Its the gig economy!

POSTED: March 7, 2017

I have read a lot recently about the gig economy which seems to suggest that the whole world has decided to model itself on professional wrestling. Good or bad: you be the judge.

The wrestling business has long viewed wrestlers as “independent contractors”. When the American wrestling business operated out of a large number of different territories promoters could make a case for this. Wrestlers worked in one part of the country and then looked for work in another part of the country. The promoters in different territories had nothing to do with each other in a business sense, and so a wrestler who moved on every couple of months did not have a long-term employer.

When the WWE became by far the largest promoter in the world the situation arguably changed. Nonetheless Vince McMahan kept to the traditional arrangement and fought lengthy legal battles and resisted any legal attempt to designate him as “employing” wrestlers, who remain (and still remain) “independent contractors”.

In the last few months I have seen several articles that suggest courier companies in Britain aspire to the status of the WWE. In November I read that:

A cycle courier who travels up to 50 miles daily has told a tribunal she has a “fear” of getting less work if she does not do what is asked of her in her job.

Maggie Dewhurst, 29, from London, is seeking employment rights and wants courier company CitySprint to recognise her as a “worker” and not an “independent contractor”.

She works from 9.30am to 6.30pm four days a week and said CitySprint’s standard contract was “littered with terms that are inconsistent with the reality of the role”.

Dewhurst said she carries out the work given to her “unless there is a good reason for not doing so” for fear of receiving less work.

I saw two more surprising cases this week. On Monday, I read that:

Drivers for the multinational company DPD, which also makes home deliveries for Amazon and Asos, told the Guardian the contractual threat meant they sometimes forced themselves to work when sick.

One driver in the east of England said his manager charged him £150 last year when he couldn’t work because of an upset stomach.

“I said I couldn’t come in because I was too sick and it wouldn’t have been safe for me to drive,” said the driver, who did not wish to be named. “He said: ‘Sorry, I have to charge you.’”

DPD uses about 5,000 couriers in the UK, many of whom are self-employed and are only paid when they work. It made more than £100m in profit in 2015, according to its latest accounts, amid rapidly rising demand for online shopping.

Earnings lost from missing a day’s deliveries were compounded if couriers could not arrange cover and DPD levied “liquidated damages”. When that happened a courier, who typically earns £200 a day, not only lost their pay but another £150, taking their total loss to £350.

Yesterday, it turned out that others do even worse:

Parcelforce couriers who deliver packages for Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Hamley’s can be charged up to £250 a day if they are off sick and cannot find someone to cover their shift.

Details of the policy applied by the Royal Mail-owned business emergeddays after rival courier company DPD was criticised for charging some drivers who take time off for illness. And it will fuel concerns about precarious working conditions in the “gig economy”, amid a series of disputes about the employment status of people who work for firms such as Uber and Deliveroo.

About a quarter of Parcelforce’s 3,000 couriers are self-employed owner-drivers, meaning they are paid per delivery and must fund their own vehicle, fuel, insurance and uniform. It has emerged that some owner-drivers who take a day off due to illness, but cannot find cover, are being told they must pay Parcelforce £250 per day missed.

The sum is meant to cover the cost of finding a replacement courier. Parcelforce’s self-employed couriers typically earn about £200 for a shift of 12 hours or more, meaning the added penalty can see them lose out on £350 a day if they are ill.

He added that: “The manager suggested to me that maybe five or six of us should get together and employ someone off our own back to cover our runs if we’re off sick.”

Of course they should: its the gig economy, stupid!