As the coronavirus grips the world economy, governments and
businesses are considering increasingly drastic action. But as
companies move forward with plans to look after employees via
self-isolation and remote working, spare a thought for the UK’s
5 million self-employed gig economy workers. We take a look at the
impact of the virus on these individuals, the legal position, and
what employers and gig workers can do to mitigate the
Impacting the ability to work
Last week, Twitter wrote to all 4,000 of its global
employees ‘strongly encouraging’ them to work from home for
the foreseeable future. Google Ireland effectively closed its office over fears that an employee
may have been exposed to the virus. Technology is certainly at hand
to enable some types of employees to continue to work during office
shut-downs, minimising the impact to business.
Many gig workers, however, aren’t able to do their work from
home. Taxi drivers, couriers, food delivery cyclists and shop floor
staff on zero-hours contracts all work jobs which involve a high
level of human contact. They also share another important trait: no
relationship of employment exists between them and the companies
which engage them to work.
By being classed as self-employed, companies have no obligation
to provide gig workers with any work, and no obligation to provide
or even suggest alternative methods of working. We have already
started to see this in the context of the coronavirus when Uber suspended the account of the driver who took a
patient to hospital who was later diagnosed with the virus.
What the law says
Due to their self-employed status, gig workers are not eligible
for statutory sick pay (SSP). For employees, the government has
announced a raft of temporary measures which provide for
SSP to begin immediately (rather than the usual 4 day gap) and be
payable even if the employee is not actually sick (i.e. are
self-isolating). None of these measures apply to gig workers, whom
the government says should seek support via the benefits system.
Whilst payments are being sped up and certain restrictions on
claiming are temporarily relaxed, navigating the complex benefits
system will be unfamiliar territory to many of the self-employed.
There ultimately remains no statutory support for workers in the
The 2017 Taylor Review made 53 recommendations to
address the gap in workers’ rights, with Theresa May’s
government agreeing to implement all but one of them, and go even
further in certain areas. However, a change in the executive and
the resource-vampire that is Brexit has pushed any legislation to
the side lines. In a Brexit double-whammy, the EU have started to
look into legislation to protect gig workers, but the UK will
almost certainly not be required to implement EU legislation by the
time it is finalised.
Mitigating the impact
Although those who take up gig work as an extra source of income
are likely to value their health over the extra cash, the reality
is that, for many, gig work is their sole source of income. Many
gig workers are also young and therefore less likely to exhibit
symptoms and more likely to need the cash – exacerbating the
spread of the virus by continuing to work.
Companies are encouraged to support their gig workers by
exercising discretion to provide sick pay to those struck off with
the virus or in precautionary quarantine. Other forms of support,
including the provision of protective equipment and a commitment to
discussing cases on an individual basis are also welcomed.
Companies should also be wary of action from Trade Unions, who have hit back at companies enforcing
self-isolation on gig workers.
Gig workers should ensure they have their own health and that of
their co-workers and customers at the forefront of their minds. If
exhibiting the relevant symptoms, individuals should stay at home
and seek advice and support from NHS 111 and the company they work
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.