Coronavirus UK: unions warn over lack of sick pay for gig economy workers | World news

The government has been accused of failing to grasp the threat of gig economy workers spreading coronavirus, after a minister advised those with no sick pay who have to self-isolate to claim benefits instead.

Downing Street is under huge pressure from trade unions and Labour to promise statutory sick pay to all workers when it unveils its coronavirus action plan, due to be published on Tuesday.

But Justin Tomlinson, a work and pensions minister, said the current advice for workers with no sick pay who suspect they have the disease was to claim universal credit – which can take up to five weeks to come through. The alternative would be employment and support allowance, which requires claimants to have two to three years of National Insurance contributions.

The gig economy is based on temporary or freelance jobs. Often these are offered by app-based services like Uber or Deliveroo, where instead of a regular wage, workers get paid for the ‘gigs’ they do. If they aren’t out working, they aren’t getting paid.

Companies offering this kind of work argue that it provides people with a flexible way to be employed, whether that means doing some extra work on the side to fund studying, or to work around childcare demands.

A major drawback for workers though is the lack of protection and paid benefits such as holiday or sick pay. There are also suggestions that by the time some companies have taken a cut of payments for a service, workers aren’t making the minimum wage.

And the roles aren’t always as flexible as they first appear, with gig workers incentivised and put under pressure to work at times when a service is busier.

In 2018 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 55 million people in the US workforce  were ‘gig workers’ – more than 35% of the market.

In the UK the gig economy more than doubled in size in the three years leading up to 2019, when it  accounted for 4.7 million workers. Up to one in seven working-age adults in the UK – about 7.5 million people – have worked via a gig economy platform at some point.

Trade unions said the government’s proposal was wholly inadequate, and warned that up to two million workers with no sick pay may not be able to afford to self-isolate for two weeks if they develop symptoms.

They said those affected – including some care workers, hospitality staff and delivery drivers – could potentially hide their illness rather than lose pay, which could risk worsening any outbreaks.

Christina McAnea, Unison assistant general secretary, said: “If they stay off work, staff need to know they have enough money to feed their families and pay rent. Waiting up to five weeks to get benefits runs the risk of them covering up symptoms.”

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Sue Harris, GMB legal director, added: “For workers, or the self employed, making a claim for universal credit is laborious and lengthy. If the government is serious about containing the virus it has to take steps to make sure people are able to self-isolate without the added concern of how they will pay their bills.”

A Downing Street source said the government was thinking about how to deal with the problem, hinting that there could be more support for those with no sick pay announced soon.

But in a parliamentary answer on Monday, Tomlinson told Labour MP Alex Sobel that the current advice for gig economy and agency workers was to turn to the welfare system.

What is universal credit?

Universal credit (UC) is the supposed flagship reform of the benefits system, rolling together six benefits into one, online-only system. The theoretical aim, for which there was general support across the political spectrum, was to simplify the system and increase the incentives for people to move off benefits into work. About 2 million people are currently in receipt of UC. More than 6 million will be on the benefit by the time it is fully rolled out.

How long has it been around?

The project was legislated for in 2011 under the auspices of its most vocal champion, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith. The plan was to roll it out by 2017. However, a series of management failures, expensive IT blunders and design faults mean it is now seven years behind schedule, and rollout will not be complete until 2024. The government admitted that the delay was caused in part by claimants being too scared to sign up to the new benefit.

What is the biggest problem?

The original design set out a minimum 42-day wait for a first payment to claimants when they moved to UC (in practice this is often up to 60 days). After sustained pressure, the government announced in the autumn 2017 budget that the wait would be reduced to 35 days from February 2018. This will partially mitigate the impact on many claimants of having no income for six weeks. The wait has led to rent arrears and evictions, hunger (food banks in UC areas report notable increases in referrals), use of expensive credit and mental distress. 

Ministers have expanded the availability of hardship loans (now repayable over a year) to help new claimants while they wait for payment. Housing benefit will now continue for an extra two weeks after the start of a UC claim. However, critics say the five-week wait is still too long and want it reduced to two or three weeks.

Are there other problems?

Plenty. Multibillion-pound cuts to work allowances imposed by the former chancellor George Osborne mean UC is far less generous than originally envisaged. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, about 2.5m low-income working households will be more than £1,000 a year worse off when they move to UC, reducing work incentives.

Landlords are worried that the level of rent arrears accrued by tenants on UC could lead to a rise in evictions. It’s also not very user-friendly: claimants complain the system is complex, unreliable and difficult to manage, particularly if you have no internet access.

And there is concern that UC cannot deliver key promises: a critical study found it does not deliver savings, cannot prove it gets more people into work, and has plunged vulnerable claimants into hardship.

“Those whose employers ask them to stay away from the workplace due to coronavirus concerns, who do not qualify for Statutory Sick Pay, may be able to claim universal credit and/or new-style employment and support allowance,” he said.

Sobel, who himself had to self-isolate for two weeks, said the advice was “outrageous” and called on the government to take the situation more seriously.

A government spokeswoman said hardship payments were available for people who could not afford the wait for universal credit.

She added: “Employers have been urged to make sure they use their discretion and respect the medical need to self-isolate in making decisions about sick pay.

“Anyone not eligible to receive sick pay is able to claim universal credit and/or contributory employment and support allowance.”

More than a million workers in the UK gig economy on platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo face a choice of either continuing to work with symptoms that could mean they have the virus or lose all their earnings.

Many are in public, highly mobile roles visiting hundreds of addresses every week delivering parcels and takeaways and carrying passengers in minicabs.

“Self employed people are not eligible for sick pay,” said a spokesperson for Hermes, one of the UK’s largest parcel delivery firms. “If our self-employed couriers have to self-isolate we will support them in finding someone to deliver on their behalf if they do not have a substitute. Hermes will also guarantee that their rounds will be kept open for them for when they return.”

One courier for its rival courier giant DPD told the Guardian: “People have all said they won’t report symptoms, they will just carry on working. People never take time off DPD when they have flu and not earn any money. I just use Dettol wipes on my scanner throughout the day, and moan at people that are off ill and sitting at home ordering things because they are bored.”

DPD, which treats its couriers as self-employed franchisees, is not offering sick pay. A spokesman said: “We are providing advice to all our drivers, which includes encouraging them to follow the standard preventative measures and talking to their relationship manager if they have any specific concerns.”

However, Deliveroo which uses self-employed couriers to deliver takeaways, is considering offering financial support to affected riders in the UK as it has done in Hong Kong, it said.

Uber has told drivers with any mild illness, respiratory symptoms, or a fever to stay at home but declined to respond when asked if it would provide any sick pay to drivers to ensure they don’t press on with work regardless.

“We remain in close contact with local public health organisations and will continue to follow their recommendations,” a spokesperson for the ride-hailing app said.

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