The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which has the largest membership of app-based couriers in the UK, has lost its seven-year battle to win formal collective bargaining rights for Deliveroo riders, of which there are tens of thousands in the country.
The IWGB had argued that riders should be considered as workers rather than as self-employed and therefore would be able to form a collective bargaining unit, citing the European Convention on Human Rights for its legal challenge.
However, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that the contracts Deliveroo has with its riders include arrangements that mean it is not an ‘employment relationship’ that would attract union rights.
It marks a major ruling for the gig economy, which has come under scrutiny for years over claims of low pay and people being exposed to poor working conditions.
Responding to the ruling, the IWGB said it came as a “disappointment”.
“As a union we cannot accept that thousands of riders should be working without key protections like the right to collective bargaining, and we will continue to make that case using all avenues available to us, including considering our options under international law,” it said.
An issue of substitution
Beth Leng, employment lawyer and partner at SA Law, said the Supreme Court’s decision focused almost entirely on the issue of the so-called substitution clause in riders’ contracts that means they can choose other people to finish their orders.
“The court agreed with previous decisions that the power conferred on riders under the new contract to appoint a substitute was “virtually unfettered” – it wasn’t limited to other Deliveroo Riders and applied both before and after delivery. The court concluded: “such a broad power” was “totally inconsistent” with the requirement for personal service,” she said.
“This will no doubt be a blow to campaigners in this area but once again, it underlines the importance of a detailed examination of how these gig economy contracts work in practice.”
The IWGB had argued that the issue of substitution was not good enough reason to deny workers the ability to unionise.
“Flexibility, including the option for account substitution, is no reason to strip workers of basic entitlements like fair pay and collective bargaining rights,” it said.
Tougher measures needed
The Government has urged food delivery firms to introduce tougher vetting measures on its delivery drivers to crack down on illegal workers.
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick met last week with representatives of Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Just Eat to demand stricter controls be implemented to end the practice of unchecked account sharing, so-called substitutions.
Under the current model, the delivery companies make initial checks on those who want to work for them, ensuring their age and their legal right to work in Britain. Once approved, those account holders have a legal right to subcontract deliveries to a substitute who are not checked by the companies.