Deliveroo: UK Supreme Court declares riders are not employees

A Deliveroo rider cycling down the road
A Deliveroo rider cycling down the road Copyright DANIEL LEAL/AFP or licensors
By Indrabati Lahiri
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The UK Supreme Court has delivered a landmark ruling for Deliveroo, with huge implications for the rest of the gig economy as well.

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The UK’s Supreme Court has ruled that Deliveroo riders are not employees and therefore, can’t be represented by unions for collective pay negotiation power. 

The judgment comes as a huge blow to workers and the union alike, yet a win for the gig economy in general.

The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has been fighting the case since 2017, when it was first denied permission to represent Deliveroo riders and negotiate salary and working conditions with the company on their behalf.

After being denied, the union launched a number of successive appeals, ultimately landing on the Supreme Court’s doorstep.

However, the court was unmoved, insisting that Deliveroo riders do not fall under the classification of “workers” under UK labour law and have no formal employment contract with the company.

Furthermore, they enjoy an amount of flexibility usually reserved for freelancers, the court said. This includes no barriers to working for competitors, flexible hours and the right to refuse deliveries or have someone else do them on their behalf. 

The benefits are the hallmark of self-employment and are also highly valued by Deliveroo riders, as well as other gig or platform economy workers.

A violation of human rights?

The IWGB is now considering taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to argue that denying riders access to a union may be a violation of their rights.

Under Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, people are free to assemble and associate with others, including by forming trade unions.

Usually, riders or drivers are considered third-party independent contractors, which provides them with some protection against discrimination and illegal wage deductions, as well as entitlements such as a minimum wage. 

However, as contractors, they don’t have employee benefits such as paid holidays, healthcare, pensions and other perks.

There are also concerns about delivery riders having limited means to strengthen their entrepreneurial or professional careers. As such, they can sometimes be heavily dependent upon whichever company they currently work for to look after their best interests.

Unfortunately, one of the prominent features of the gig economy is low pay, as workers turnover is high, especially for seasonal work. This means that there are few chances of climbing up the ladder the same way an employee in a traditional job might do. 

Thus, for gig workers, building experience through the number of projects or jobs they undertake, and solidifying client relationships, is key to ultimately charging higher rates.

Good news for the gig economy

However, the judgment is considered a win for the gig economy, as it continues to preserve the flexibility and ease of working that many freelancers look for. 

It also goes a long way in ensuring that abundant work is available for the workers who do want it, which may not have been the case had stricter employment laws been imposed on companies. 

Overall, the Supreme Court ruling means that Deliveroo is under no legal obligation to engage with trade unions on the matter. 

However, the parties could potentially reach a compromise, with the company volunteering to open dialogue with the GMB Union back in 2021. 

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Although they still consider riders as self-employed for the purposes of the talks, the discussions are anticipated to go a long way in helping them get a few more benefits.

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