Technology

UK court rules Deliveroo couriers aren’t employees

After several rounds in court, Amazon-backed food delivery service Deliveroo has won the right to continue classifying its couriers as self-employed.

The case concerned the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain’s attempt to unionize a portion of the service’s delivery riders operating around Camden. While law obviously differs between the US and UK, a similar throughline in these types of cases is proving (or disproving) the amount of direct control the platforms have over their contractors — the more meddling into how, where, and when generally translates to a stronger case that these workers are, in fact, misclassified employees.

The UK Court of Appeals, however, was convinced that a newer version of the Supplier’s Agreement, which Deliveroo pushed out to couriers a few weeks before the initial case hearing in 2017, allowed enough latitude that workers could still be considered self-employed. Even still, “it is reasonable to infer that Deliveroo’s reason for making the change was to strengthen its position in the context of IWGB’s claim for recognition,” the court wrote in its opinion, since the earlier Supplier’s Agreement “involved much more control and direction by Deliveroo –strict uniform requirements, a different attitude to substitutes and in other significant respects.”

Eleventh hour terms of service changes in the face of a legal challenge are par for the course with many gig economy companies, as Uber’s own “project Luigi” rather infamously demonstrated.

What cinched the win for Deliveroo, in this case, was it’s hands-off approach to riders subcontracting the deliveries they accepted. Even this, though, comes with a litany of caveats, as the court enumerated, including:

  • Notifying the company if your subcontractor is using a different vehicle than you
  • Being responsible for your subcontractor completing training through Deliveroo
  • Being unable to subcontract someone who [emphasis ours] “previously had their Supplier Agreement terminated by Deliveroo for a serious or material breach of contract or who (while acting as a substitute, whether for you or a third party) has engaged in conduct which would have provided grounds for termination had they been a direct party to a Supplier Agreement”

A lower court also previously found that “in practice substitution is rare as there is no need for a Rider to engage a substitute.”

Nevertheless, Deliveroo had its day in court and has seemingly come out the victor, in spite of similar upsets in the UK with regard to Uber.

After a protracted court battle, Uber drivers were ruled to be eligible for minimum wage, holiday time, and other benefits earlier this year; two months later, those same drivers were able to obtain collective bargaining rights and join a union — although in both cases, these wins were not extended to couriers with Uber’s Eats program. Strangely, that ruling did not seem to have any bearing on the plight of Deliveroo’s riders. The judges in the Deliveroo appeal even went so far as to say they were unaware of any “cases where persons who were not in an employment relationship had been found to fall within the scope of the trade union freedom right.”

As with many gig economy jobs, Deliveroo has been criticized for an opaque system of payments, which led many riders to earn well below minimum wage in the UK. As The Guardian previously reported, documents related to Deliveroo’s initial public offering revealed the company had set approximately $150 million aside as a war chest to continue fighting for non-employee status for its couriers.