News & Opinion

News & Opinion from United Employment Lawyers. Breaking Barriers • Working Together • Delivering Excellence

Booming gig economy can put workers at risk and they must be properly protected

By Ewan Mowat (pictured) of UEL member firm AC White Solicitors of Ayr.

If you have ever had a takeaway delivered or organised a private cab lift to the airport, you will have touched the gig economy.

The gig economy has emerged over the last few years, creating thousands of jobs for those who want to supply their labour to 
delivery businesses and other
services. Music roadies are part of the gig economy Just as rock musicians are paid for the concerts they perform in and no more, so an army of temporarily employed, powered by social media and downloadable apps, have met a new demand for more convenience and easy assistance.

There are justifiable concerns about the vulnerability of workers in this booming sector. This is part of a broader concern about the erosion of the working rights of individuals and their ability to enforce those rights. With this in mind, we can be heartened by the recent ruling of the Supreme Court over the abolition of Employment Tribunal fees. While this is a profound decision with its impact still being assessed, at its heart it is a victory for fairness in society. And it comes in time to confront many of the abuses that might be emerging in the gig economy. This can only be good news.

The Supreme Court judgment has restated the importance of access of justice as a fundamental cornerstone of our law. This decision has given everyone who believes in fairness and access to justice a genuine boost. We also see this judgment has implications, of course, in other spheres. For example, access to justice remains a live issue in the Brexit debate, in terms of the rights of EU citizens and how they exercise them post Brexit.

The Employment Tribunal fees case, however, also highlights the renewed influence of trade unions within the industrial landscape, embattled as they have been recently, particularly with the passing of the Trade Union Act 2016. It was Unison who kept on fighting the tribunal fees case, despite defeats in the lower courts, before eventually winning in the UK Supreme Court. They will feel emboldened by this success. As we now know, the Employment Tribunal fee regime resulted in a significant decrease in the number of claims coming forward. Many potential claimants with valid claims lost out.

The reduced risk of claims also indirectly encouraged some employers to disregard their legal obligations, reasonably confident that they would get away with it. Unison’s victory is not only a victory for employees. It is a victory for employers that comply with the law. Ultimately, this is a legal rather than a political victory. While politicians of different parties have, in recent years, spoken out against the Employment Tribunal fee regime, it was the Supreme Court that abolished it. We will be watching with renewed interest how our employment law landscape is moulded over the next few years. It is likely to be critical for individuals and employers. Enjoy the gig.