Amazon latest to face UK complaint over ‘bogus self-employment’

Amazon is the latest tech giant to be targeted by a legal challenge in the UK related to gig economy working practices.

The UK’s GMB Union is filing suit on behalf of couriers for three delivery companies used by Amazon — accusing the suppliers of making bogus claims that the delivery drivers were self employed, and thus denying them employment rights such as the national minimum wage and holiday pay.

The three Amazon suppliers in question are: Prospect Commercials Limited, Box Group Limited and Lloyd Link Logistics Limited.

The GMB Union says one of the drivers involved in the case recounted his experience of leaving the house at 6am, not returning from work until 11pm — and still having £1 per undelivered parcel deducted from his wages.

On more than one occasion the driver was also told he would not be paid if he did not complete a route — and it said he had sometimes driven when “half asleep at the wheel” in order to ensure he got paid.

Two of the three claimants in the lawsuit are also claiming whistleblower status, saying they were dismissed after they raised concerns about working practices. Among their claims are that —

  • the number of parcels allocated to drivers resulted in excessive hours and/or driving unsafely to meet targets;
  • drivers were expected to wait a significant time to load their vans, extending their working hours;
  • drivers were driving whilst tired, which posed a threat to their safety and other road users; and
  • drivers were being underpaid and not being paid amounts that they were contractually entitled to

The GMB Union says these whistleblowing claims are also being brought directly against Amazon on the basis that it was the company who determined the way the drivers should work.

In a statement, Tim Roache, GMB general secretary, told us: “Amazon is a global company that makes billions. It’s absolutely galling that they refuse to afford the people who make that money for them even the most basic rights, pay and respect. The day-to-day reality for many of our members who deliver packages for Amazon, is unrealistic targets, slogging their guts out only to have deductions made from their pay when those targets aren’t met and being told they’re self-employed without the freedom that affords.

“Companies like Amazon and their delivery companies can’t have it both ways — they can’t decide they want all of the benefits of having an employee, but refuse to give those employees the pay and rights they’re entitled to. Guaranteed hours, holiday pay, sick pay, pension contributions are not privileges companies can dish out when they fancy. They are the legal right of all UK workers, and that’s what we’re asking the courts to rule on.”

Amazon UK declined to answer any specific questions but a spokesperson sent us this statement:

Our delivery providers are contractually obligated to ensure drivers they engage receive the National Living Wage and are expected to pay a minimum of £12 per hour, follow all applicable laws and driving regulations and drive safely. Allegations to the contrary do not represent the great work done by around 100 small businesses generating thousands of work opportunities for delivery drivers across the UK.

Amazon is proud to offer a wide variety of work opportunities across Britain—full-time or part-time employment, or be your own boss. Last year we created 5,000 new permanent jobs on top of thousands of opportunities for people to work independently with the choice and flexibility of being their own boss—either through Amazon Logistics, Amazon Flex, or Amazon Marketplace.

The legal challenge is just the latest in the UK related to gig economy employment classifications. The most high-profile to date involves Uber — which in October 2016 lost an employment tribunal which had challenged the self-employed status of a group of Uber drivers, with judges deeming them to be workers.

Uber has also since lost an appeal against the ruling but is continuing to appeal. Yet at the same time the company has announced personal injury and illness insurance products for drivers and riders in region — in what looks very much like an effort to shrink its legal liabilities as gig economy conditions come under increased legal and political scrutiny in Europe.

Complaints related to gig economy working conditions — and including delivery companies specifically — have been facing parliamentary scrutiny in the UK for many months now.

In parallel, the UK government has been reviewing employment law, including to take account of technology-driven changes to work and working patterns. And in February it announced a package of labor market reforms intended to “build an economy that works for everyone” — with the government making itself accountable for what it dubbed “good quality work” not just the quantity of jobs that are available.

The reforms were billed as expanding workers rights — with the government claiming that “millions” of workers would get new day-one rights, as well as having their rights bolstered by tougher enforcement for sick and holiday pay.

Although it also announced four consultations to help feed the reforms. So their full and final shape isn’t clear yet. And court decisions flowing from gig economy legal challenges are likely to be influential in shaping the future employment law.

Amazon has faced other concerns related to its working practices in the UK. Earlier this month the FT reported on a separate GMB Union investigation related to working practices inside Amazon’s UK warehouses — which have been the focus of long-standing concerns over pay and working conditions.

The union filed Freedom of Information requests with ambulance services near the warehouses and said it found that ambulances had been called to the centers 600 times in the last three years. According to its investigation there were 115 call-outs to just one Amazon center, in Rugeley, near Birmingham, which employs more than 1,800 people. Whereas it said it found just eight ambulance calls over the same period from a nearby Tesco warehouse — where 1,300 people work.

However Amazon told the newspaper that most of the call-outs were associated with “personal health events”, rather than being work related, adding: “It is simply not correct to suggest that we have unsafe working conditions based on this data or on unsubstantiated anecdotes.”