Coronavirus UK: unions warn over lack of sick pay for gig economy workers
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.”