Coronavirus: Gig workers sue UK government over support for self-employed

·Finance and policy reporter
IWGB general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee. (Jack Saville via IWGB)
IWGB general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee. (Jack Saville via IWGB)

Two Uber drivers and a union are taking legal action against the UK government, claiming its income support schemes discriminate against gig economy workers.

The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) announced it had filed a legal challenge with Britain’s high court this week, warning government policies risked leaving precarious workers in “unnecessary destitution.”

Millions of UK workers are able to claim for 80% of their usual earnings from the government through two unprecedented income protection schemes designed to tide workers through the crisis.

The union, which has previously taken legal action against Deliveroo and Uber, claims the scheme for the self-employed is “significantly worse” than the scheme for workers with staff jobs.

It says eligible freelance workers face an unacceptable wait until June for support, with applications not yet open. Under the employee scheme, staff wages have typically been paid as normal and refunds are already being processed for hundreds of thousands of firms.

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The claimants argue the self-employed income support scheme (SEISS) also discriminates by excluding anyone newly self-employed in the past year and those who earn less than half their income from self-employment.

The government’s statutory sick pay arrangements also form part of the claim, with the union arguing they discriminate against gig economy workers as firms only have to offer sick pay to regular employees.

The IWGB argues sick pay rules indirectly discriminate against women and ethnic minority workers too, since they are less likely to earn enough to be eligible.

Ahmad Adiatu, an Uber driver making the claim alongside his union, said in a statement via the IWGB that the pandemic had made getting by “impossible.”

He said car maintenance, insurance and the congestion charge could cost more than £1,000 a month in costs borne by the driver rather than the company. “Now I have no money, so can't even renew my private hire license. With virtually no income coming in, we've been struggling to get by and we are behind on our rent.”

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Another Uber driver, Sarja Richards, said in a statement she was behind on her rent and was not earning enough to pay her bills. “The government’s promised assistance is not enough, doesn’t cover the huge expenses we have as Uber drivers and will come too late. How are we expected to survive until June?”

The union’s general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee argued it was “crucial that the shortcomings of the SEISS are fixed so as to avoid further unnecessary destitution.”

Statutory sick pay has never been more important for both workers themselves and wider society to ensure no-one works while sick, he added.

The UK government came under fire when the crisis began over sick pay arrangements, with millions of low earners and the self-employed missing out on support while self-isolating. It has funded several extra days’ sick pay for workers, however.

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A Treasury spokesperson told Yahoo Finance UK the government’s support package was “one of the most comprehensive and generous in the world.”

The government has already begun to contact the self-employed who qualify. After applying they will start to receive cash by 25 May, “well ahead of our original schedule,” he said.

“Those who do not qualify for the SEISS will be able to access a range of other support – including income tax deferrals, £1bn more support for renters and access to three-month mortgage holidays,” he added.

He also said funds had to be targeted to “use public funds responsibly,” helping those most in need and minimising the risk of fraud.

The IWGB had initially planned to take legal action over the lack of a scheme altogether for the self-employed when the employer-based support was first announced. But the support for freelancers was unveiled shortly afterwards. Leigh Day and Old Square Chambers will represent the claimants.

Uber has been approached for comment.