As Britain’s economy feels the impact of coronavirus, lockdowns and Brexit, Dispatches examines the future of work, wages and safety in the gig economy.
Dispatches reporter Morland Sanders investigates the reality of gig work and its growing influence in the job market over the last 12 months. Meeting current and former gig workers, Dispatches uncovers new evidence showing delivery workers feeling overworked, unsafe and under pressure to break the law, and meets NHS workers on zero hours contracts who lost all work in spite of the pressures of the pandemic
The investigation by Dispatches found:
- A stark increase in the number of people looking for gig economy work since the pandemic, with searches for Uber Eats delivery jobs up 87%, and for Amazon delivery jobs up 500% on job site indeed.com
- An exclusive survey of gig workers reveals 46% reported being paid less than the National Minimum Wage
- 63% of gig workers say they have worked despite feeling too ill to do so
- 81% had been physically or verbally assaulted at work; 86% say they have felt unsafe at work
- Delivery drivers and couriers are under increased pressure to break the law in order to meet targets. 65% of those surveyed say they have broken the speed limit at work
- A delivery driver, speaking anonymously to Dispatches, reports delivering up to 400 parcels a day with no proper toilet breaks
- James Farrar, the Uber driver who won the Supreme Court case against the ride-hailing app this year, tells reporter Morland Sanders that the company is not embracing fully the Supreme Court’s judgement on rights to a minimum wage, and he expects to be back in court soon
Gig worker job searches on indeed.com up since pandemic
Over the last 12 months, national and local level “stay at home” lockdowns have seen many of us stuck at home, and covid restrictions have forced restaurants and retailers to close their doors to customers. While high street traders have struggled, online delivery services have boomed during lockdown. Amazon’s UK sales were up over 50% to nearly £20bn, six million used Deliveroo’s app every month and orders for UberEats grew by 150%.
In the last 12 months, interest in gig worker jobs including those with delivery services has increased. In specially commissioned research from one of the UK’s biggest job sites, Indeed.com, Dispatches uncovered a surge in searches for jobs in the gig economy between February 2020 and March 2021.
Searches for amazon delivery driver jobs increased by 500%, for Uber Eats 87% and for Deliveroo 30%. On 23 March alone, the day Britain locked down, searches for “delivery” increased by 24%.
The data also suggests gig jobs could be making up a greater share of employment. While overall number of job postings have declined by almost a third during the pandemic, job postings for roles like courier and driver have remained broadly static.
Matthew Taylor, who was the government’s Director of Labour Market Enforcement, believes that gig work is set to expand even further. He tells Dispatches: “Now we're going to have more unemployment. You'll see more precarious work because more people will be desperate for work and they will take whatever work is available.”
Nikita Aggarwal of Oxford University thinks the future of work in Britain will increasingly involve gig jobs. She tells Dispatches: “I think ultimately we won't really be talking about the gig economy as a separate phenomenon or a special segment of the labour market – it will be diffused throughout the economy. I think we're going to see it gradually expand to include also higher skilled work.”
Gig workers speak out about working conditions
A specially commissioned survey for Dispatches by the IWGB, a trade union which represents gig workers, found that 46% of those surveyed reported being paid less than the National Minimum Wage. IWGB President, Alex Marshall, tells Dispatches: “We're seeing couriers who are working hours of double figures and barely making double figures in pay. We're seeing private hire drivers working 60, 70 hours per week and barely making ends meet, getting top ups from self-employed income support. We're seeing people working hours far beyond what you'd recognise for an employee.”
In the programme, Dispatches reporter Morland Sanders meets Shaf Hussain, a delivery rider working for Deliveroo, to hear directly about what work has been like during the pandemic. Shaf tells Dispatches: “We don’t get paid for time. We only get paid for delivering that order. That means I go to a restaurant… If I wait there ten minutes, I don’t get paid for that ten minutes”. Shaf claims that his average earnings for Deliveroo are around £6 an hour.
In a statement to Dispatches, Deliveroo said: “Riders wellbeing is our absolute priority. Riders are paid for each delivery they choose to complete and earn £13 per hour on average at our busiest times. We only recruit riders in areas where there is sufficient demand.”
Dispatches also meets “Bob” (whose name has been changed), who works for a subcontractor who delivers packages for Amazon and has seen his workload increase dramatically during the pandemic. Bob tells Dispatches that he can sometimes deliver up to 400 parcels a day, leaving him no time to stop even for proper toilet breaks and has resorted to using a bottle kept in his delivery vehicle: “If you try to find a toilet, like a human being to go somewhere to do your necessities, it's impossible. You lose a lot of time… I feel like I’m treated like a slave, like a number, just like a number.”
“Bob” says his take home pay is around £9.44 per hour, after fuel and insurance expenses, but a broken van means he cannot currently earn and is facing a bill for £900 that, unlike a salaried employee, will need to be paid for from his own income. “I don't know what I'm going to do next week. I think I would borrow money from my friends to help me.”
Gig workers typically do not have access to sick pay meaning that taking time off for illness can be a significant financial burden. The survey of gig workers for Dispatches reveals that 63% of respondents said they had worked despite feeling too ill, a major concern in the midst of the covid pandemic.
In further safety concerns, 81% of respondents said they had been physically or verbally assaulted on the job and 86% reported feeling unsafe at work. With drivers and couriers are feeling under pressure to break the law in order to meet delivery targets. 65% of gig workers surveyed report having broken the speed limit while on the job. “Bob” tells Dispatches: “I try not to, but most of the time you need to do it because otherwise you don't finish in time.”
In a statement to Dispatches, Amazon commented: “We are committed to ensuring drivers are fairly compensated and treated with respect. Our sophisticated guidance technology plans delivery routes, advises when to take a break, and ensures that drivers aren’t receiving and driving with too many packages.”
Zero-hour NHS gig workers dropped with no furlough pay during pandemic
There are an estimated 30,000 on zero-hours contracts in the health service. Working with the campaign group Zero Hours Justice, Dispatches has spoken to two such workers.
“Brenda” (whose name has been changed) worked as a translator in an NHS trust on a zero hours contract. Before the pandemic, she was working six days a week at approximately full-time hours. When lockdown came into effect, “Brenda” was given a week’s notice that her work would stop.
“Brenda” tells Dispatches: “We got an email saying that we won't get any jobs. I was only paid for paid jobs. So no job, no pay”. A month later, Brenda was informed that she would not be eligible for furlough as she was on a zero hours contract. “I was thinking, how am I going to survive? I've got no wage coming in from getting a full-time wage to be slashed to zero. It was a big shock.”
“Sandra” (whose name has been changed) is an NHS health visitor with decades of experience. She tells Dispatches that when the pandemic arrived, she and colleagues on zero hours contracts were told they were surplus to requirements. “Our shifts were cancelled for the rest of the month and we were told to hand in our laptops, clear our desks and go home. It was as abrupt as that. It just seemed extraordinary that our skills were being discarded in the public health crisis”.
In a statement to Dispatches, the Department of Health commented: “Due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, we have had to respond quickly to changing NHS staffing requirements. We are working closely with NHS Confederation and NHS trusts to protect jobs, including diverting staff to other crucial roles”
Uber’s reformed worker protections called into question
In February, the Supreme Court agreed, after a five-year battle, that drivers for ride-hailing app Uber were workers. Last month Uber guaranteed its drivers the minimum wage, holiday pay, and pensions. But James Farrar – an Uber driver until 2015, and one of the drivers who led the court case - believes the company is still resisting giving its drivers the benefits they are due.
Speaking to Dispatches, James claims that Uber is still limiting workers’ rights protection and not covering the total working time of its drivers: “The Supreme Court is really clear that worker rights protection must start from the moment that you log into the app and make yourself available for work until you log out and go home again. Uber is narrowing down that space of time to only when you accept a job until you drop somebody off. So that means about 40 to 50 percent of your total working time now is not being protected by Uber, and that's completely contrary to what the Supreme Court ruled… I'm certain we'll have to go back to court again.” Uber’s position is that the industry has changed since the point at which the case was brought and that drivers now work across multiple ride-hailing apps at the same time.
As well as obligations around pay, Uber is also under the spotlight for a lack of rights around dismissal. In September last year, Uber driver Imran Raja was asked by Uber to take a selfie to prove his identity matched his account. Face-comparison software used by Uber twice failed to recognise Imran and so, according to Uber, did two human beings in a subsequent review. As a result, Imran’s account was deactivated and Transport for London (TfL) suspended his operating licence.
When Imran was finally able to meet an Uber representative in person one month later, his deactivation was reversed. Imran tells Dispatches: “They checked my pictures and in five minutes they said ‘everything is OK’… They said in 24 hours we’ll activate your account”.
However, although Uber reactivated his account, it took a further two months for TfL to reinstate his licence. During this time, Imran had no income from work and was forced to dip into savings he had set aside for his children: “Without work, I haven’t any income so I can’t do anything… So I started to use my savings and now I am zero”.
In a statement to Dispatches, Uber commented: “We are currently the only operator guaranteeing these drivers worker rights. Safety is the number one priority on the Uber platform, so any account deactivation is taken extremely seriously with manual human reviews by our specialist team”.
Government reforms postponed
The government has delayed its flagship post-Brexit employment bill, which it is thought will bring in new reforms for the gig economy.
Former government advisor Matthew Taylor, who was appointed by Theresa May to lead a review into workers’ rights, believes Boris Johnson’s government is backing away from its pledge to make the gig economy fit for the future. He says: “There does seem to have been a loss of enthusiasm for what I would call the good work agenda. They want to acknowledge the public desire for better protections for the most precarious workers. But at the same time, they want to pacify business interests in their own right wing. They need to resolve that.”
In a statement to Dispatches, the UK Government said: “We continue to consider options to improve clarity around employment status and will bring forward an Employment Bill to further enhance workers’ rights as soon as parliamentary time allows.”
Notes to editors
Any use of information/statistics in this release must credit: Low Pay Britain: The Truth About Your Job: Dispatches, Monday 12 April, Channel 4, 8pm
Catch-up available on All 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/low-pay-britain-dispatches
Low Pay Britain: The Truth About Your Job: Dispatches, Monday 12 April, Channel 4, 8pm
Firecrest Films for Channel 4
Reporter: Morland Sanders
Produced and directed by Dominic Gallagher
Executive Producers: Nicole Kleeman & Kate Ansell
For further information contact Nick Walker, Channel 4 Press Office