Thought leadership

Addison Lee has become the latest company to face defeat in court over its treatment of workers as “independent contractors” without rights to holiday pay or the national minimum wage.

The employment judge Joanna Wade issued a damning verdict against the £260m-a-year-turnover minicab firm, ruling that it had unlawfully failed to pay the cycle courier Chris Gascoigne, 48, holiday pay and attacking its attempts to “frighten off” Gascoigne from challenging his employment status.

The ruling at the central London employment tribunal that the cycle courier should be classed as a “worker” follows similar verdicts in cases brought against UberCity SprintExcel and eCourier

It comes as the government considers recommendations from a Downing Street review to bring in a new law that any self-employed worker under “control” or “supervision” from their contracting company should be considered a “dependent contractor” and benefit from holiday pay, sick pay and the minimum wage.

There are now an estimated 1.1 million people in Britain’s gig economy. Addison Lee’s main business involves 5,000 minicab drivers, who it classes as self-employed, but it also has approximately 500 couriers. Around 40 of them use bicycles, like Gascoigne, who delivered parcels in London for Addison Lee for almost seven years before leaving in March.

“I am really happy,” he said. “It is an important verdict. This is a pretty tough job and I think it is only fair considering what we do. The payments don’t justify the fact we don’t have these pretty basic rights.”

The judge highlighted Addison Lee’s use of contradictory language in its contract to avoid the courier being treated as a worker. Workers were given Addison Lee-branded bags and T-shirts, responded to a central controller and used Addison Lee IT devices, including a system that had no “decline” button when a job was offered.

Meanwhile Gascoigne was asked to sign a contract that stated: “You agree that you are an independent contractor and that nothing in this agreement shall render you an employee, worker, agent or partner of Addison Lee.”

Wade said the evidence showed “couriers need to be responsive and work quickly during a tightly controlled working day” and pointed to recruitment material on its website saying “we are proud of our couriers – we’d love you to be part of that”.

She said: “It does not say: ‘We want to find couriers who are independent and work on an ad-hoc basis. If you do account work you [will] be a self-employed sub-contractor and for non-account work we will be your agent so you carry the risk.’ Not only is this confusing and wordy, it is not the way the business ran, or could run, as [Addison Lee] well knew. This is why it employed ‘armies’ of lawyers; to do the best possible job to ensure that the claimant and his colleagues did not have … worker status.”

Wade also said she was saddened that the contract included a clause “designed to frighten him off from litigating”. It stated that he should “indemnify Addison Lee against any liability for any employment-related claim or any claim based on worker status brought by you”. This, said the judge, “suggests they knew the risk of portraying the claimant as self-employed”.

Gascoigne’s case was supported by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain.

Its general secretary, Jason Moyer-Lee, said: “As if we needed any more evidence, today’s judgment once again proves our point. The law is clear, and employers in the so-called gig economy have been choosing to unlawfully deprive their workers of rights. Yet another domino has fallen with regard to the inevitable conclusion that people in the so-called gig economy are workers.”

A spokesman for Addison Lee said: “We note the tribunal’s verdict, which we will carefully review. Addison Lee is disappointed with the ruling as we have always had, and are committed to maintaining a flexible and fair relationship with cycle couriers.”

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