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Amazon workers fight 'most high-profile gig economy case'

The case could make other companies think carefully about their treatment of self-employed workers

Delivery drivers used by Amazon are fighting for improved employment rights, in what is being described as the most high-profile gig economy case to date.

Labour union GMB has announced that it is taking legal action on behalf of its members working for three delivery firms used by Amazon, arguing that the companies have wrongly classified them as self-employed.

The union said that self-employed workers face problems that full-time employees do not, despite carrying out similar duties. The issues raised by self-employed workers include having no right to holiday pay, sick pay, or overtime.

GMB said in a statement that the drivers should be regarded as employees, but “companies used the bogus self-employment model to wrongly deny them employment rights such as the national minimum wage and holiday pay”.

The union added: “The drivers were required to attend scheduled shifts that were controlled by Amazon, meaning they did not have the flexibility that is integral to being self-employed. In this situation the couriers were treated like employees in terms of their working hours, GMB Union contends they should be treated as employees in terms of their rights too.”

Two of the three claimants in the lawsuit are claiming whistleblower status, saying they were dismissed after raising concerns about working practices.

Amazon has faced various allegations over poor working conditions. Most recently, in a members survey by GMB, people described working in their warehouses as “soul-destroying.”

Figures obtained by VICE under the Freedom of Information Act last week found that ambulances had been called 600 times in the past three years in Amazon’s UK warehouses. Amazon has frequently denied the accusations.

In response to the VICE figures, an Amazon spokesperson said: “It is simply not correct to suggest that we have unsafe working conditions based on this data or on unsubstantiated anecdotes.”

The latest legal challenge involving Amazon is one of a string of lawsuits related to the gig economy. In a similar case in October 2016, Uber lost an employment tribunal which had challenged the self-employed status of a group of Uber drivers, with judges deeming them workers.

Neil McKay, senior employment and discrimination lawyer at Leigh Day who are representing drivers on the case, told HR magazine that the case should make other companies examine their use of agencies.

"The case is significant in that it directly addresses the system that Amazon uses. They have tried to distance themselves from these companies, but all three [of the agencies it uses] operate in the same way. Amazon is ultimately in charge of determining the way workers are treated."

McKay added that unions play an important role in protecting gig workers.

"The case shows that the work that unions do is still is incredibly important. Many gig workers are extremely vulnerable to exploitation, a lot of them are too afraid to speak out. I hope that more gig workers will join. There's a real public safety concern, not just for workers, but for others on the roads who could be hurt if Amazon drivers are working while tired."

Amy Richardson, associate solicitor at Coffin Mew, highlighted that this case is being hailed as the most high-profile gig economy case to date, with other companies also likely to change their approach to the self-employed if Amazon does.

“It’s one of many cases we’ve seen from companies who choose to use gig workers," she told HR magazine. "[But] it stands out because of how high profile Amazon is as a company, and the amount of publicity it's received over working practices recently."

Richardson said that, though Amazon wasn't legally responsible for agency workers, it's still morally responsible.

"As Amazon is using intermediary companies it would not legally be responsible to pay compensation if it loses the case, and it has always said that employees can work directly for Amazon if they want to," she said.

"But obviously it isn’t really a good excuse. Amazon chose to use these agencies, and even if it wins the case it would face a huge media backlash. It would likely make other companies think very carefully about their treatment of self-employed workers in the future, and possibly bring about changes for gig economy workers.”