It’s time for the UK government to hear the plight of gig workers

The UK government has a responsibility to ensure the safety of workers who are keeping the country going during the coronavirus pandemic.

Uber driver Yasar Gorur wears personal protective equipment while cleaning his vehicle on April 14, 2020 in London, United Kingdom. Gorur says he wipes down the seats in his car every 2-3 trips and wears personal protective equipment whenever he drives [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

Abdi is a 40-year-old Somali man who came to the United Kingdom seeking asylum at the age of four. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Abdi had joined the ranks of London’s 100,000 plus minicab drivers – 94 percent of whom are people of colour – working for Uber and other app-based companies.

On a July afternoon, Abdi picked up three teenagers who had booked a ride with one of these companies. He regretted picking them up almost as soon as they got in the car. When one of the boys rolled a joint in the backseat and was about to start smoking it, Abdi asked him not to smoke in the car and offered to pull over so he could smoke outside. The boy got aggressive, shouting and swearing, and then pulled out a knife and tried to attack Abdi. Saved only by a thin plastic sheeting between the front and rear seats he had installed at his own expense to protect against COVID-19, Abdi rushed out of the car, locked the boys in and called the police. The boys escaped through a window and Abdi’s employer refused to cooperate with the police by providing details of the assailants. To add insult to injury, Abdi was not paid the full 23 pounds ($31) for the fare, only 9 pounds ($12) earned for transporting the boys from where he picked them up to where they jumped out of the window.

By any standard, driving a minicab in London is a dangerous job, but COVID-19 has made it lethal. Minicab drivers suffered one of the biggest increases in death rates of any profession in the UK during the first couple of months of the pandemic.

Drivers in the UK are trying to perform their high-risk job in a country ravaged not only by COVID-19 but also a severe lack of leadership. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government failed to prepare for the pandemic and provide healthcare workers with sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). It also seems incapable, nine months into this unprecedented public health emergency, of operating an effective test and trace system. So it is unsurprising that more than 50,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the UK. The prime minister has run the pandemic response the way he runs his government more generally: blustering his way from one blunder to another, fuelled by an Etonian arrogance and a remorseless refusal to recognise his own incompetence.

While Johnson and his ministers joined the global chorus of applause for the key workers who kept the world moving during national lockdowns, his government has been reluctant to provide sufficient financial support and health and safety protections for these same workers, in particular, the couriers and minicab drivers working in the so-called “gig economy”.

In the UK, courts and tribunals have repeatedly held that these couriers and minicab drivers fall into the legal category of “limb b worker”, which entitles them to a slew of employment rights including paid holidays, pensions, minimum wage, and the right to unionise, among others. However, workers in this category are not entitled to some basic rights enjoyed by those who are classed as employees, such as legally mandated company sick pay. Moreover, at least until recently, they were not entitled to crucial health and safety protections at work.

Britain’s extensive health and safety legal infrastructure, which since the early 1990s has largely been underpinned by the European Union (EU) law, has particular relevance during this pandemic. The legislation requires employers to provide personal protective equipment to employees, and protects employees from detriment and dismissal when they refuse to work in situations where they believe themselves to be in imminent danger.

During the Brexit transition period, which runs until the end of 2020, the UK is still required to fully implement the EU law. The problem for the government is that EU health and safety law protects not only employees but also “limb b workers”, a much broader group of people.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) – the UK’s leading union for “gig economy” workers – brought a legal challenge arguing the government had unlawfully failed to implement EU health and safety law. On November 13, the High Court in London declared this to be the case, ruling that “limb b workers” were entitled to the protection of PPE regulations as well as protection against detriment and dismissal when refusing to work in dangerous circumstances.

The decision is momentous, in particular for Abdi and the tens or hundreds of thousands of workers like him. Dealing with a knife-wielding belligerent may not be a daily occurrence, but having to choose between accepting a passenger who refuses to wear a mask and sacrificing the income is. “For us, we have no choice,” Abdi tells me. “You can’t argue with a customer … the customer will make a complaint against you and you as a driver, for following the guidelines, will get sacked.”

The court’s decision also comes as the UK enters its crucial and final phase of negotiations with the EU on a post-Brexit trade deal. The so-called “level playing field”, that is, the UK’s commitment (or lack thereof) to maintain a similar level of social, environmental, and labour protections as the EU, has long been a sticking point in negotiations.

Health and safety regulations are a classic example of what the Tory right has railed against as suffocating red tape imposed by an autocratic Brussels and animated their Brexit campaigning. Indeed, health and safety legislation has long been a point of conflict between Conservative governments and Brussels, exemplified by the UK government’s repeated attempts to invalidate or weaken the Working Time Directive, which provides for the right to paid holidays, in the last few years. So it is understandable that MPs have already started calling on the government to implement the court’s decision right away.

Unfortunately, the UK’s track record on enforcing workers’ rights is abysmal; very few are enforced at all and many of those that are enforced are done so poorly, with the former Director of Labour Market Enforcement, David Metcalf, claiming that companies faced a one in 500 years chance of inspection over minimum wage.

Perhaps one of the best indicators of the effectiveness of an enforcement regime is the extent to which companies subject to it go to resist it. In California, for example, this year Uber and other “gig economy” companies invested more than $200m in a campaign to pass Proposition 22 – a ballot measure aimed at overturning a landmark 2019 labour law that extended employee protections to gig workers.

On November 3, with the help of these massive investments, which made the ballot measure the most expensive in US history, a majority of voters in California cast their ballots in favour of Proposition 22, delivering a massive victory to Uber and other app-based ride-hailing companies.

In the UK, that sort of investment would hardly be worth it. Uber knows the UK government has no intention to intervene in its business model, despite multiple tribunal and court rulings stating that it is unlawfully depriving drivers of workers’ rights.

While the High Court’s November 13 declaration is momentous, proactive enforcement from the government would make it historic. Ensuring Abdi and other key workers get the basic protections they need to safely keep the country functioning is far more useful to them than publicly applauding them in front of TV cameras.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.