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Delivering rights to Britain’s new self employed

Britain's self-employed workers are fighting for fair pay and employment rights

Four London-based couriers are taking their respective employers to court arguing that their contracts are not offering them the same benefits provided to contracted staff. Addison Lee, eCourier, Excel and City Sprint are all facing an employment tribunal after the cycle couriers, with support from their union the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), have moved for court proceedings.

Strikingly similar to the recent claims of two Uber drivers who are taking their grievances to court, it’s an argument that we’re seeing more and more of in the current climate. It hinges around the question “what does it mean to be self-employed?”

Their employers argue that they pick their own hours and are afforded flexibility, however this comes at the cost of paid holiday, sick days and the minimum wage. If these claims are to be honoured, it could mean thousands of other workers in similar circumstances could come forward, forcing companies to either cede power or control over their truly self-employed contractors or provide them with the protection and benefits owed to full time members of staff.

For most, being self-employed implies that you are free to take work when and how you want it, this would inevitably mean that you can set your own rates and pick the jobs and contracts you take.

This is not, however, the case for these couriers working the gig circuit for companies such as Excel or Deliveroo where they seem to be taking on all of the risks and none of the perks. Deliveroo employees who earn an hourly rate as well as drop fees, actually have a clause in their contract which warns that they cannot go to court to try to be recognised as staff members.

In 2014 around 21,287 cyclists were injured, seriously injured or killed in the UK. These couriers are taking every precaution possible but if an accident were to occur they are currently offered no security under contract and would essentially be out of work and out of luck.

Annie Powell, a lawyer in the employment team at Leigh Day who is representing the Uber drivers, has said:

“We are seeing a creeping erosion of employment rights as companies misclassify their workers as self-employed so as to avoid paying them holiday pay and the national minimum wage.”

This is true also for other sectors beyond the Uber drivers and cycle couriers and the outcome of these hearings is likely to change the landscape of the current market.

The preliminary tribunals have already been heard and the four cyclists will all see the same judge later this Autumn. IWGB general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee is confident the claims will be upheld, claiming that legal advisers are confident of the case going in the cyclists’ favour. He warns however that even a loss is likely to result in appeal and the higher that appeal goes the wider the implications.

The effect of these cases is already being felt at a parliamentary level with Labour MP Frank Field calling for a parliamentary inquiry into what he terms “bogus self-employment”.

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