Gig economy faces legal setbacks

Curbs being put on fictitious ‘self-employment’.

Proletarian writers

IWGB fights to represent Deliveroo workers and pipefitter Russ Blakely accepts a settlement.

Proletarian writers

Two new legal challenges threaten to upset the gig economy gravy train. Last November, the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC) turned down a bid by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to represent some Deliveroo riders in north London, on the grounds that the riders were supposedly self-employed and therefore had no collective bargaining rights.

When IWGB persisted, taking the case to the high court, the judge, whilst still quibbling over the precise employment status of the riders, granted a full judicial review of the CAC ruling to investigate whether the refusal to uphold the right to collective bargaining constituted a breach of Article 11 of the European convention on human rights.

The IWGB, a new union, not affiliated to the TUC, that is not awash with money, has taken a novel approach to fundraising, raising a fighting fund of over £23,000 through crowd-funding on the internet. (Union wins first round in Deliveroo high court employment challenge by Sarah Butler, The Guardian, 15 June 2018)

Another skirmish in the gig economy concluded in May, with pipefitter Russ Blakely accepting a settlement for unfair deductions from On-Site Recruitment Solutions Ltd.

Blakely’s saga began in January 2016 when he went to work for Broadmoor Hospital. The chief contractor at the hospital was construction giant Keir, whilst the mechanical contractor was Fascel. In Blakely’s case, though, he was recruited by neither of these employers. Rather, he was recruited by On-Site Recruitment Solutions, which Blakely understood to be his employer.

Come pay day, however, he was told that he needed to chase his wages from yet another company, Heritage Solutions City. When the latter paid up, it deducted £18 a week for ‘management deductions’, as well as employer’s national insurance contributions.

Things came to a head in March 2016 when On-Site tried to make Blakely sign a ‘contract of services’ spelling out that he was not an employee at all, simply ‘self-employed’. This attempt to disenfranchise him from the working class did not sit well with Blakely, who refused to sign the contract, and in May 2016 took a well-earned holiday.

On his return he was told his job no longer existed and he set out on the long and winding road through the courts system. On-Site finally agreed to settle to close the book on the case. Heritage Solutions meanwhile had ceased trading.

The union representing Blakely, Unite, suggests that an award against Heritage would have been a “pyrrhic victory”, though this begs the question of where in the queue of creditors Blakely should by rights be standing. Unite argues that, whilst the £2,500 settlement is small, the court ruling in Blakely’s favour last December set a number of precedents.

Certainly the main thrust of the judgement, establishing that Blakely had indeed been an employed worker, does set a welcome precedent. However, the ruling that agency workers paid via a payroll company can be an employee of either or both is more dubious, and does not necessarily support the union’s sunny assurance that the “possibility of being a worker for more than one body potentially dramatically reduces the amount of payroll/umbrella company rip-offs”.

It might equally be argued that it adds yet more smoke and mirrors fogging the basic questions: Who is my boss? Who is buying my labour-power? And who is paying my wages? (Unite celebrates final victory in employment agency and bogus self-employment battle, Unite the Union, 7 June 2018)

Cheering as any halfway favourable legal ruling must be, it should never be forgotten that, when push comes to shove, the legal system exists to serve bourgeois class interests, and can only be faced down by the power of the organised working class.

Least of all should any credence be given to the words of Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s shadow industry spokesperson, who assures us that the “next Labour government will clamp down on bogus self-employment and strengthen employment rights for all workers”.

Those workers can well remember how merrily the gig economy spun round under the benign gaze of previous Labour governments, not to mention how Labour councils right now compete with Tory councils to see who can outsource and privatise public services the fastest.