Gig economy workers have expressed anger that long-awaited changes to working practices in Britain have stopped short of bringing in new laws to prevent bogus self-employment, which denies basic rights to around 1.1 million couriers, minicab drivers and other workers.
Theresa May announced a raft of new labour policies that she said would mean “tangible progress” towards upholding workers’ rights, in response to a Downing Street-commissioned review by Matthew Taylor. But there was disappointment from workers, trade unions and Labour that the government has only pledged to consult on possible changes to the use of self-employment, which may not include changing the law.
The issue was brought into sharp focus this week following the death of Don Lane, 53, a self-employed courier for DPD who missed medical appointments to treat his diabetes, partly because he was afraid of facing £150 a day charges that formed part of his contract as “franchisee” with DPD. The case provoked widespread outrage and on Tuesday, John Lewis joined Marks & Spencer as major customers of DPD, in demanding answers from the parcel company over its treatment of Lane.
There had been hope the government would bring employment law into line with the judgments of several employment tribunals that have ruled in favour of gig economy workers – including for Uber and City Sprint – which ruled they are workers and not self-employed and so should enjoy paid holiday, the minimum wage and other rights.
But citing the complexity of the issue, the government only said it would launch “a detailed consultation examining options, including new legislation, to make it easier for both the workforce and businesses to understand whether someone is an employee, worker or self-employed”.
May said: “We recognise the world of work is changing and we have to make sure we have the right structures in place to reflect those changes, enhancing the UK’s position as one of the best places in the world to do business.”
Maggie Dewhurst, 30, a delivery courier who won a tribunal claim against City Sprint, said she was furious. “This is the industry’s dream result and does nothing to protect workers,” she said. “By not enforcing our existing employment laws but instead talking about making the system ‘easier to understand’, they are playing into gig employers’ hands, many of whom are wilfully breaking UK law. How much more evidence do we need of gig economy exploitation?”
“Why don’t they change the law now,” said Lane’s widow, Ruth, who believes her husband should have had employment rights including sick pay. “Don has died and they should be making changes.”
The shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, accused May of “more words with no real action to improve the lives of the millions of people in insecure work”.
Among the other measures May announced were:
Asking the low pay commission to consider a higher minimum wage for people on zero-hours contracts.
Considering repealing laws allowing agencies to employ workers on cheaper rates.
A right for zero-hours agency workers to request a fixed-hours contract.
Bigger fines for companies that are repeat offenders at using people in bogus self-employment.
Taylor described the government response to his review as substantive and said: “It will make a difference to the lives of the most vulnerable workers.”
He said: “On issues including pay for variable hours workers, employment status and representation of workers I welcome the direction indicated today, but there is more work to be done to encourage the government to be bold in living up to its commitment to good work for all.”
The Labour MP Frank Field, the chairman of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said the government had announced “some really valuable gains for workers”, but added: “Yet more consultation on the crunch issue of bogus self-employment? … The country is crying out for action.”
Frances O’Grady, the secretary general of the TUC, said: “These plans won’t stop the hire and fire culture of zero-hours contracts or sham self-employment. And they will still leave 1.8 million workers excluded from key protections.”
Mohammed Biswas, 25, a courier for Deliveroo, said the government appeared to be kicking the issue of bogus self-employment into the long grass.
He said: “They are just excusing themselves for longer and more people can be exploited while they do the consultation. This doesn’t seem like actual progress.”