A recent slew of gig economy cases has heightened calls to clarify the law but, according to an author who spent six months working undercover in low-paid roles, the law is the worker’s “friend on a lot of [stuff] already”.
Speaking at an event run by the High Pay Centre at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, James Bloodworth said: “The law itself is clear, it’s about enforcing the law.” However, he noted that the legal treatment of ‘substitution’ – where the courts ask if someone is able to get someone else to do their work for them to determine employment status – was one area that was still causing confusion.
Bloodworth wrote Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, a book that has been widely praised for giving a first-hand account of life on the margins of the gig economy or as an agency worker undertaking warehouse work.
He revealed that when he arrived for his first day as a warehouse picker for Amazon, he was told that if he and his cohort were unhappy with the terms and conditions they had been offered, there was “a long line of people waiting for work”.
He likened the atmosphere to that of a prison, where workers had to pass through airport-style security gates when arriving and leaving.
Bloodworth said he was threatened with a disciplinary for taking too long to go to the toilet while working at the warehouse and, at one point, he found a bottle of urine among the products on the shelves.
The former editor of Left Foot Forward added that the agencies responsible for recruiting the warehouse staff had a “casual disregard for paying you properly”, claiming that one woman he spoke to was effectively being paid 42p per hour. He was hired through now-infamous recruitment agency Transline.
In a statement, Amazon said: "Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We are committed to treating every one of our associates with dignity and respect and we are proud of the work they do on behalf of customers every day. We don’t recognise these allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings. The good news is that our teams agree and are proud to say they work at Amazon, which is why LinkedIn recently ranked Amazon #7 on its UK Top Companies list."
The company also said it allowed employees to use the toilet "whenever needed" and did not monitor toilet breaks.
Bloodworth explained that he never intended to work specifically at Amazon. He “just happened to get a job there”. He quickly discovered that this was because the company was continuously recruiting as “the turnover was so vast”.
Bloodworth also worked at Uber during the course of writing his book. He criticised the degree of control the ride-hailing app had over its drivers, adding that he was told he couldn’t choose which jobs he took and that certain topics of conversation with customers were banned.
However, the author said he liked Uber in principle. “I like the technology,” he said. “I like the idea of simply hooking people up.”
The courts have been asked to consider the rights of gig economy workers on a number of recent occasions. Last week, a tribunal decided that Hermes couriers were workers and therefore entitled to the rights associated with that employment status.
And, last month, the Supreme Court decided that Gary Smith, formerly a heating engineer for London-based Pimlico Plumbers, was a worker rather than self-employed. In a blog for People Management, company founder Charlie Mullins rebuffed comments that this was a case about the exploited workers of the gig economy, noting that the people on his books earn “big money, drive nice cars, live in big houses, can afford to send their children to good schools and have great holidays and lifestyles in general”.
Uber is also being scrutinised over employment status in the courts. Last November, the company lost an appeal to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which agreed with a tribunal finding that two of its drivers were workers, not self-employed. The case is due to be heard in the Court of Appeal in October.