The latest legal battle over rights and responsibilities in the “gig economy” opens on Tuesday with the first of four cases brought by London bicycle couriers.
The employment tribunal brought by Maggie Dewhurst against CitySprint is the latest in a series of cases in which workers are fighting to stop companies from classifying them as self-employed contractors who do not receive rights and protections.
Ms Dewhurst’s case is backed by a small but active union called the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. It is the first of four courier cases that will be heard by the same judge; the others involve eCourier, Addison Lee and Excel Group Services.
Self-employment has grown rapidly in Britain since the financial crisis, triggering a debate over whether the trend represents a new wave of entrepreneurship or a growing underclass of insecure workers. Theresa May, prime minister, has ordered a review into workers’ rights to make sure they are keeping pace with the changing economy, where one in seven workers are now self-employed.
Two drivers backed by the GMB union won a similar case against Uber last month. The tribunal panel said Uber exerted too much control over the drivers to legitimately class them as “self-employed”; Uber is appealing against the ruling.
The IWGB is also demanding union recognition and workers’ rights for Deliveroo couriers, who ferry food from restaurants to customers. On Monday, however, Deliveroo rejected the IWGB’s call for a “voluntary recognition agreement” that would require the British start-up to negotiate worker conditions with union representatives.
The union called the company’s decision “unfortunate but unsurprising”, adding: “Deliveroo has shown that it, like other companies in the so-called gig economy, is not going to do the right thing until it is forced to.”
David Scott, Deliveroo’s operations director for the UK and Ireland, said the union “only seeks to represent a very small subset of riders, rather than our riders right across the country. That is why we have contacted the IWGB to let them know we cannot accept their proposal.”
He added: “We continue to engage directly with all riders who work with us and are happy to engage with the IWGB on an informal basis.”
While Uber and Deliveroo are two of the more well-known names in the gig economy, Anna McCaffrey, senior associate in the employment team at law firm Taylor Wessing, said the courier case showed that the debate over self-employment reached much further.
“While apps such as Uber and Deliveroo and other online technology companies may be what many people think of first when the gig economy is mentioned, the courier cases demonstrate the wider impact that the current focus on ‘worker status’ is likely to have for any company whose business model involves engaging individuals . . . as self-employed contractors.”
Jason Moyer-Lee, IWGB president, said he hoped to revolutionise the way the courier industry worked. “The big picture is that these companies have been getting away with bogusly classing couriers as independent contractors to deprive them of basic rights for years,” he said. “The entire courier industry . . . has been using these practices and we hope to put an end to it with these cases.”
The IWGB will argue that couriers such as Ms Dewhurst do not enjoy enough freedom to be classed as genuinely self-employed. It says they tend to work for only one company at a time, are subject to the control of their managers and have no say over their rates of pay. Ms Dewhurst wears a CitySprint uniform and is tracked by a GPS unit called CityTrakkers.
CitySprint, which has a network of 3,500 self-employed couriers, said: “We can confirm we have received notification of a tribunal claim. As you will appreciate, due to the legal process we cannot comment any further on this at this stage.”
While the Uber case technically only applies to the two drivers who brought it, GMB has used their victory to call on HM Revenue & Customs to make sure all 40,000 drivers are paid the minimum wage.
“Without HMRC intervention, Uber will continue to deny its drivers their right to receive the National Minimum Wage,” the union wrote in a letter to HMRC. It also called for Uber to pay employers’ taxes and for clarity on whether drivers were paying the right amount of tax.
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