The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore a new cadre of valued workers. And it’s not the corporate CEO or senior business leader but the delivery workers that are helping cafes and restaurants stay open (in some form) during lockdown. Cristina Inversi, Aude Cefaliello and Tony Dundon of the Work and Equalities Institute (WEI) report on health and safety risks and legal loopholes of gig-economy work.
- Gig-workers have been key to ensuring small business restaurant survival.
- However, some gig-platforms utilise legal loopholes to undermine gig-worker rights with bogus self-employment.
- Delivery riders face heightened risks during COVID-19 because they lack health and safety protections.
- There are opportunities for future policy goals to include more equitable health and safety regulations.
It may come as a surprise that the gig-economy has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 responses. We all know how brave health and care workers are, along with other front-line workers in supermarkets, in protecting people and keeping society functioning. So too are many workers who have been undervalued and have had to rely on bogus self-employment. Delivery drivers (and riders) of fast food and other services have had their work regulated through technology and smart phone apps, with adverse health and the safety consequences:
- 25,000 self-employed couriers work for Deliveroo in the UK, as of 2019.
- 42% of gig-economy couriers and taxi drivers report vehicle damage because of a collision.
- 63% say they had not been provided with safety training on managing risks on the road.
- Around half of gig-workers have lost their jobs and the rest have had their income cut by around two-thirds because of COVID-19.
The legal loophole enjoyed by platforms
Many gig-platforms are doing very little, if anything, to protect their workers during COVID-19. Some platforms are well-known for benefiting from a legal loophole. Because delivery drivers/riders are considered independent contractors, allegedly managing their own small business, they are outside of the protective wing of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In practice, gig-workers have to accept self-employment status, which has significant effects on their health with low pay. Being in a situation of precarity increases stress, anxiety, and tiredness. Many key front line workers encounter gender discrimination and other forms of exploitation, such as zero-hours work. As a result, the risks of doing business – including health and wellbeing risks – are passed from the platform to the individual worker, with a lack of insurance coverage, little if any legal protection and no compensation in cases of sickness or injury.
Layering of risks
Workers in the gig-economy have been exposed to a growth in health risks: road accidents, fatigue, stress, attacks, job insecurity and poor mental health while working through the COVID-19 pandemic. New risks have been created from new forms of work management, AI and online devices. The novelty of digital management control represents a new occupational safety and health (OSH) challenge for lone workers who have no standard or permanent place of work: the platform organises all tasks with extensive control through data gathering of workers’ movements. The information is only used by companies for their benefit and never to improve working conditions or health and safety protections for employees.
Our research shows that these workers have unique insights and skills to enhance gig-economy business models, but their suggestions fall on deaf (employers’) ears. For example, workers could have the option to alert the platform when they have an accident, so the first aid or emergency services can be contacted if necessary. Couriers and drivers can transmit information to share knowledge about known incident areas, hazards risks on the road, extreme weather conditions, etc. However, platforms rely on one-way dialogue and measure only time of delivery. They do not collate health risks that can support a better public goal.
The lack of platform accountability and action on OSH issues shows the limits of the self-regulated approach, which underlines the urgent need for better policy and regulation of known risks.
Opportunities for a fairer future?
The 2020 pandemic and the subsequent COVID-19 crisis showed that food carriers who work for some of these platforms (eg Deliveroo and UberEat) are considered ‘essential frontline workers’. They have been crucial for the survival of small business restaurants and provide a necessary service to those who have had to self-isolate and cocoon during difficult times. Even in the stricter lockdown situations, these employees never stopped working, exposing themselves to considerable hazards and personal health risks, with very little (if any) individual personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by companies. Public concerns have been raised in terms of health and safety, responsibility and insurance protections for this precarious segment of the labour market. Beyond the pandemic situation, the overall adequacy of the OSH legal framework for this growing population is unacceptable based on equity and fairness.
From our own research data on health and safety risks along with analysis of existing legislative loopholes on bogus self-employment, new and more equitable regulatory instruments are desperately needed for these frontline workers. For example, employee contract status needs clarity and specific rights such as the living wage, working hours and health and safety protections, including personal protective equipment (PPE), ought to be provided by the employing platform as a basic condition of service. The role of the State, which can include local authorities in city regions, can be essential for monitoring unregulated labour platforms and ensure at a local level health and safety rights are adhered to in the spaces where such self-employed workers congregate and work. Indeed, the safety of one group who are defined as self-employed because of a loophole, ought not to have inferior rights compared to other citizens and workers.
As it stands now, it is evident that a purely voluntary approach emphasising self-regulation of digital labour platforms is ineffective. There are now opportunities to design more equitable regulatory instruments inclusive of a wider spectrum of stakeholders, with a focus on minimising health and safety risks while also monitoring productivity and, above all, a system to value those in society who have been undervalued. At national level such stakeholders can include trade unions, the Health and Safety Executive, Employment Standards Inspectorate, along with employer associations. At regional levels, policy roles can exist for local authorities, chambers of commerce, or civic society groups concerned with city spaces and regional planning, as well as education providers who may offer bespoke training in areas of technological skills, road safety and other learning interventions to mitigate risks that have been that pushed onto these individual workers.