The UK government has been neglecting the health and safety of self-employed workers, including by failing to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) during the coronavirus pandemic, the High Court ruled on Friday.
As part of a judicial review following a case brought by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), the court ruled that the government failed to properly implement EU directives on health and safety, including the right of workers to be provided with PPE by the companies that they work for and the right to stop working in the face of “imminent and serious danger”.
The court found that, by protecting only employees, the government had not properly transposed two EU directives into UK law, concluding the EU’s use of the term “worker” can be extended to those not working under an employment contract. One directive defines requisite measures to ensure the health and safety of workers at work; another lays out the minimum requirements for PPE in the workplace.
In the UK, there are two employment statuses: employees and so called “limb b workers”, who carry out work as part of someone else’s business. Both groups have the legal right to holiday pay and the minimum wage, but only employees have wider protections such as the right to sue for unfair dismissal. Independent contractors have none of these rights.
Many “limb b workers” work in the so-called gig economy, for example Uber drivers and parcel couriers. Workers in these sectors have consistently raised concerns that they have not been adequately provided with PPE during the pandemic.
The IWGB argues that insecure workers – including delivery, taxi and private hire drivers – have been shown to be at particularly high risk from coronavirus.
The disparity between the EU rules and UK law has existed since the directives were transposed into UK law in December 1992, but the IWGB said the pandemic gave the matter a “particular salience and significance”.
The High Court said the government must now take steps to ensure gig economy workers have the same protection as employees.
Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB, said: “This ruling is long overdue and the IWGB expects that in the light of this clear ruling, the UK government will now take urgent legislative measures to ensure workers’ safety.
“Key workers have been calling for greater protection throughout the pandemic and this has largely fallen on the deaf ears of their employers,” he continued.
“The IWGB contacted numerous companies during the first wave and they either did very little or nothing at all as they tried to escape any accountability for their workforce.”
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) had argued that the EU’s definition of work extends only to those ‘employed by an employer’, therefore the directives had been properly transposed into domestic law by imposing obligations to protect ‘employees’.
Following Judge Martin Chamberlain’s decision, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said: “We acknowledge the judgment handed down by the High Court and will set out our formal response shortly.”
17th November 2020.