there’s only two of us so we can be very nimble,” she says. “We use a set of tools that might be completely different in a year’s time. We’re both under 30 and come from digital backgrounds.”
This flexibility means they can support workers who don’t necessarily spend time with their peers in person, she added. “Our tools work if you don’t have an office, if you’re out riding on Deliveroo, or if you work from home because it’s cheaper for your firm to do that, I think it’s a lot more agile to run.”
Chris Benson, head of employment at U.K. law firm Leigh Day, said that in the fragmented modern workplace where employees are often vulnerable, platforms like Organise can be an effective tool. “While an online platform cannot replace the bargaining power and protection that can be offered by a well-resourced trade union,” he added, “they do have a place supporting the rights of those currently beyond the reach of traditional trade unions.”
New ideas being tested include a Facebook Messenger bot which guides people through a series of questions to identify legal problems around workplace safety or sexual harassment. It allows people to upload pictures and other proof of the problems they have faced, and presents questions in simple language rather than jargon.
The idea has yet to be tested live, but it has Whalley and Mohammed excited.
“We can find out if there’s a legal basis for claims relatively easily,” Whalley said. “But it’s all in non-intimidating language. There are emojis. You can upload photos. It’s just easier.”
Ultimately, they hope that campaigning in a fluid and personalized way will suit the fragmented, digitally focused nature of work today.
“We’re building a progressive force for change and we want to be across the private sector and the public sector,” Whalley said. “People don’t speak in the coffee room because there isn’t a coffee room anymore. Workplaces, how people work, the nature of work, is completely changing. So this is about building a community that reflects modern working.”
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