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To Gig or Not to Gig: Labour abuse and exploitation in the UK app-based delivery sector

To Gig or Not to Gig: Labour abuse and exploitation in the UK app-based delivery sector

“Become a rider and enjoy the freedom to fit work around your life”, reads the recruitment ad for a food delivery platform in the UK. Since 2012, when Uber first started operating in the UK, platform work has become the norm for a large part of the UK workforce, with a recent study finding that the number of people doing platform work in England and Wales grew from 5.8% of the working population in 2016 to 11.8% in 2019 rising to 14.7% in 2021. More and more individuals are participating in this type of work, whether through one-off freelance work every few months or by fully relying on it as their only source of income. 

But what are the implications of this new form of work, especially for individuals relying on it to make ends meet? Are there new risks of labour abuse and exploitation associated with platform work? 

These are some of the questions that FLEX’s new report on the experiences of workers in the UK app-based delivery sector aims to answer. The gig is up: Participatory research with couriers in the UK app-based delivery sector is the third and final working paper in a series on the experiences and drivers of labour abuse and exploitation in three low-paid sectors of the economy. The first two working papers in the series, on commercial cleaning and hospitality, were published earlier in 2021.

The working paper investigates what issues couriers are facing at work, what change they would like to see, and the factors which may create risk of labour abuse and exploitation in the platform economy. Using a feminist participatory action research (FPAR) approach, workers from the sector were involved as paid peer researchers throughout, enabling them to shape the research findings and recommendations. By involving couriers as researchers, the report seeks to bring the voices of people with lived experience to the forefront and include their perspectives in the policymaking process.

Our research found several concerning issues experienced by app-based couriers, with interview and focus group participants and survey respondents reporting issues such as lack of access to rights, low and unpredictable earnings, and dangerous working conditions. Research participants, the majority of whom were classed as self-employed, reported having no access to financial support when ill or injured (59%), earning below minimum wage (63%), and having experienced violence at work (82%), including sexual harassment, which was reported by 57% of female and non-binary participants.

I feel unsafe all day every day because there are thieves on the street. They steal motorbikes. I’ve been in many situations, four situations, where they have tried to take my motorbike. One time they came to take my motorbike at a petrol station with a machete. […] I have a friend, he’s been attacked as well, with acid. It’s very unsafe.

Said, Algerian App-based Courier, Interview, 15 April 2021

I had an incident in my first year of working for [a platform company], where I’d gone to a customer’s house who was drunk, who had grabbed me by the arm and asked me to come inside and f**k him. [...] For me it’s been an issue of safety, of discrimination from customers. I’m getting jobs to certain areas [that are rough] [...] there’s a lot of drunk people always outside and when I get a job going there, I’m really afraid by myself as a lone non-binary person just walking down the street there. Someone could attack me; someone could do anything. I definitely feel an issue with the sexual harassment side of things, but also just a fear for my safety in certain areas. Especially at night when it’s getting to this time of year when it’s getting dark out early. 

Phoebe, British App-based Courier, Focus group, 18 January 2021 

The report also highlights key structural drivers that contribute to couriers experiencing these issues and create risk of labour abuse and exploitation. One of these is the one-sided flexibility and high levels of control exerted over workers by the platform. Though the platform companies promise couriers flexibility, we found that this was often limited, with couriers having to work at specific times and in specific locations to earn a decent living. This is linked to platform company policies of over-hiring and paying couriers per drop rather than hourly, which allows them to maintain a large fleet of available couriers willing to accept jobs even at very low rates. Additionally, there is little transparency over how pay is calculated or what actions might lead to terminations, which pushes some workers to accept conditions and treatment they would otherwise denounce.

Another driver of risk identified is the use of the independent contractor model to shift most of the risks and costs usually covered by employers onto couriers, who are also losing out on key benefits meant to protect workers in case of illness, injury, and eventually old age. This loss of employer pension and National Insurance contributions not only affects couriers now but society in the future, as taxpayers will have to cover what companies are not paying for. Outsourcing to independent contractors – acting as one-person companies – allows platforms to avoid being legally responsible for couriers’ wages and conditions, while maintaining significant levels of control. For instance, while pay is unilaterally set by the platforms’ algorithm, with couriers having no say over it, companies have no responsibility when this payment falls below National Minimum Wage.

These issues are permitted by the lack of proactive regulation of the platform economy. The UK legislative framework is lagging behind new forms of employment and the state labour market enforcement system is overly reliant on individuals in this low-paid and precarious sector to clarify their employment status and enforce their rights through Employment Tribunals. In addition to failing to regulate the labour market, other government policy decisions are also acting as drivers of risk for workers, most notably immigration policy. Migrant workers, who are overrepresented in platform work, face barriers stemming from restrictive immigration policies that limit people’s options and ability to push back against the erosion of employment standards, making it more difficult for them to access better protected and regulated work and financial safety nets.

FLEX’s participatory working paper provides evidence of a sector where decent work standards are not being met and a reality far from the ‘digital entrepreneur’ dream that is being sold by platform companies. Much needs to be done to ensure platform work is decent work. With so many people moving into this type of work, we need to ensure that it can offer better protection and security to workers. As one of our research participants put it:

If we accept that the gig economy model is going to continue and expand, then it needs massive new thinking in order to make it a dignified way to work

Survey response, British-Japanese App-based Courier.

It is crucial that any solutions taken forward to address labour abuses and risk of exploitation in the sector are informed by those most affected by them and take into account couriers’ expertise and insight about the factors contributing to and driving risk of labour abuse and exploitation in the app-based delivery sector. 

Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) is a research and policy organisation based in the UK, working towards an end to labour exploitation. This project has been supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.