Gig economy: real people, real stories
If you want to know what’s really going on who better to ask than the people on the frontline? We did just that ... and the results are a frightening indictment of work in modern Scotland
‘When the bosses said jump, we had to say ‘how high?’’
ALAN’S experience of life in the gig economy nearly broke him. The control, the powerlessness – it all piled up and left him on the edge of a nervous breakdown, he says.
Alan worked across Scotland for DPD – probably the best-known courier service in the UK, sending packages around the country on behalf of retail giants like John Lewis and Marks & Spencer. Alan worked for the company – the biggest parcel provider after the Post Office – from 2014.
He saw an advert for an “owner driver franchise” with the company, billed as self-employment, and thought it would be a perfect fit for him. As selfemployed Alan could work when he wanted, have weekends with his family, and be his own boss. Today, Alan describes the job as a “massive lie”.
What Alan experienced is something campaigners call bogus selfemployment – a growing phenomenon in the UK where employers bring someone on as self-employed but treat them as if they were a member of staff. That means they get none of the perks of being staff – they have to pay their own tax and national insurance, and they don’t get sick pay or holiday pay – but all of the drawbacks. “When the bosses said jump, we had to say ‘how high?’,”Alan said.
Alan got only two weeks holiday a year, had to work every Monday to Friday, as well as weekends when ordered, and when he worked there drivers were fined £150 if they took a day off sick. Ruth Lane, the widow of DPD driver Don Lane, is suing the company over her husband’s death. Lane missed medical appointments as he feared the £150 fine. He had diabetes and had been charged by DPD after attending a specialist renal appointment. He went on to miss other appointments. He collapsed twice at work.
His wife says Lane was vomiting blood but still went to work due to his fear of being fined. On the day of his death, he completed his deliveries but suffered a heart attack when he arrived home and later died in hospital. In February, one month after Lane’s death, DPD began to phase out fines and abolished them altogether in July. Alan says: “It is a disgrace that it took the death of a decent man to bring this about. It was a Victorian system.”
Alan also had to hire the van he drove from the company for nearly £800 a month and pay for fuel and repairs. UK Government rules permit a maximum of 11 hours’ driving in any working day – but Alan says he often spent 13 hours behind the wheel.
Like all workers in the gig economy, it was the precarious nature of his employment which left Alan most vulnerable. “We were afraid to say anything. The threat was that you could be dismissed at any moment and told your services were no longer required so we did what we were told – we all have mortgages and mouths to feed,” he said.
Fair employment campaigners, like the Better Than Zero campaign run by the STUC in Scotland, believe many corporations can only generate the profits they do thanks to their employment practices – which often involve no contributions to sick pay, pensions, holidays, tax and national insurance. DPD’s operating profit rose 12 per cent last year to £121 million.
Alan said that, eventually, he “was frightened of what was going to happen to myself and my health. I couldn’t carry on there because of the hours. I don’t like to admit it but I was honestly heading for a breakdown. I was bordering on tearful. I couldn’t even go to the doctor to get help as I’d get hit with a £150 fine”.
He left his role as an “owner driver franchisee” with DPD earlier this year.
‘Management have the power ... staff have very few rights’
WHEN most people think of the gig economy, they think of a Deliveroo cyclist or an Uber driver – people working here and there were they can, earning a living in the new digitallydriven industries. But that view isn’t the whole picture.
First of all, a better description would be precarious employment: people on zero-hours contracts, short-term contracts, seasonal work, casual work, temporary work and some forms of selfemployment – people who don’t know from one day to the next how much work they will be given if any, with many earning the minimum wage. Second, the digital industries are just the tip of the iceberg. Precarious employment hits every sector, but is most common in established sectors like hospitality, where Fay Graham works.
Fay waitresses at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow and is on a zero-hours contract – a contract which guarantees you no working hours. For staff in all sectors, shifts are often changed at the last moment and staff are sent home early if work is quiet – and not paid for the hours they were due to work – and they are often asked and expected to work overtime at short notice.
“It makes it exceptionally hard to manage your life,” says Faye. Staff on these contracts in all employment sectors can see their pay fluctuate wildly depending on how much work they are offered, meaning it is hard to balance domestic finances. Childcare can become problematic if staff are asked to work at short notice, and late-night travel home worries many women staff.
Faye, who is a union activist, said: “Zero-hours contracts give management the power to bully and harass – as staff just have to take it. Management give the hours to the people they think most deserve it. They have the power to do what they want and staff have very little rights if any.”
The owner regularly ‘slaps female staff on the backside’
EMMA, who waitresses at a wellknown restaurant in Glasgow, spoke of the climate of sexism that pervades the hospitality industry for low-paid staff. Young women are often told to wear heels, skirts and make-up, and find that if they don’t comply they can soon see
their shifts vanish. In the restaurant where she works the owner regularly “slaps female staff on the backside”.
She added: “Most are migrant workers with little English and they just take it as they feel it would be too hard to get another job.”
Emma also told of shifts being cancelled at the last minute. In the restaurant where she works the biggest problem is that staff have no contracts at all. There was also delayed payment of wages to staff, short-changing for overtime, and staff being forced into split shifts if the restaurant was quiet – this would see a waitress told to take an unpaid break of two or three hours between lunch and dinner. “It seems like the employment policy is just to treat people like s**t,” she said.
Bad employment practices can also be reflected in a bad attitude to customers. Emma told of cheap brand vodka being decanted as Smirnoff at the restaurant, and wine from unfinished bottles being resold. “I would love to report them to Trading Standards,” she says, “but how many people, including myself, will end up being out of work.” ‘I was sick but did a 14-hour shift as I was scared I’d get no work’ SANDRA also worked in a well-known Glasgow restaurant – she, too, was given no contract. “Within a few weeks, I realised I’d got myself into a bad situation,” she says. Her hours fluctuated hugely – sometimes she worked 20 hours a week, sometimes 50. Like many other waitresses, she found herself ordered home if the restaurant was quiet. After multiple staff departures, she found herself working 15 hour days.
She was one of the few members of staff to receive payslips. Sandra pestered the owners for correct paperwork as she wanted to ensure her tax and national insurance were being paid. Most other staff made no such demands. Suppliers were also paid cash in hand.
“One week we were all paid cash in hand and told that tax was still being paid for us – but how did we know that was true?” Sandra said. “Most of my payslips also had the wrong tax and national insurance information. Other staff who got pay slips found no tax had been taken off them even though they were earning over the threshold. I have no idea what on earth was going on when it came to the taxman.”
There were rodents in the food store – even though the venue has a prestigious reputation among diners. Staff were too scared to speak up about the problems all around them. “There were cases were people stood up to the bosses and they just didn’t get another shift. There were days when I was sick but came in and did a 14-hour shift as I was scared I would get no more work. Basically, the bosses were like greedy factory owners from the 19th century – they couldn’t get enough money and they didn’t care about staff.”
Sandra also spoke of bullying. On one occasion, staff had brought in their own food as they were working at a wedding reception all day. They left their lunches in bags in the staff room. A director tied the bags together and took bets on how long it would take hungry staff to get their food. “The impression you got is that we were not human in their eyes,” says Sandra.
Another member of staff describes her time at the restaurant as a “nightmare”. She had no contract, her pay was late and she was given no payslip.
“Throughout my time there [the owners] consistently treated us like slaves, talked to us as though we were children and obviously considered us lesser human beings who didn’t deserve to be paid for the hard work we put in to keeping their business afloat.” ‘I have no idea how a waitress can be seen as self-employed’ GWEN Garret is 23 and now doing her masters degree in medieval history – but until recently she worked in one
precarious job after another. “They were all terrible in their own way,’” she says. “Most jobs were paying illegally with cash in hand. I would ask for payslips and most refused.
“There was a factory job – they paid with a payslip. A cafe – that was cash in hand. A kebab place – that was cash in hand. A whisky bar – they paid with payslips. A sushi place – they also refused to pay with a payslip.”
Nerys, another masters student, also had a succession of precarious jobs – but her worst experience came when she worked for a social enterprise. Social enterprises are meant to help good causes – an example of a social enterprise doing what they are meant to do would be the Big Issue magazine which runs as a business but helps the homeless. Often, social enterprises get financial breaks and incentives from Government.
The social enterprise that Nerys fell foul of was a cafe with a side venture to help the elderly and disabled. First of all, Nerys was caught up in another case of bogus self-employment. She was given a job as a waitress but told by the owners that she was self-employed so would have to look after her own tax and national insurance, and would get no staff benefits such as sick pay or holiday pay. She was also paid cash in hand, earning the minimum wage.
“I have no idea how a waitress can be considered self-employed, but I needed the work,” she said. “This was the most dodgy place I ever worked for. I also had all the downsides of a zero-hours contract – so I didn’t now how many hours I was getting or when I would get called on to work.”
Nerys said she worked for four months at the social enterprise and saw one person in all that time come to use the services for the disabled and elderly.
The STUC’s Better Than Zero campaign is investigating this social enterprise and others.
‘I ended up with anxiety – sitting in bed crying at night’
BELINDA was just 16 when she went to work as a waitress in a well-known Scottish restaurant. She experienced the usual zero-hours problems – random hours, unpaid overtime, tips not paid, split shifts – and was also paid cash in hand. However, the schoolgirl was also touched inappropriately by a member of staff, and when she told her employer he said “just stand up for yourself”. No other action was taken.
Kyle Scott also began working in hospitality aged just 16 and pulled pints in many bars around the central belt, where all of his employment was under a zero-hours contract. “It was always very difficult to get a day off as you’d be seen as a hindrance and the boss would just start cutting your shifts. I’ve seen people ask for a day off and just get told to get to f***,” he said.
He also spoke of sexual harassment of female staff by customers. “Young women would go to speak to the manager and be told ‘look we need their revenue, they need to stay in the pub’. So they aren’t kicked out. It happens widely across the hospitality industry.
“If you are injured or sick or sexually harassed you say nothing as that could put you out of work – we basically have no rights. You drop everything do to what the boss says – as if you don’t, then you are scared you will never get a shift again.
“I ended up with an anxiety disorder – sitting in bed crying at night as I didn’t know what shifts I was getting so I couldn’t plan my life. It was mentally and physically exhausting.”
Some weeks Kyle would work 70 hours, at other times he went without a shift for three weeks. “You have to suck up to the boss to get shifts, and that’s grim as you are put in direct competition with your peers and friends to see who gets the most shifts.
“One of my biggest memories is the number of people breaking down crying. I’d see that at least a few times a day as people were so mentally exhausted. We even had a joke that there was a ‘no crying in the glass wash’ rule.”
Kyle is now working for Strathclyde students’ union after graduating and loves his new job in campaigns and policy. “It’s a genuine breath of fresh air,” he says, “it is the first time I have ever been happy going to work. The contrast is from black to white.”
‘I want to make certain that other people don’t get stung like me’
JOSH Philliban had his taste of precarious employment in a pop-up food store – another sector heavily reliant on zero-hours contracts. He wasn’t paid a penny for a month’s work, he says – and is still in dispute with his employer, who can’t be named for this reason.
Josh says he worked nearly all of June and was owed almost £700. When he tried to get what he was owned, his employer hit him with allegations of theft, which Josh claims are lies.
The row got uglier last week after The Herald on Sunday began trying to find out what had been going on. “Josh said: ‘I just want to make certain that other people don’t get stung like me.”
‘Our tax pounds are propping up this system’
AMAZON has courted more than a little controversy as an employer – and no-one knows more about what the giant gets up to than Jim McCourt, one of Scotland’s most determined campaigners for employment rights, and the manager of Inverclyde Advice and Employment Rights Centre near Amazon’s Greenock plant.
This is one of his busiest times of year as sub-contracted agency workers are drafted in to Amazon to work on the Christmas rush. “The worst and sharpest employment practices are bred in the sub-contract culture,” McCourt says. “This is fundamental to how abuse and control takes place.”
Agency workers, says McCourt, are dismissed for the slightest infractions, such as too many toilet breaks or if they can’t make overtime. “They will get a phone call from the agency,” McCourt says, “and be told they are not required back. That terrifies the rest of the workforce.”
It also plunges people into poverty, says McCourt – as many agency
Faye Graham is one of many people to have experienced precarious work in hospitality. From irregular hours to harassment by customers, the list of issues in this sector is long
Kyle Scott, top, and Josh Philliban both suffered the effects of working in precarious hospitality jobs. Main picture: warehouse work is an area notorious for its employment practices