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At risk in the pandemic: ‘self-employment’ leaves app-based couriers without protections

December 18, 2020

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Alberico Ricci, FLEX’s Peer Coordinator, is carrying out participatory research with migrant app-based couriers on the issues they face at work, the factors that create vulnerability or resilience to exploitation, and what changes workers want to see from the government and employers. His work is part of a three-year research project into working conditions in low-paid and precarious sectors funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

This International Migrants Day, FLEX is highlighting issues faced by workers in the app-based courier sector. App-based couriers – a high proportion of whom are migrants – have been at the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic, delivering food and parcels to allow others to keep safe and the economy to keep going. Yet, because they are classed as self-employed, app-based couriers are themselves left unprotected against the economic and health risks they are protecting the rest of us from.

No employment rights or access to social protections

The main reason that app-based couriers[1] are left unprotected is because they are classed as self-employed. Employment law in the UK does not cover self-employed workers, meaning they are not entitled to basic protections such as the minimum wage, sick pay, trade union recognition rights or pensions.

Our research is uncovering the impact this is having on workers. Daniel[2], a young courier from Eastern Europe, told FLEX he did not know if he could continue working as an app-based courier:

The money is okay now, but I am not sure for how much longer. A real problem is that we don’t get a pension.

Delivery drivers are paid per order and the amount paid fluctuates, usually downwards, making it difficult to calculate how much one will be earning.

In addition to insecure wages, being classed as self-employed creates other financial risks for app-based couriers. For the workers doing research with us, the most significant financial risk involves their delivery vehicles. Self-employed couriers must source their own vehicles, either buying or renting them, and are usually responsible for the costs if they break down or are stolen. The sudden economic shock of having to pay for repairs or a new vehicle, combined with a loss of earnings due to not being able to work, puts people in a vulnerable financial situation.

Vehicle theft is a common experience for couriers, as are assaults, which translates into an often-dangerous working environment. Moe, another courier involved in the research, said that he felt unsafe everyday while working:

On four occasions they have tried to steal my motorbike. One time it was at a petrol station with a machete. Another friend of mine was attacked with acid.

These grave security and safety issues are made worse by the fact that self-employed couriers have such low and insecure pay and are not entitled to work-related social safety nets, such as sick pay, that would help protect them from economic shocks created by their working conditions. This is particularly true for migrant workers who face barriers to accessing not only work-related protections, but also non-work-related ones, such as Universal Credit, due to no recourse to public funds conditions on their visas or, in the case of EU nationals, having to pass the Habitual Residence Test. We are researching to what extent this lack of access to support might put couriers at risk of labour exploitation, for instance by tying them into debt bondage.

By classifying app-based couriers as self-employed, delivery companies are able to shift financial risks and costs onto workers, avoiding the usual responsibilities of employers.

Misclassification of workers

Since many of the issues faced by app-based couriers stem from being classed as self-employed, it is important to understand where this classification comes from and whether it is valid. Workers are self-employed if they are ‘a business for themselves and enter into contracts with clients or customers to provide work or services for them’. The majority of app-based couriers are classed as self-employed, yet this has been disputed numerous times on the basis that they must wear the company’s uniform and work fixed time slots.

The classification – or ‘misclassification’ – of workers as self-employed comes with a number of financial and administrative advantages for companies adopting this model. In a parliamentary commission inquiry in 2017, headed by Rachel Reeves, the ex-Deliveroo executive Dan Warne admitted the company would have to pay a substantial amount (around an additional £1 per hour) just to cover their couriers’ national insurance contributions. There is therefore a substantive interest for delivery companies to make sure couriers remain classed as self-employed.

While delivery companies argue that self-employment is the only way to grant workers the freedom and flexibility to choose when to work, they have notoriously fought legal battles over other possible classifications that would provide couriers with improved employment rights but also flexibility in deciding working hours. In the majority of cases these legal disputes have taken the form of workers arguing that they should be classified as ‘limb b workers’, a form of self-employment that acknowledges that a worker is preforming a service as part of someone else’s business. As limb b workers, couriers would be entitled to the National Minimum Wage, statutory minimum length rest breaks, and protection against discrimination and unlawful deductions from wages, among other rights. Disputes over employment status are widespread in the courier industry. Some cases have resulted in the judge concluding in favour of re-classifying the self-employed workforce as ‘limb b’ workers, such as in Warren vs Stuart Delivery Limited 2019. Others have agreed with the classification of workers as self-employed, such as in B v Yodel Delivery Network Ltd 2020.

Protect couriers in the pandemic

The COVID 19 pandemic has disproportionally hit the most vulnerable workers in the UK, and app-based couriers are no exception. The self-employment model, on which delivery companies rely, allows companies to profit by shifting the risks and costs usually covered by employers onto individual couriers. It makes the workforce vulnerable to financial destitution, as highlighted by the experiences of the couriers who have so far participated in FLEX’s research.

Recognising couriers as ‘limb b workers’ would be an initial step towards improving their employment rights, including health and safety protections: a high court judgment in 2020 ruled that the UK government had failed to properly implement EU health and safety directives and must now extend health and safety to ‘limb b’ and other precarious workers. In addition, couriers should be entitled to other social protections, such as sick pay, in order to ensure this high-risk group of workers is not left vulnerable during the pandemic and beyond. The UK is currently one out of just four countries in Europe where the self-employed are not entitled to any kind of sick pay.

If you are an app-based courier interested in taking part in this research, please take our survey or contact us through [email protected].

[1] App-based couriers are those working for digital platforms (e.g. UberEats, Deliveroo, AmazonFlex etc.)

[2] All names in the blog have been changed to protect the privacy of research participants.