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02/03/2020 17:17 GMT | Updated 03/03/2020 12:08 GMT

'Abandoned And Penniless': How Coronavirus Could Devastate Gig Economy Workers

No.10 said on Monday "further action" would be taken "if needed" to protect workers, but did not confirm whether or not statutory sick pay would be widened.

Update: See the latest stories on the coronavirus outbreak.

A courier firm banned a zero-hours delivery driver from working after she was exposed to a possible case of coronavirus – and refused to pay her sick leave.

It was only when the woman’s union, GMB, stepped in that the employer, Hermes, relented, HuffPost UK understands.

The case is a reminder that, for gig economy workers, coronavirus doesn’t just pose a threat to their health – it has the potential to destroy their livelihoods.

Couriers, minicab drivers and people who deliver food come into contact with dozens of people each day, sitting in close proximity to potential cases, or handing them packages and taking cash.

On Monday ministers met to consolidate plans for containing Covid-19 in the now-likely scenario of its spread becoming “more significant” – meaning “population distancing” measures such as cancelling football matches, closing schools, and even locking down entire cities could become a reality. 

For gig economy workers and those on zero-hour contracts in industries such as hospitality, a shutdown could prevent them from being paid at all as restaurants close, roads are blocked and events cancelled. 

A press briefing followed Monday’s meeting, during which a spokesperson for No.10 said on Monday “further action” will be taken “if needed” to protect workers, but stopped short of confirming widening statutory sick pay.

 

 

To qualify for sick pay in normal circumstances you have to first be classed as an employee, have been ill for four days in a row, and earn an average of at least £118 a week – after which you’ll be eligible for £94.25 a week, less than £20 a day.

Mick Rix, GMB’s national officer, said: “The threat of coronavirus is a huge problem for employers and worker across the UK.

“But workers in the so-called gig economy, or on zero-hours contracts, are left abandoned and penniless if they have to self-isolate.

“Once again the bogus self-employment model is screwing over the disadvantaged.

“GMB is calling on all employers – regardless of the contract – to do the right thing and pay their workers if they have to take time off due to the global health crisis.”

The Prospect Union has also warned that the response to Covid-19 is putting the security of some self-employed people’s livelihoods at risk, as some insurance policies aimed at freelancers only cover illness, and not self-isolation without illness. The lack of cover may also affect some workers in small or struggling businesses, the union said. 

Prospect says it has already been in contact with workers who have been left unpaid by their insurance companies after self isolating, and said it could hit both employees and employers who could be left unable to operate. 

Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary, said: “The government is well behind the curve on addressing the potential economic and individual financial impact of its response to Covid-19.

“If people are losing their livelihoods because they are following the government’s advice then they must be compensated. That’s why we are writing to ministers to ensure they do what is necessary to support all workers.  

“The prospect of losing out financially cannot be allowed to become a factor in containing the spread of this disease. Through nobody’s fault this could become a public health emergency. There is no reason for it to also become an economic one.”

On Friday the Trades Union Congress (TUC) urged bosses to pay workers sick pay, and to allow workers time off to seek medical advice if they believe they have symptoms of the virus.

nrqemi via Getty Images
A Deliveroo driver. Workers in the gig economy could be left out of pocket if forced to self-isolate

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Employers have a duty of care to support workers affected by coronavirus.

“No one should have to worry about making ends meet if they have to self-isolate or if they fall ill. They should be able to focus on getting better.

“The threat of coronavirus shows why sick pay should be a day one right for everybody. It’s not right that millions of UK workers miss out on this protection. The government must ensure everyone gets statutory sick pay, however much they earn.”

IWGB Union, which represents workers such as Deliveroo riders and Uber drivers, said the precarious workers they supported would be “most impacted”.

IWGB general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee said: “We are concerned that in any situation where workers are sick or when they are required to self-isolate, it is disproportionately the precarious workers we represent – Uber drivers, cleaners and couriers – that are most impacted.

“Uber drivers are denied basic rights such as sick pay, while outsourced cleaners are often on contracts where they get paid nothing the first three days they are off sick and then only £94.25 per week.

“This most recent situation simply highlights one of the many challenges precarious workers face on a daily basis that are happily ignored by their employers and the government.”

HuffPost UK has contacted Deliveroo and Uber, who did not comment.

The government’s Department of Work and Pensions has also now issued advice to Jobcentres, informing them that appointments remain “business as usual”. 

If a "customer" is ill with coronavirus and cannot attend an appointment the "normal arrangements" are in place, states the advice, while customers who choose not to attend because they are worried about catching an infection will be classed as "failed to attend".