The gig economy before and after Brexit

There has been much talk recently about the precarious situation of many delivery drivers working in companies forming part of the ‘gig’ economy.

Drivers for companies such as Uber, Deliveroo, Amazon or CitySprint have claimed to have worker status rather than being self employed. This, they say, has seen them work for less than the national minimum wage and miss out on paid holidays and sick pay.

Some drivers also claim to be under enormous pressure from their companies to take on as many jobs as possible, with potentially dangerous results. Some Amazon delivery drivers admitted they had broken speed limits in order to stay on schedule, and that they worked in excess of 11 hours a day working towards a delivery timetable set by Amazon that did not take into account traffic jams or rest breaks.

Uber has notoriously already been the subject of an Employment Tribunal judgment, in which the Tribunal found that their drivers were in fact workers, and not self-employed. Much hinged on the degree of autonomy the drivers had in taking on customers through the Uber app (very little, as it turns out). Equally, a courier has brought proceedings against CitySprint claiming a set of similar facts – precise instructions, no possibility of substitution with another person, and yet low pay and uncertainty of income. Other cases against Addison Lee, ExCel, and eCourier are due to be heard next year.

In this context, it was surprising when Damian Green, the Work and Pensions Secretary, speaking at a think tank last week, described the move towards a gig economy as ‘exciting’ and having ‘huge potential’. Green acknowledged that such a business model would deprive people of the standard protections due to workers; however, he lauded the greater flexibility and freedom which results.

However, a number of Green’s peers in Parliament do not share his appreciation of the benefits of a gig economy. Many of the rights enjoyed by workers (in relation to working time, for example) are derived from EU law and a few weeks ago MPs debated how such rights can be preserved post-Brexit.

In that debate, Greg Clark (Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) reassured that “the Government place a great deal of importance on the fundamental protections that workers in the UK have”. He reiterated that the Government will review ways to “ensure, as we have in the past, that changing patterns of employment are accompanied by a consideration… of appropriate necessary protections for the workers of this country”.

Between the pending Employment Tribunal cases and the potential ramifications of Brexit, it is unclear whether the ‘gig economy’ will continue to thrive or whether it has had its day. One thing which is certain is that casual workers – and those who engage them – will be paying close attention to the news in coming months.

Marguerite Perin and Sarah Owbridge are paralegals at leading employment law firm BDBF.