Public Toilets Are a Workers’ Right

Every day, thousands of delivery drivers work without reliable access to toilets and face a fine or the sack if they're caught pissing in the wrong place – it's time every worker had access to a public bathroom.

Earlier this year, two delivery drivers found themselves in the centre of a press storm. Their crime? A horse rider photographed the pair of desperate men urinating in a layby. Before long, journalists picked up the story, leading the company to launch an investigation.

This event is far from isolated. Every day, workers find themselves bursting to go to the toilet, risking the sack if they do so in the wrong place. These daily struggles seem small, but bring to the surface much bigger issues about how capitalism treats workers’ bodies.

In Capital, Marx shows that capitalists and workers are in constant struggle over the length of the working day. Capitalists seek to extract as much work as possible from the labourers’ body by performing various ‘small thefts’ of workers’ time: they cut short meal and toilet breaks and try to push all workers’ self-care needs into their unpaid hours.

Today, delivery drivers face similar struggles as Marx’s factory workers. By harnessing technologically-enabled surveillance, apps regulate the bodies of the workers that use them, monitoring their every movement and decision. In this latest iteration of capitalism’s development, bosses are now able to regulate the movements of workers’ bodies in ways Victorian capitalists would find unimaginable.

For gig economy workers who have no central office or distribution centre, this has become even more complicated by the crisis of the pandemic. Workers were once able to dart into toilets unnoticed when picking up deliveries in busy restaurants, or on the way out of the palatial corporate offices they delivered to. But these options no longer stand. Instead, they’re forced to ‘hold’ for longer and seek alternative arrangements.

Delivery drivers may have to resort to using an empty bottle or finding a nearby bush or a quiet spot down a back street to go to the bathroom unnoticed. When they do so, they run the gamut of responses from the public – from disdaining to shaming. Smartphones give the public the ability to photograph any such incidents and report it to their bosses. Once this happens, platforms can use their GPS tracking of a workers’ body and bike to fire the rider.

The academic Harvey Moltoch argues that bathroom insecurity is ‘one of life’s greatest indignities’, and in a very direct way, the ‘inequities of class, gender, and physical capacity gain their expression in moments of anxiety over how to eliminate one’s waste.’ Market leaders like Deliveroo report that 93 percent of its couriers are men. As such, these forms of work are particularly problematic for certain people, and restricting toilet breaks has a disproportionate impact on disabled, pregnant, menstruating, and gender non-binary workers.

Even prior to the pandemic, there was a serious lack of disabled and gender neutral bathrooms on offer in the public spaces couriers frequent. Now that many public institutions—such as libraries—that offered inclusive bathroom spaces are closed, the issue has become worse. One delivery worker we spoke to, who has asked to remain anonymous, reported having to resort to changing sanitary products behind the bins of a popular restaurant that would not allow her to use the bathroom facilities because of the pandemic. By any measure of the basic protections and facilities we should be provided at work, this does not meet the mark; it is simply unacceptable.

Delivery drivers’ toilet troubles are part of a longer historical struggle over public services and public space. The spread of public toilets was part of a Victorian campaign to rid urban spaces of filth, bad smells, and disease. Such efforts were often coupled with troubling attempts to reform working-class manners, but improved access to sanitation in the process.

Recent Tory governments have lacked even the patronising paternalism of their forbearers, and public toilets have been a victim of Tory austerity. A 2019 report by The Royal Society for Public Health found that since 2010 nearly 700 council-run toilets have closed. Those that remain are often locked, with access restricted behind a paid turnstile that only opens in exchange for thirty or fifty pence. If you work outdoors all day with no access to bathroom facilities, the costs of spending a penny begin to add up. This is a real problem if, like many delivery workers, you’re only earning as little as £2 per hour.

Delivery workers thus find themselves under attack on two fronts. On the one side, bosses seek to regulate and restrict their toilet breaks to maximise profits. On the other side, the Tory state is destroying public bathrooms. Workers often find themselves fined or fired if caught short in public.

Worse still, riders are forced to rely on hand sanitiser (if they can find a place that has stock and if they can afford it) to clean their hands both at the regular intervals the government advises, and following going to the bathroom. A Unite study found that ‘several members report developing Covid type illnesses they attribute to being unable to wash their hands.’

Left languishing in the gaps created by unsatisfactory sanitary provision, the risks become enormous and unavoidable. In the context of a pandemic, the challenges of hand-washing for delivery drivers put the general public at risk through the risk of transmission via packages being handled.

Recently, the Department for Transport has made giving access to ‘suitable and sufficient sanitary conveniences and washing facilities’ a legal requirement. Now, many delivery workers keep a link to this document ready on their phone to show staff when picking up packages from their premises. If you’re a delivery driver and haven’t seen the letter, download a copy and take it with you.

The problem is that many pick-up locations simply tell couriers ‘sorry, our bathrooms are out of order’, or continue to refuse them access. As individuals, workers have no way of knowing otherwise. These issues repeat those currently playing out around to self-employed couriers and workers’ rights in courts all over Europe; drivers continue to fall through the cracks between regulations and practice.

Rather than resigning themselves to the situation, though, organised labour has begun fighting back. While the isolated courier may be too precarious or scared for their job to confront a restaurant for not letting them use the bathroom, unions can provide a platform for grievances to be lodged anonymously and the offending business approached.

The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) union launched an online portal for workers to report restaurants that weren’t allowing them their legally entitled toilet access. Following union (and legal) pressure, even big chains such as McDonald’s have issued apologies to workers and changed instructions to their restaurants to allow workers to use the bathroom.

A lack of bathroom access leads to conflicts between restaurant workers and delivery drivers. Such scenes are depressing to witness, particularly as service sector workers also struggle with short toilet breaks and inadequate facilities. As always, bosses use toilet regulations to pit different sections of the working class against each other. Organising workers in both sectors and highlighting their common interests is central to securing better toilet access for all in the future.

The question of toilets and toilet breaks brings to the surface far broader issues. A socialist alternative must put caring for workers’ bodies at the centre of its agenda. Better provision of public toilets is hugely popular and such demands also have the potential to gain widespread support. These should not be ‘radical’ demands. They should be so taken for granted that they do not need to be discussed in online articles and column inches. But we’re not there yet.