The gig economy – in to the unknown

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The gig economy has been a hot topic recently; we wrote about it in August and in October last year an employment tribunal held Uber drivers should be treated as workers.

For our new readers, the gig economy refers to freelance work that is facilitated through technology, such as web platforms or mobile applications. The growth of this type of work is unprecedented, with over 25,000 Uber drivers in London alone. The controversy in this industry is the employment status of the individuals providing services through these platforms; a question remains whether these individuals should be classified as ‘self-employed’ or as ‘workers’ entitled to basic rights such as paid holiday.

Most recently (9th January 2017), the employment tribunal in Dewhurst v CitySprint UK [2017], found the claimant Dewhurst to be a worker, not self-employed, and therefore CitySprint had unlawfully failed to pay her for two days’ holiday. On the back of this decision, and the Uber case, it is expected that thousands of couriers across the capital will look to assert their rights and seek back pay. Most notably, in the coming weeks the London Central Employment Tribunal will consider claims from similar courier companies such as Excel, Addison Lee and eCourier. All of the couriers involved in the cases are supported by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, who are campaigning for Deliveroo to formally recognise it as a union. Uber are also set to appeal in their case.

The long term implications for the gig economy cannot yet be determined, as there is still widespread confusion regarding this area of law and it remains to be seen whether the Government will intervene to protect the business models of these online technology companies. In addition, these decisions could impact any company whose business model involves hiring individuals on short term or temporary contracts, as self-employed contractors or agency workers. It seems we will have to look forward to a difficult decision in balancing the growth of technology driven businesses with the rights of individuals to have some level of protection and benefits. On the one hand, companies such as Uber seem to give a high degree of flexibility and choice in how, when and where you work as a self-employed individual. On the other hand, having flexibility in the workplace should not warrant exploitation or the absence of basic benefits and protections. Clearly, the issues at hand are not to be taken lightly and Prime Minister Theresa May has flagged workers’ rights in the gig economy as a priority issue and her government is currently awaiting a report to tackle the matter.

Dominic Bonham