Government failed to ensure gig workers’ health and safety, High Court finds

Casual workers are entitled to PPE provided by the businesses they work for following ‘long overdue’ ruling

Gig economy and insecure workers should have the same rights to personal protective equipment (PPE) as employees, the High Court has ruled.

As part of a judicial review following a case brought by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the court ruled that the UK government failed to properly provide workers the protections given to them by EU directives on health and safety, including the right to be provided with PPE by the businesses they work for and the right to stop work in response to imminent and serious danger.

The IWB argued that insecure workers – including delivery, taxi and private hire drivers – have been shown to be at particularly high risk from coronavirus.

The court found the government failed to properly implement two EU directives by protecting only employees, concluding the EU's use of the term ‘worker’ includes those who work without an employment contract. One directive set out measures to ensure the health and safety of workers at work; another sets out minimum requirements for PPE in the workplace.

This gap in the enforcement of legislation had existed since the directives were transposed into UK law in December 1992, but the IWGB said the pandemic gave the matter a “particular salience and significance”.

The ruling said the government must now take steps to ensure gig economy workers have the same protection as employees.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB, said the ruling was “long overdue” and called on the government to take “urgent legislative measures” to ensure workers’ safety. “Key workers have been calling for greater protection throughout the pandemic and this has largely fallen on the deaf ears of their employers,” he said.

“The IWGB contacted numerous companies during the first wave and they either did very little or nothing at all as they tried to escape any accountability for their workforce.”

The union said all gig economy workers would now be able exercise their rights to health and safety protection and PPE once the government takes the steps required under the ruling – including by taking legal action against employers that dismiss them for refusing to work in poor conditions.

The Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had argued that the EU's definition of work extends only to those ‘employed by an employer’, which had properly been transposed into domestic law by imposing obligations to protect ‘employees’.

The departments also said there were other forms of protection in the UK for workers who were not employees that met the EU's minimum standards. 

Judge Martin Chamberlain ruled in favour of the government on one of the union's claims, finding that EU law creating a duty on employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers in every aspect of their work had been enacted in domestic law.

But he found against on the rest of the claim, which focused on the rights of workers to refuse to work because of a perceived danger and the use of PPE.

A government spokesperson said it acknowledges the judgment and “will set out our formal response shortly”.