"What Tube strike?" ask London's digital workers

  • TECH
  • Friday, 07 Aug 2015

Lucky few: Commuters squished into a bus during the London Tube strike. The 250,000 people who work in inner London's digital economy who are less tied to a daily commute than most employees were less affected.

LONDON: For tech-sector workers like Chris McClelland, whose job only requires a laptop, a WiFi connection and maybe a coffee, London's underground rail strike has had little impact. 

A London-based employee for San Francisco-based startup Planet Labs, McClelland is one of an estimated 250,000 people who work in inner London's digital economy and who are less tied to a daily commute than most employees. 

Changes in technology and work habits are having a big impact on estimates of just how much such strikes actually cost. 

"Obviously some people have jobs that require them to be physically present at work, but many other people can work productively from home, and their numbers have probably increased over the last ten years or so," said McClelland. 

The tech sector's 250,000 workforce is small beer out of London's total population of 8.6 million, and there were obvious scenes of disruption this week for commuters lining up to squeeze onto buses or overground trains. 

But the number of companies operating primarily over digital platforms is growing. Government agency TechCityUK estimates that 15% of the UK companies formed in 2013-2014 were digital firms. "The Tube strike has brought headaches, but not chaos," said its head, Gerard Grech. 

Estimates of the hit to London's economy from such stoppages vary wildly depending on the source and methodology. 

The UK Federation of Small Businesses last year reckoned a 48-hour shutdown had cost the capital's small firms £600mil (RM3.63bil) in lost working hours, business and productivity. 

The Centre for Economics and Business Research said that in the new Flat White Economy, digital companies were more flexible and that people could work from home with little if any loss of productivity. It put the cost per day of last year's strike at £10mil (RM60.56mil), saying the increase of cycling also helped. 

"It would be very difficult to quantify the impact of Tube strikes on the economy, but my sense would be that they have a more limited impact now than in the past given the changes in working practices which allow more people to work from home," said Andrew Goodwin, an economist at Oxford Economics. 

So what does this mean for the striking workers themselves? Might the lessening impact of a Tube shutdown reduce bargaining power? 

Not necessarily, argues Sean McKee, director of policy at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. 

"Thanks to more flexible working patterns, many office-based staff may have had the option to work from home yesterday, lessening the impact on their employer," said McKee. 

"However, it stands to reason that the service industries, restaurants, cafes, event spaces in particular, and those that rely on foot traffic, like retail, will have been hardest hit as they faced a city with fewer workers and most likely a significant drop in trade." 

Union officials say such strikes are not about inflicting economic cost but over the terms of a new 24-hour Tube service and its toll on staff. 

Trade Unions Congress Assistant General Secretary Paul Nowak said: "An industrial dispute is with an employer, not the economy, and unions only ever strike only as an absolute last resort." 

Strike action apart, a broader debate has emerged about the impact of technology in the global economic recovery since the 2008-2009 crisis. Some economists argue that official figures are failing to capture the effects of the sharing economy and other innovations. — Reuters

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