Nat Whalley launched her start-up after seeing two friends get made redundant 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 tells 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. An online crowdfunder was soon set up, 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 says. “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 start-up, 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 River Island clarify their policies for staff.
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“I don’t think there’s ever a right time to step out and do it,” the 28-year-old says of throwing in a salaried job to start her company hoping to revolutionise 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 says. Organise will also help successful campaigns to reach more people affected by the same issue, primarily through Facebook adverts.
Whalley notes that despite concerns around workers’ rights blowing up, union membership in the UK 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 start-up now has a two-person staff, with Whalley joined by lead campaigner Usman Mohammed, 27, 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 says. “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 start-up with anonymous insights into different workplaces. Engagement, the pair say, is surprisingly high. And tips from the surveys can quickly turn into campaigns affecting thousands of workers.
They’ve already heard from aggrieved workers at big names like ITV, Amazon and fashion chain 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 says.
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 adverts. “Within a week we had 400 workers sign it,” Whalley says.
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 says. It turned out that workers were allowed to swap one shift a month - but managers were not telling workers this was the case.
Organise says River Island told it 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 adds, 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 says. “McDonald’s is a great example, the Baker’s Union got two branches out on strike for the first time in history [over issues of pay and zero hours contracts], incredible – but there were so many workers across the country wanting to do the same, yet they had no method of capturing them.”
“Which is how we ended up with such a big petition,” she says 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 points out.
“It is stuff you wouldn’t expect in the 90s, potentially, let alone now,” Whalley adds. “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 start-up 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 start-up 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 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 both Whalley and Mohammed, and some employment lawyers, excited.
“We can find out if there’s a legal basis for claims relatively easily,” Whalley says. “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 personalised 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 says. “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.”
Find out more about Organise here.