Marc Meryon: On-demand economy raises questions around workplace rights

Marc Meryon

New working models emerging from the digital, on-demand economy have given rise to a wave of tribunal cases, with individuals looking to establish the extent of their workplace rights.

Earlier this year, four cycle couriers, supported by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, launched claims in the London Central Employment Tribunal. The first of the crowd-funded cases, against CitySprint, is due to be heard by a judge on 22 November. The other three cases, against eCourier, Excel and Addison Lee, will then follow close on its heels. In the meantime, Uber drivers have been supported by the GMB union to bring claims, with the first scheduled for hearing this summer, again in the London Central Employment Tribunal.

In all of these cases the prize being sought is ‘worker’, or better still ‘employee’, status: the passport to a range of workplace benefits. ‘Workers’ are entitled to the national minimum wage, paid holidays and access to a pension scheme, for example, while ‘employees’ qualify for even more workplace rights, such as statutory sick pay and protection against unfair dismissal.

Such disagreements are not a new phenomenon; courts and tribunals have been ruling on employment status issues since at least the 19th century. Yet only a few hard-and-fast rules have emerged from decades of case law, and often a case turns on the tribunal’s overall impression of the relationship rather than specific criteria. Factors such as the amount of control the organisation has over the individual are weighed in the balance when deciding on which side of the invisible dividing line the individual’s case falls.

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Although we cannot predict the outcome of these cases, other organisations that rely heavily on the ‘on-demand’ freelance workforce should be watching keenly for any emerging trends that could upset their business model.

Marc Meryon is partner at Eversheds Human Resources Practice Group