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Gig economy: ‘If you don’t work, you can’t eat’ – despair of the zero-hours workforce

5 min read

Minicab driver Zubair Chaudhry used to pick up 12 or 13 passengers a day from Luton airport. Now he and the other 90 Addison Lee drivers working from the airport are lucky if they get two fares a day from the few flights that now land. “We are completely helpless,” he says. “We are working- class people. If we work, we can live. If we don’t work, we can’t live.”

They say they each have to pay £210 a week to rent their vehicle from Addison Lee, and cover their own fuel costs. “We are losing money at the moment – we have to put in cash from our own pocket to rent our cars,” says the 41-year-old. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t know how we are going to put food on the table for our families.”

They are just some of the millions of low-paid workers with precarious livings who stand to gain little from the government’s latest package of emergency measures, which will see company payrolls partly covered by the Treasury in an effort to stop the haemorrhaging of jobs in the economy’s hardest-hit sectors.

Jason Moyer-Lee, general secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, says the government’s response is grossly inadequate because it excludes gig economy workers: “They are writing blank cheques here, there and everywhere and saying they will do ‘whatever it takes’, but precarious workers have been completely left out. There’s nothing in it for couriers or private hire drivers or those in other types of bogus self-employment. It is not clear if the measures even cover zero-hours workers.”

Ministers have urged the nation’s 4.8 million self-employed workers to apply for increased benefits if they lose work or fall ill with the virus. However, the measures announced on Friday only bring universal credit in line with statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week – which the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has admitted he couldn’t live on.

Chaudhry says he would not be able to support his four children on universal credit: “Benefits don’t cover living expenses. If you don’t work then you can’t eat.”

The government’s multibillion-pound intervention has come too late for some workers in the hospitality sector, with industry bodies estimating that around 500,000 jobs have been axed this month.

Many staff at the restaurant chain Carluccio’s have had hours cut or have been laid off. Emanuele Barbaro, who has worked in the Newcastle branch for over six years, has been laid off without pay. “I was here from the first day so it is very emotional,” he says while selling discounted stock outside the restaurant in the city centre. “I hope it is going to reopen soon.”

Barbaro, 37, says the loss of pay will make life difficult for his young family. “We have got a mortgage and we’ve got a little one. We have got another child coming in July,” he says. “Even if they freeze the mortgage payments, there will be only one person to pay all the bills and one more mouth to feed.”

Staff in some of Carluccio’s London restaurants say their contracted hours have been slashed to just four a week. One, who earns around £12 an hour with tips, says higher-earning directors and shareholders should take the hit, rather than low-paid staff. “I will not be able to afford my rent and my bills and food shopping on four hours a week,” she says. “I’m scared.”

Carluccio’s was unavailable for comment yesterday.

An Addison Lee Group spokesperson said: “We are already in the process of exploring ways to alleviate the impact and support the driver base at this difficult time. We are also committed to playing our part in supporting the government in its efforts to manage the situation and help to keep London moving.”

Back at Luton airport taxi rank, Chaudhry has a simple message for the prime minister: “Please look after the people because the economy is shutting down.”

Fears on the frontline

The NHS patient transport driver
Frank Rees works for a private firm contracted to provide patient transport services at Chelmsford’s Broomfield hospital and has just volunteered to drive coronavirus victims to A&E. As his job has been outsourced, he would, if he fell ill, be entitled to statutory sick pay only.

“We’ve got to a situation where people have to step forward to help because it is going to get really, really bad,” he said at the end of gruelling shift. “We will be bringing people to hospital with severe symptoms.”

Rees (not his real name) says he would not be able to survive on £94.25 a week: “I live pretty much hand to mouth as it is, and I already have debts. It is bad that I don’t get proper sick pay normally. But when I’m offering to put my life on the line, it’s completely unacceptable.”

The fast-food employee
Until the government ordered all eat-in restaurants to close last Friday, Melissa Evans usually worked 10-hour shifts at McDonald’s in Wandsworth, south London. She earns £9.45 an hour for doing everything from bagging up food to dealing with customer complaints. Evans is worried about having to take time off if she contracts the virus. “I have lived off sick pay before and it is extremely hard,” she says. “You get into rent arrears. You can’t pay bills. You go into your emergency credit. You basically fall into a spiral of debt.”

Evans’s 13-year-old son has asthma. She wants to keep him safe at home but worries about the financial implications of missing shifts. She says: “If he catches it, he is at risk. But I can’t not go to work because I need the money. It’s an impossible situation.”

McDonald’s says franchisees set their own pay and conditions for staff, but self-isolating staff in company-owned restaurants will receive sick pay based on their average earnings.

The care worker
Margaret Hurst (not her real name) looks after vulnerable elderly people in a care home in Somerset. She loves her job but dreads falling ill because she is entitled to statutory sick pay only.

“There’s no way I could go in if I had any symptoms whatsoever because I would be putting the residents and other staff at risk,” she says.

“But obviously on that amount of money when I’m renting my home and have bills to pay, it’s pretty hard.”

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