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Worker Safety in the Gig Economy

16 July 2018
 July 16, 2018

Following a series of high profile cases, the so-called ‘gig economy’ has gained notoriety as many of its workers are reported to be paying the price for greater flexibility by sacrificing basic employment rights and their safety.

The ‘gig economy’ refers to the trend for companies hiring individuals and paying them on a job by job basis instead of employing them in a permanent role. According to Analysts at McKinsey Global Institute, it’s estimated that around 5 million people in the UK are employed in this way, which makes up 15.6% of the countries’ total workforce.

Although many workers benefit from the increased flexibility and control over when they work, for others this is not a lifestyle choice but their only employment option in a competitive job market.

The issue of employment status has been raised as some claim a lack of legal clarity has resulted in many workers have been wrongly labelled as self-employed. This means that these individuals don’t have access to the same benefits and protections that a permanent full-time employee would, such as paid sick leave and holidays. A survey conducted by IOSH (Institute of Occupational Safety) showed that two thirds of the gig workers they interviewed were working without sick pay and half said this meant they had to work when sick.

Even more worrying is the apparent neglect towards health and safety in the gig economy, as two-thirds of workers did not have access to occupational health support and only 54% had received a full induction process with health and safety training.

Safety has indeed been highlighted as a key concern; as not only does the lack of clarity surrounding employment status bring into question who’s responsible for the wellbeing of gig economy workers, but it is the nature of some roles themselves that also contributes to poor safety.

Delivery drivers have become a target for thieves with many being attacked for the money they carry or even their vehicles. Drivers often work alone during unsociable hours which increases the potential danger. Also, as drivers are paid by the job, there can be pressure to complete as many jobs as possible – under these circumstances safety can be seen as a low priority by workers themselves.

If a gig worker suffers an injury whilst working – who holds responsibility?

The fact is that employers have a duty of care to their workers which does not vary according to the way they are employed or hired.

As Alan Price, Employment Law Director at Peninsular says: “Whilst many gig employers will label their workforce as a particular status, e.g. self-employed independent contractors, what matters is how the relationship works in reality, not what label is placed on the individual.

“In most gig companies as there is control over the individual and they are required to carry out the ‘gig’ themselves, the individual will usually fall within the category of ‘worker’.

Therefore, this potentially leaves the door open for legal action, should a worker come into harm as a result of doing their job. However, the lines over responsibility are ultimately blurred, which is not ideal for an issue as important as safety, which should be more clearly defined.

A lack of measures to safeguard workers has led to many delivery drivers seeking their own protection, in the form of personal alarms. Takeaway delivery drivers in East London have even resorted to creating a WhatsApp group to warn other drivers nearby of danger.

What is being done?

The Government has promised to improve rights for those within the gig economy and the Department for Work and Pensions Committee has published a draft bill which aims to close loopholes and reduce the possibility of exploitation by assuming an employee status as ‘worker by default’.

An independent report, the Taylor Review has called for employers to be upfront and state non-permanent worker’s rights from day one, setting out the same level of care for health and wellbeing as permanent employees.

However, it is vital that any changes made do not come at the expense of the flexibility these roles create.

Jason Moyer-Lee, General Secretary of IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) points out that: “Flexibility does not need to come at the expense of employment rights.

“The main problem with the gig economy is that existing law is not enforced,” he adds.

“An agency or government department is needed that has the mandate and the resources to look at an employer’s operation, build a case, prosecute and impose severe sanctions. That’s fair – and that is what we don’t yet have.”

In conclusion, it appears as working patterns change – the ways in which this new breed of workers are protected must catch up fast.