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Gig-economy workers are at risk due to government inaction

Source: Shopblocks (via Flickr) https://www.shopblocks.com/pages/restaurant-websites

by Chris Colbourn

The government’s generous £330bn loan package will no doubt be a comfort to many hospitality business owners and employees threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it does nothing to support people whose income is most at-risk. Most office workers can easily follow the government’s instruction to work from home, but service sector workers in hotels, bars and nightclubs were left in the lurch for far too long before the government offered any protections for them. 

Supermarkets, meanwhile, are even hiring to meet the increased demand of panic buyers, placing even more people on the front line of this pandemic for minimum wage. Worse, the UK’s five million self-employed people (of which an estimated 4.7 million work in the gig economy) are not even entitled to sick pay if they self-isolate. As those with underlying health conditions such as asthma and immune disorders are told to stay home for the next 12 weeks, the holes in our safety nets look larger and larger. 

Struggling Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers and other gig workers can now claim universal credit of £94.25 per week in line with statutory sick pay for contracted employees, but they may not receive their first monthly payment for five weeks from the date they apply.   

“Many at-risk people will have to choose between protecting themselves and their families from Coronavirus, and making enough money to cover their living expenses”.

To reduce the strain, homeowners’ mortgage payments are suspended for the next three months and landlords will be unable to evict their tenants for failure to pay their rent, but all of these measures are sticking plasters over the glaring gaps in provisions for vulnerable workers. Even with the government’s positive, common sense reforms, many at-risk people will have to choose between protecting themselves and their families from Coronavirus, and making enough money to cover their living expenses. Rather than follow social-distancing guidelines, some couriers and private-hire drivers still feel the need to ignore government advice and compete for what little work they can find now that restaurants, clubs and bars have been forced to close their doors indefinitely.

The much-touted flexibility of app-based gigs has always come at the expense of precarity – no entitlement to sick pay, holiday pay, or a minimum wage. These vulnerabilities have always been obvious but it has taken a catastrophe to drive even limited reform. We can only hope that these changes will stick.

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