Don't Be Taken for a Ride by the New Living Wage: Big Firms are Denying it to Cycle Couriers

The 1st April sees an increase in the minimum wage, rebranded as the, to £7.20 for those over 25 years of age. But one group of workers - cycle couriers - will be denied this modest boost to their income.

The 1st April sees an increase in the minimum wage, rebranded as the National Living Wage, to £7.20 for those over 25 years of age. But one group of workers - cycle couriers - will be denied this modest boost to their income.

And it's not just the minimum wage. Cycle couriers - essential to the smooth-running of the UK's business sector - are denied a whole host of other employment rights too, including the right to receive sick pay and paid holiday. This is because their official employment status as 'independent contractors' enables the UK's large courier firms to deprive them of essential working rights.

The Couriers and Logistics Branch of the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is seeking to change that. In March 2016, this small union submitted a claim to the Employment Tribunal that, if successful, will revolutionise the employment status of cycle couriers, making them eligible for the basic rights and benefits that they are currently denied.

The claim is being brought against four of the UK's largest same-day courier businesses: eCourier, CitySprint, Addison Lee and Excel Group Services.

This potential transformation in employment status can't come quickly enough for cycle couriers, many of whom live only one illness or injury away from financial disaster.

One of these cycle couriers is Demille Flanore, a twenty-two year old who rides for eCourier. In July 2015 Demille broke his right wrist and was left unable to ride his bike for 5 weeks. During that time his employment status made him ineligible for sick pay, leaving him in an extremely precarious financial position. Out of desperation, Demille asked eCourier to return the deposit that he - like all cycle couriers - had to pay them for the loan of the firm's radio communications equipment; incredibly, his request was only granted after he had returned to work as a cycle courier, over one month later. "Until then, to make ends meet, I had to work as a cleaner," he says, "even though I could only use one hand." Demille has still not fully recovered from his injury and has to wear a supportive wrist brace.

Demille's experience is far from uncommon. A recent, highly-publicised case saw another cycle courier - this time the victim of a hit and run - deprived of sick pay and resorting to crowdfunding online in order to be able to pay his rent.

The IWGB's Employment Tribunal claim seeks to challenge cycle couriers' 'independent contractor' status by arguing that, in practice, couriers tend to work for only one company at a time, are subject to the control of their managers, and have no say over their rates of pay.

"For too long," says the Union President, Dr. Jason Moyer-Lee, "the courier industry has been premised on the hyper-exploitation of bicycle couriers. Courier companies have used the bogus classification of 'independent contractor' to deprive riders of wages and the most elementary of rights. With this case the IWGB wants to put an end to that for once and for all."

The IWGB is highly-motivated to win this action. And there is a lot of anger more generally at the unfairness with which the big courier firms treat cycle couriers. Mags Dewhurst, herself a cycle courier and also the Accreditation Officer for the Couriers and Logistics Branch of the IWGB says:

"Couriers shouldn't be the ones suffering financially, mentally, emotionally and physically because some company that they work for can't be bothered to pay them or afford them normal employment rights. Some eCouriers work 7 days a week - it's totally unsustainable. There should be something somewhere that provides a tiny bit of regulation."

Demille hopes that the Employment Tribunal claim will result in "sick pay, paid holiday." He works nine hours a day, doing 20-25 jobs daily. Like all cycle couriers he is paid by the job, not by the hour, and so there's constant pressure on him to keep going. There are no breaks, although he tries to find 5 minutes each day when he can devour a sandwich before heading to the next job. "When you get home," he says, "you're so tired that you can't even eat properly."

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