UK gig economy workers exposed to virus, union warns

Workers in the gig economy are being exposed to coronavirus infection because the government is failing to enforce EU safety at work regulations, a union has said.

The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has written to the Department for Work and Pensions threatening legal action if the duty of care is not extended to include those who are not employees.

The union, whose members are cleaners, drivers, couriers, foster-care workers and others in non-staff roles, says many are not being provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) or testing for infection.

The IWGB’s legal challenge focuses on enforcement of EU directives which, it asserts, should apply not only to employees but also to all others whose employment status is defined as “workers”.

“Under EU law, which still applies, the relevant measures to protect the health of workers, including in conditions caused by this pandemic, should encompass and protect not only employees but also workers who, under UK law, are not defined as employees,” the IWGB letter says.

If the government failed to respond, the IWGB said, it may launch a judicial review of what it alleges is failure to enforce the law.

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Courier drivers carrying samples for testing that may contain coronavirus are particularly at risk, the letter to the DWP states. “These workers have not been provided with advice or PPE of even the most basic sort, despite the fact that they are evidently exposed to a high risk of infection.”

It adds: “Many of the union’s members work in areas which, without testing for infection and the provision of PPE, entail risk including risk to life and health for themselves and for their families. This, in turn, causes great anxiety for our members, their families and the public at large.” Private-hire firms have not provided drivers with screens inside their vehicles, it is alleged.

“Health and safety has never been more critical than it is now,” said Dr Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the IWGB. “Until the end of the transition phase [scheduled to be the end of 2020] EU law still applies in the UK.

“We have written to the government and said [everyone] should be covered. Our members feel they have no protection. If they raise their concerns at work they fear they may be dismissed.”

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The letter was forwarded by the DWP to the Health and Safety Executive, which supervises and inspects workplaces. Its chief executive, Sarah Albon, wrote to the IWGB declaring: “Under health and safety law, an employer has a general duty to manage workplace risks and should protect workers on non-standard contracts as they do their employees.

“This will include many temporary workers, agency workers and those who use IT platforms to access work, often referred to as the gig economy. As you will be aware, those working in the gig economy who are self-employed rather than workers have a general duty to manage risks to themselves and others that arise out of their work.

“We are confident that the health and safety framework provides the necessary protection for workers, including those on non-standard contracts, and have no plans to amend the legislation.”

A HSE spokesperson said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of all of those who go to work is what drives our purpose every day. This has clearly been an area we have been following closely, and will continue to monitor, in order to identify and explore possible health and safety impacts. But there are no immediate plans for the legislation to change.

“As long as the duty of managing risks is undertaken diligently following the existing guidance, all of those who work should be reassured they can go home healthy and safe.”

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