A court ruling that gig economy workers are employees is a victory for the labour movement but there is still a long way to go, writes Chris McMillan
The High Court has ruled that the UK Government failed to extend EU health and safety precautions to gig economy workers, ensuring that gig economy workers will now receive the same health and safety protections as those legally classified as ‘employees’. Workers now have the right to be provided with personal protective equipment by the business they are working for and the “right to stop work in response to serious and imminent danger”. The decision will be of some comfort for the estimated 4.7 million working in the gig economy but their battle for basic employment rights continues.
The ruling was a victory for the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) who had sought a judicial review, arguing that “UK health and safety law only protects employees, EU law extends these protections to all those classified as workers”. Representing some 5,000 of the UK’s most precarious workers, the IWGB has fought several battles for gig economy workers over recent years, most notably taking on Deliveroo and Uber. Recently the IWGB won a bitter ten year struggle to force the University of London to recognise outsourced cleaners as direct employees.
These cleaners were part of the so-called gig economy which the TUC estimates now engages up to one in ten working age adults, a rate that has doubled since 2016. While the gig economy also includes freelance computer programmers and management consultants, gig economy workers have become the new face of precarity and exploitation in Britain. Delivery drivers, security staff and hospitality workers, among others, labour without the rights and protections of direct employees, often working for below the national minimum wage.
Conditions in the gig economy are so exploitative that former MP Frank Field and researcher Andrew Forsey’s report Sweated Labour: Uber and the Gig Economy argued that this “hidden army who, despite being classed as self-employed, work very long hours, often with one particular company, in return for chronically low rates of pay.” labour in conditions that “bear a close resemblance with what the Victorians would have called ‘sweated labour’”.
And yet, in March, the government classified many in the gig economy as ‘Critical Workers’. Many, particularly drivers, fulfilled a crucial function by delivering food to vulnerable people or at least takeaways for those now unable to frequent restaurants and pubs. The drivers had little choice. Without sick pay or holiday, many in the gig economy were confronted with a choice to either work or starve.
Others in the service industry had little choice, with hospitality staff, office cleaners and taxi drivers (among others) finding their work drying up altogether. These workers not only received little compensation for lost income but competition for increasingly scarce work has only increased as newly unemployed workers seek new ways to find income.
While Friday’s ruling will ensure that those classified as workers rather than employees will receive minimum protections, that the courts have had to force the government into providing these rights reveals both Tory attitudes towards the most vulnerable and the compulsions of capital to push the boundaries of exploitation. No EU directive can resolve these inbuilt impulses.
Perhaps what is most critical about these gig economy workers is that they are compelled to work to keep the consumer economy running. They may have won the right to basic PPE at work but the battle for further legal protections and decent working conditions remains.
Chris McMillan is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Experiential Education at Arcadia University in London and is the author of the recent The London Dream. Read more at www.chrismcmillan or follow Chris on Twitter @criticalcook
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