A union that represents gig economy workers is taking legal action against the government for its alleged failure to ensure the health and safety of independent workers is protected.
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has sent a pre-action protocol letter to the Department for Work and Pensions, stating that it intends to bring legal proceedings as it believes the UK has failed in its obligation to transpose health and safety directives from the EU into UK law.
Coronavirus risk and safety
Under EU law, all working people – including those classified as “workers” – are offered health and safety protections, including the right to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). However, only “employees” are entitled to such protections under UK legislation.
The UK is required to comply with EU legislation until the Brexit transition period ends in December 2020.
The IWGB intends to bring a judicial review which, if lost by the government, would force health and safety protections to be extended to at least 4.7 million gig economy workers in the UK, the union claimed.
“As the government looks to ease the lockdown in the midst of the pandemic, health and safety at work has never been more important,” said IWGB general secretary Jason Moyer-Lee.
“It is crucial that exploitative employers… know they must protect the health and safety of their workers and that the government brings the criminal prosecutions necessary to enforce this law. The UK is already compelled by EU law to extend health and safety protections to workers; it’s a shame the government would rather litigate than comply.”
In a letter, which is understood to have been passed to the government’s legal department and the Health and Safety Executive, IWGB’s lawyers claimed that its members – which include cleaners, taxi drivers and couriers working on the frontline of the Covid-19 crisis – were “being placed at risk of serious harm by the organisations that they work for failing to ensure their health and safety and failing to provide them with personal protective equipment”.
It added: “The UK has failed to effectively transpose Directive-derived health and safety obligations into UK law. As a result, neither union members nor companies have a clear and precise understanding of their legal obligations to ensure health and safety and to provide personal protective equipment; workers are placed at risk of serious
harm and have no proper protection from detriment or termination of engagements.”
A HSE spokesperson said UK health and safety law requires employers to protect workers on “non-standard contracts” as they do their employees.
“The health, safety and wellbeing of all of those who go to work is what drives our purpose every day. This has clearly been an area we have been following closely, and will continue to monitor, in order to identify and explore possible health and safety impacts. But there are no immediate plans for the legislation to change,” the spokesperson said.
“As long as the duty of managing risks is undertaken diligently following the existing guidance, all of those who work should be reassured they can go home healthy and safe.”
The IWGB is also taking legal action over alleged “discrimination” in the government’s coronavirus income support schemes. It said ‘limb (b) workers’ were not being offered the same protections as employees, which the union claimed disproportionately affects BAME workers and women in the gig economy.
Dr Hina J Shahid, chair of the Muslim Doctors Association, said: “Migrant and ethnic minority communities are more likely to be key workers in the informal sector without access to health, safety and income protection.
“The prevailing attitude that not all lives matter equally, doesn’t just mean escalated rates of death and serious illness amongst these groups. It also poses a grave threat to public health and heightens everyone’s risk of infection. Our ability to control the spread of this virus will depend directly on the rights and protections given to all those on the frontline.”
A spokesperson for the IWGB said it expected a response on health and safety issues from the government’s legal advisers by 18 May.