Why a ‘no man’s land’ employment status fuels gig worker unrest

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Uber Eats delivery rider

By Professor Tony Dobbins
Professor of Work and Employment Relations, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham

Employment relations between delivery riders and platform employers Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Just Eats on Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 2024, were distinctly unromantic.

Delivery riders providing services to these digital online platform employers held a mass withdrawal of labour on Valentine’s Day in protest over low pay and insecure working conditions. Collective work stoppages occurred in various countries, including the UK, US, Canada, and Ireland.

The UK work stoppages, occurring between 5pm and 10pm, meant that many Valentine’s Day diners could not order food deliveries using online apps.

The UK action was organised by an informal grassroots group Delivery Job UK, which says it has more than 3,000 supporters across London and other cities. The intention is that the action will draw attention to low pay, but also inter-connected grievances about long hours and poor working conditions, which also relate to unclear employment status, and algorithmic control[i]. Many riders are vulnerable migrants.

App-based delivery riders are generally classified as self-employed contractors in the UK, meaning that their employers are not legally compelled to pay them the statutory ‘national living wage’ or benefits like sick pay.

A Delivery Job UK organiser, interviewed by the Guardian anonymously, said it was hard to earn the national living wage, especially after costs are incurred. Delivery riders receive a flat-rate minimum for each delivery but are often unclear about how app employers calculate the rate for the job using algorithms.

The Valentine’s Day unrest is the latest in a series of conflicts in the platform economy in recent years. Research suggests that disputes often involve new small grassroots informal worker organisations (as distinct from larger traditional trade unions) engaging in collective withdrawal of labour, protests, demonstrations, social media and campaigns targeting corporate reputations.

Industrial unrest and strikes have increased in recent years in the UK in the gig economy and more broadly. For example, more than 1,000 Amazon workers took industrial action on February 13-15th at the company’s Coventry warehouse in a dispute over pay and union rights. UK Amazon workers have now taken over 30 days of action in their campaign for £15 per hour and union rights at the retail giant.

Employment status grey zone

The common feature of all gig economy work is that labour is bought and sold through online technology platforms (apps). Unrest by delivery riders is the result of gig or platform economy workers in the UK being located in a legal ‘no man’s land’ or employment ‘grey zone’ regarding their ambivalent employment status (involving a triangular employment relationship: independent contractor (worker?)-digital platform-customer).

While many gig economy employers insist on independent self-employed contractor status, rider representatives argue that riders and others working for and controlled by one big employer should be defined as workers. Unions have lodged legal challenges regarding employment status. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in November 2023 that Deliveroo riders were not ‘workers’, following a lengthy legal challenge to alleged bogus self-employment status by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain. The Court decided riders were self-employed contractors with no rights to collective negotiations on pay and conditions. In contrast, in an earlier case in 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Uber riders were not independent contractors but worked for Uber.

New employment regulation would be required to clarify employment status, but a legal solution in the regulatory space of the gig economy remains elusive in the lightly regulated UK flexible labour market regime. The Taylor Review of modern working practices published in July 2017 made various recommendations, including on employment status. The Government responded with a Good Work Plan in December 2018 which also included commitments on clarifying employment status. However, employment status was omitted from a proposed Employment Bill (which was later jettisoned). It is also unclear whether an incoming Labour government (if elected) would legislate on employment status. In September 2021, the Labour Party published an Employment Rights Green Paper, a New Deal for Working People, including a promise to ‘create a single status of ‘worker’ for all but the genuinely self-employed’. Labour has apparently recently rowed back on this pledge in order to enhance its pro-business credentials.

Hyper flexibility

Employers’ search for flexibility in labour utilisation has intensified in recent decades. One manifestation of flexibility is expansion of the ‘gig economy’. Many, but not all, gig economy participants are in a precarious labour market position in low wage, insecure jobs. The blurring of classifications regarding bogus self-employment, means the labour market position of the dependent self-employed, especially, is precarious. For example, research identifies informalization in gig food delivery as a case of hyper-flexible precarious work and algorithmic management control.

The UK’s liberal labour market model produces significant quantities of jobs. But concerns have grown about poor quality jobs and income inequalities, notably when employer and government pursuit of flexibility is taken to extremes (e.g. the under-regulated platform economy). Moreover, insecure work in the UK now extends far beyond the gig economy, becoming entrenched and normalised.

[i] Algorithmic technologies have provided employers with new tools to exercise control over workers, including online platform applications like Deliveroo.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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