Firms urged to protect workers from abuse in ‘wild west’ UK gig economy

Union says couriers reported being harassed at least once a week while doing their work

Last modified on Sun 19 Sep 2021 07.00 EDT

Gig economy firms are facing calls to better protect their workers, as an MP and a trade union warn of a wave of harassment and physical and emotional abuse facing couriers and taxi drivers.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) said it had received at least 90 reports from couriers who had faced some form of harassment at work in recent months, with more than 40 complaining that such incidents occurred at least once a week.

Meanwhile, the Labour MP Nadia Whittome said the lack of sick pay and the way firms dealt with complaints meant many of the UK’s lowest-paid were also among the most vulnerable to harm on the job.

“Harassment is endemic in the so-called gig economy because corporations treat it as a wild west, where they have no responsibilities and their workers have no rights,” said the head of the IWGB, Alex Marshall.

“By refusing even to respect the minimum wage or provide human support after someone is attacked on the job, companies such as Deliveroo set a toxic precedent that key workers are disposable. We demand action to protect them and hold perpetrators accountable.”

Deliveroo has faced anger from some of its couriers, who say they can earn as little as £2 an hour, while others have been threatening industrial action to try to secure holiday and sick pay, as well as an end to unpaid waiting times for drivers.

And it is that sort of financial insecurity that Whittome, the Labour MP for Nottingham East, said leaves some gig economy workers vulnerable to abuse. She referred to an instance in her own constituency, where a Deliveroo rider said he was racially abused while working.

The i paper reported that the courier was left fearing for his life after being slammed up against a set of railings and threatened by people hurling racist abuse at him when he intervened to stop a colleague being attacked.

In response, he said, Deliveroo offered only to change the area in which he was expected to work and to allow him a “couple of days off” without sick pay.

Whittome said: “That meant they suffered not just the detriment of the attack itself, but also the financial detriment of taking the time off.

“Foremost, the responsibility is with the companies because these workers don’t have proper rights.”

A man and a woman were later convicted of a public order offence at Nottingham crown court and fined.

Zach Dowle, an Uber Eats courier, told the Guardian he was left fearing for his safety any time a minor error occurred on a delivery because he said Uber Eats had taken no substantial action against a “physically threatening” customer who abused him over a small spillage in April.

He said the map the firm’s app used to direct couriers took him to the wrong address and a small amount of a drink was spilled. “The customer was waiting on his driveway and, after picking up the order, began walking down his drive in a threatening manner and shouting.”

He reported the issue to Uber Eats but said the firm told him that it would “note” his comments and suggested he leave the customer a rating that reflected his experience in its app.

He said the firm had shown “no real care for the actual human impact of harassment”. He said he should not have to deal with threats just to do his job, but felt that was now the reality he had been left with. “If I see a spilled drink, I am preparing to potentially be in physical danger.”

Whittome said gig economy firms needed to do more to protect their workers. “They need to be paid at least a minimum wage – it should be a living wage but, at the moment, couriers often don’t even the minimum wage because they’re not paid hourly.

“They need to have the right to sick pay and holiday pay, which will in itself protect people where they’re not able to work, whether it’s because of illness or because they’ve suffered an attack at work.

“And then the platforms need to take more specific measures to protect workers. So, for example, not force workers to go to restaurants where they’ve previously suffered abuse – and not to penalise them for that.”

An Uber Eats spokesperson said: “Any form of harassment or abuse is totally unacceptable and there is no place for it within the Uber Eats community. We are currently investigating these claims and anyone found to have behaved in this manner faces permanent removal from the app.”

Deliveroo did not respond to requests for comment.

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