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GMB v Bolt: Is the gig finally up?

This month, trade union GMB has pledged to launch legal action against app-based taxi company Bolt regarding the status of its workers.

It has become the latest in a string of similar claims relating to the gig economy, where individuals are engaged by businesses on a flexible and ad hoc basis. 

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These claims predominantly relate to whether such workers are employees, workers or, as claimed by the companies, self-employed. The distinction is important. If an individual is categorised as an employee or a worker, they are entitled to employment protection rights not available to the genuinely self-employed.

Bolt considers its drivers as self-employed. Whilst this theoretically means they have greater flexibility to work as and when they want and the freedom to work for other companies, it also means they are deprived of key rights, such as the right to national minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay and pension contributions.

The action being pursued against Bolt by the GMB trade union illustrates the impact of the recent Supreme Court decision of Aslam v Uber in 2021. The Uber decision confirmed the diminishing relevance of the written contract between driver and company and that the reality of the situation will be more important.

In that case, the drivers were deemed to be workers and entitled to national minimum wage, holiday pay and other rights. The case attracted substantial publicity and those working in the gig economy will now be more alert to their rights following the publicity, which is likely to increase the risk of claims.

GMB has contacted Bolt and sought a voluntary recognition agreement which includes collective bargaining and voluntary worker status for Bolt’s drivers. The union’s statement reads:

“Bolt needs to wake up and accept its responsibility to its drivers. Other companies have done the right thing, why can’t Bolt?”

“Guaranteed hours, sick pay, pension contributions – these aren’t privileges to be bestowed when companies feel like it, they are the legal right of all UK workers.”

GMB has also said that proceedings against Bolt will be lodged with the employment tribunal in London.

In response, a Bolt spokesperson said: “We regularly engage with drivers across the UK who say they like our existing model because it gives them the opportunity to earn more.”

There are, of course, commercial reasons why apps like Bolt will continue to refuse GMB’s recognition and will likely defend any legal action taken against them.

Acknowledging that drivers have employment rights will make Bolt’s business model more expensive. For example, App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) has launched a claim in the London central employment tribunal claiming that Uber drivers are owed in the region of £500 million in back pay for minimum wage and holiday.

It is expected that Uber will pay out additional costs incurred due to the Aslam decision by increasing the commission they take from drivers and/or by increasing fares for their passengers. This makes Uber less appealing to both drivers and consumers, which is precisely what Bolt will be concerned about as a consequence of the legal action being taken against it.

Susan Thompson is partner and employment disputes lawyer and Andrew Czechowski is an associate at Simkins.