Delivery driver Hanna-Beth Scaife still remembers when she was a hero, during the first wave of the coronavirus.
“One minute we’re keyworkers, saviours, keeping the country going,” she says. “Everyone’s clapping for us.”
“Nothing. Where’s the support?”
As the second wave approaches, Hanna, who works for Stuart Delivery, a subsidiary of DPD that delivers for McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, says she has no PPE and no guarantee of being safe at work.
“We can end up using around a bottle of hand sanitiser a day, cleaning our hands between 20 deliveries,” she says. “We even have to buy that ourselves.”
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The 24-year-old from Stockton-on-Tees is a wheelchair user and has a number of health conditions and disabilities that mean she is particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. But should she get sick, there is no sick pay, “just the five-week wait for Universal Credit ”.
In a virtual courtroom sitting as the High Court, Mr Justice Chamberlain has this week been considering the rights of front line workers like Hanna in a landmark case brought by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).
If successful, the judicial review would force the Government to extend health and safety protections to all those classed as workers – rather than people who count as “employees”, including millions who work in the gig economy.
Victory for the union would win workers like Hanna a legal right to PPE and to take legal action against employers who dismiss them for refusing to work in dangerous conditions.
Many of these workers – including Uber drivers, cleaners and parcel couriers – were designated “key workers” by the Government during the first wave. They kept our hospitals clean, got staff to work, and even delivered Covid-19 samples. And, as the second wave approaches, the lives and livelihoods of these “precarious workers” are more fragile than ever.
Uber driver Mengistu Jabir, 56, also gave written evidence. “We’ve been let down by everyone,” says Mengistu, who has been a private hire driver for 27 years. “We were getting passengers asking us to take them to hospital, saying ‘I’ve got Covid’. We were giving free lifts, rightly, to NHS workers. But for months we weren’t allowed to demand passengers wear a mask or even that they sit in the back. One of our members who did was reprimanded.
“Most of us were paying £1,000 a month leasing our cars and insurance and have had to work. We had to buy hand sanitiser, masks, disinfectant.”
Mengistu says many worried drivers fitted screens between themselves and their passengers for everyone’s safety but were told to remove them “for health and safety reasons”.
They were told to only use approved screens, “but these are very expensive and quickly sold out”.
Uber introduced a “sit in the back rider policy” on May 27. An Uber spokeswoman said: “The safety of everyone who uses the Uber app is a top priority. During the pandemic, we introduced measures to ensure that every driver on the Uber app could access millions of products, and we have distributed over 1.6 million masks and 200,000 units of cleaning spray and hand sanitiser. We also directly reimbursed drivers if they choose to source these items themselves. Additionally, our partnership Unilever has given drivers free access to hygiene kits, including over a million disposable masks.”
Stuart Delivery says: “The safety and health of our courier partners is very important to us, which is why we have introduced contact-free delivery in our app and shared contact-free guidelines with all the fleet.
“We have implemented a monthly refund policy: a £30 refund on proof of receipt for all protective equipment that they may have bought to keep their vehicles and persons sanitised and safe. On the insurance side, Stuart is partnering with Chubb to offer accident and income protection.”
The TUC estimates around 4.7million people work in the insecure gig economy, and there have been high Covid-19 death rates among these workers, the court heard.
Meanwhile, taxi drivers and chauffeurs have seen some of the highest death rates according to the Office for National Statistics.
Government documents submitted to the court claimed PPE is a “last, not first, resort” and employers were not required to provide PPE to non-employees by law.
A spokesperson for the Health and Safety Executive said: “We are now awaiting the judgment of the High Court in this matter and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The whole experience left Mengistu feeling worried and not valued. “I felt we were not considered to be a part of society,” he says. “Our safety was completely ignored. Every time I worked, I took a risk for myself, my family and anyone I came into contact with. We have a responsibility to be safe for passengers too. But no one else was willing to carry the burden.”
As the economy reacts to the pandemic, more and more workers will be pushed towards precarious employment. As Henry Chango Lopez, the IWGB President says: “In the first wave we applauded key workers for the vital work they were doing. Meanwhile, the Government turned a blind eye as gig economy companies cut corners on health and safety. As a second wave approaches, it’s time for us all to stand by our front line and demand basic protections for those going out to work each day to get us through this crisis.”