‘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 and 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 self-employed 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 self-employment – 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 digitally-driven 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 self-employment – 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 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 well-known 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 pay slips. 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 pay slips 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 considered as self-employed, but I needed the work’

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 pay slips and most refused.

“There was a factory job – they paid with a pay slip. A cafe – that was cash in hand. A kebab place – that was cash in hand. A whisky bar – they paid with pay slips. A sushi place – they also refused to pay with a pay slip.”

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 enterprises 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 down sides 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 student 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 workers were unemployed before entering the gig economy and if dismissed will have to endure the wait for their benefits to be reinstated. Many have been sent by job centres to agencies and told to take the job the agencies offer them or risk being sanctioned.

Amazon – which has around 37,000 UK workers and recognises no trade union – announced this month that it was raising wages for its staff employees. The move was hailed as a positive step forward by a company which has been under fire over employment practices for years. The Scottish Government had been criticised for giving Amazon £3.6m in taxpayer money.

Last month, though, new rules were announced that there would be no state handouts in Scotland for firms which did not pay the living wage. Shortly afterwards, Amazon announced it would raise wages for employees. What went pretty much unnoticed though was that Amazon simultaneously decided to phase out its bonus and stock award programmes for hourly workers.

“What that all amounts to,” says McCourt, “is no benefit to the workers. Staff are furious but not surprised.”

In separate investigations, McCourt has also come across an increasing number of employers using absence management policies which seem designed to sack staff who have been off sick. “There is a growing occupational health industry which works hand-in-hand with employers to get staff dismissed,” he said, citing cases where employers ignored details of sickness provided by GPs and consultants, but instead relied on assessments from private occupational health advisors which results in dismissal. “This is the world we live in,” says McCourt.

He has also uncovered a new scandal in the gig economy – workers being paid literally by the minute in the private care sector.

As the care sector becomes increasingly privatised, companies are being hired by councils to provide care to the sick and elderly in their homes. Many care staff are on zero-hours contracts – but thousands are also paid by the minute.

“It’s the ultimate in the gig economy,” says McCourt. “Companies bid against each other for a contract and it is a race to the bottom. They bid with prices they can’t meet and it is their workers who suffer.”

An example of a care worker paid by the minute would be as follows: a care worker has five jobs in an hour – going to the homes of clients to help with their personal needs and medication – each job takes six minutes, meaning the carer is viewed as having worked 30 minutes in an hour.

If they are on the national minimum wage, £7.83 an hour, they will earn approximately £3.92 for an hour’s work, or roughly 13p per minute. Some are paid for time taken to travel between jobs – others are not. Phones and iPads are used to clock care staff in and out when they are in a client’s home to enable the company to keep tabs on them. McCourt also spoke of carers working from nine to five, but having no clients for two hours in the middle of the day. The result is: they lose two hours’ pay.

“These private care companies are funded by the public purse,” says McCourt, “as they are contracted by councils – so our tax pounds are propping up this system. There is a big difference here to other employment practices as we are not talking about stacking CDs in a warehouse – this is about looking after the most vulnerable people in society.

“We are looking at a value set here – if people think there is money to be made in this way out of caring for the sick and elderly then there is something very wrong, especially if the public purse is being used.”

Background: Workers are stepping back in time to darker age

A BROWSE through the files of Better Than Zero is like stepping into a time machine and travelling back to the days of the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution.

It’s a litany of employees begging their boss for work, staff having to pander to management in order to secure shifts, of bullying, harassment, humiliation, low wages, people living hand to mouth, and the steady erosion of pride and dignity. There are examples of female staff who have asked to change shifts being texted by their male manager saying: "My wife is out tonight, why don’t you come round and then I will change your shift."

Better Than Zero (BTZ) was set up by the STUC to look into the growth of the gig economy in the hospitality industry – today it covers nearly every industrial sector and its social media reach is larger than all the UK’s trade unions combined. Its role now is to investigate all forms of precarious employment – zero hour contracts, short hour contracts, seasonal work, casual work and temporary work.

According to latest figures from the STUC at least 10 per cent of the Scottish workforce is in insecure employment – that’s 259,000 people out of a total of 2.6 million. Some 63,000 are on zero hours contracts, there are 38,000 in temporary work, and 158,000 in low-paid self-employment. This total, however, the STUC points out, does not include the estimated 90,000 workers considered "underemployed", such as those working part-time but seeking full-time work.

"The work is sold to the employee as flexible," says Sarah Collins of BTZ, "but there is no flexibility for the worker." Staff are expected to take what shifts are offered to them, regardless of how few or how many the hours are – if they cause a fuss and stand up for themselves it’s unlikely they will get any more work. "All the control is with the employer," Collins adds.

One of the latest issues within precarious employment is the rise of questionable practices within a small minority of social enterprise firms – companies meant to be doing a social good and often in receipt of financial support from the public purse. Some social enterprises are hiring staff on zero hours contracts “then quickly sacking or dismissing them if they raise any concerns”. BTZ spoke of firms claiming to be involved in sustainable transport initiatives pressurising and bullying staff on zero hour contracts, or paying cash in hand. There are reports of similar behaviour by social enterprise companies refurbishing kitchen goods or furniture for the poor and elderly to buy at cheap rates.

"On the surface they look great, and there are plenty of social enterprises doing great work but the model has been perverted by a few for bad reasons," BTZ said.

"Bogus self-employment" is another new problem – it crossed over from the gig economy where some food delivery drivers were hired on a self-employed basis and is now in many sectors. The organisation cites the case of a beautician in a nail bar who was taken on as self-employed but was told by management when to come in, when to go home, and how much to charge.

"They are not self-employed at all," says BTZ. "It is just a cost saving exercise as the employer is not paying tax, national insurance, sick pay, holiday pay, or pension contributions. There is a big issue here of the exchequer potentially missing out on huge amounts of tax.”

Self-employment has massively increased since the financial crash of 2008. The largest increase is among women in the following three occupations: cleaners, child minders and hairdressers. Most people drift in and out of self-employment as they look for more stable, less precarious jobs.

The tourist industry is also a big worry for BTZ, with so many employers hiring staff on zero or short hours contracts as well as on a temporary basis. The tourist industry receives huge support from the public purse, so BTZ feels the Scottish Government – which talks a lot about fairness for workers – should do more to tackle what is happening on its watch and with its money.

"The Scottish Government is projecting Scotland as a wonderful place to visit, but who is checking on the labour conditions of the people in the tourism industry," BTZ says.

At the core of the problems with zero hours contracts, in particular, is the bullying it seems to enable in the worst managers – staff who want to work as many hours as possible are unlikely to defend themselves if treated badly by their boss. Precarious employment also affects young workers in their late teens and early 20s more than other age groups.

"Bullying is everywhere," says BTZ. "This leads to burn out, mental health problems...unemployment may be at an all time low but the human cost is Dickensian. Couple all this with the housing situation and you see that precarious work leads to precarious lives. If you don’t have a steady income and are just bumping from job to job and house to house, every aspect of your life is affected.

"If you are on zero hours you aren’t going to get a mortgage, and you’ll need a guarantor for private rented accommodation. That’s why sofa surfacing is on the rise, why people who previously lived independently are moving back home to their parents. It makes people vulnerable not just to loan sharking but even sex for rent. It all knits together. This is what young people have come to expect in Scotland in 2018.”

Insecure work can also mean in-work poverty as well. Two parents in insecure employment can actually be worse off financially than a family on benefits.

Precarious employment has a corrosive effect, with zero hour contracts now even affecting university lecturers it is little wonder, BTZ believes, that young people are leaving school with a jaded view of the world of work and the opportunities on offer to them.

"The most depressing thing is that young people think this is the norm," said Sarah Collins. "They know what is happening is not right, but they don’t have any expectation of any other type of work."

Better Than Zero said: "It is all well and good saying we want a fair work society, a fair work economy, but on the frontline it is almost laughable how far these claims and aspirations are from the way that huge numbers of people make a living."

BTZ said that the impact on mental health of precarious employment was a growing problem. Disabled workers are often the most vulnerable to exploitation too. If a disabled worker on a zero hours contract starts asking for wheelchair ramps, or other assistance at work, it’s easy for an unscrupulous employer to just take them off the rota, BTZ says.

The night-time economy, where a lot of precarious employment is found, is only set to grow in Scotland as bars and clubs push for later licensing laws. But if you are a young female member of staff on zero hours, with little power to argue for an earlier shift, then going home late at night becomes a hazard of work. Few companies pay for staff to get taxis even in the early hours of the morning.

BTZ has accounts in its files of staff finishing work at 3am and waiting for the first bus in the morning to get home, or staff going to a casino that stays open until dawn and buying one drink to nurse until public transport starts again. There are reports of female staff being harassed and intimidated on late night streets.

As the campaign team of BTZ say of all the cases they are investigating, "is a little dignity, respect, and safety too much to ask?"

The Herald on Sunday asked the Scottish Government to put forward the relevant minister for interview on matters related to precarious employment and the gig economy. No interview was forthcoming.

Reaction: what the companies say


A spokesperson for Grand Central said they did not accept that the comments about the hotel “in any way represent the experience of our valued colleagues. As seen across the wider hospitality industry, the hotel employs an appropriate level of permanent employees, on full and part–time contracts, supplemented by flexible team members as customer demand fluctuates across the year.

“This flexibility suits many of our colleagues with commitments such as child care and education. To help with planning, two-week minimum staffing rotas are produced in advance where possible; so the chances are that shifts are added rather than cancelled.

“At all times, we treat colleagues with dignity and respect which is reflected in our high staff approval ratings.”


An Amazon spokesperson said the company “didn’t recognise the allegations as an accurate portrayal of activities in our buildings”.

It added: “Amazon provides a safe and positive workplace for thousands of people across the UK with competitive pay and benefits from day one. We have a focus on ensuring we provide a great environment for all our employees and Amazon was recently named by LinkedIn as the seventh most sought after place to work in the UK and ranked first place in the US. Amazon also offers public tours of its fulfilment centres so customers can see first-hand what happens after they click 'buy' on Amazon by visiting uk.amazonfctours.com.

“As we are growing and constantly hiring more associates, it is strongly in our interests to retain people and no one is ever dismissed without good reason. We completely support associates working for us and people are allowed to use the toilet whenever needed. We also have an exception process so that associates can alert us to times when they just cannot do overtime for valid personal reasons.

“On October 2, we announced we are introducing minimum wage increases to £10.50 for the London area and £9.50 for the rest of the UK and raising wages for every full-time, part-time, seasonal, and temporary UK employee at Amazon across the UK, so 37,000 people will see higher pay for them and their families from November 1. The net effect of this change and the new higher cash compensation is significantly more total compensation for employees, without any vesting requirements, and with more predictability. Any claims that this is not the case are simply not true.

"We respect the individual rights of associates to join a trade union. We have an open-door policy that encourages associates to bring their comments, questions, suggestions or concerns directly to their management team. We firmly believe this direct connection is the most effective way to understand and respond to the needs of our workforce and we continue to run our business as usual while respecting all legal requirements related to trade unions.

"Amazon has a range of initiatives to support our people if they become ill at home or at work including on-site support. If someone is sick, we will have a conversation with them to understand their own individual circumstances and take into account any independent medical reports."


A spokesperson said: "We don’t recognise this driver’s complaints, many of which are either outdated or inaccurate. We have implemented a great many changes in recent months to give drivers greater choice and flexibility and will continue to ensure the working conditions for our drivers are industry leading.

"DPD’s Owner Driver Franchisees (ODFs) are part of a genuine self-employed model that we have operated in the UK for the last 20 years. DPD’s ODF scheme has delivered huge benefits to thousands of drivers over the years. Overall, in 2017, our franchise drivers, who completed a full year, earned an average of more than £35,000 after costs.

"Earlier this year DPD launched its new Driver Code – not as a result of the GMB’s action but following consultations with our depots and hundreds of drivers, which began in 2015. The Driver Code is aimed at further improving every aspect of their working relationship with the company, from the type of contract they choose to the van they drive.

"The new Code has been rolled out nationwide from July 2 and gives all DPD drivers the choice of three ways to contract with the company; being employed directly by DPD, being a self-employed Owner Driver Franchisee (ODF) or becoming an Owner Driver Worker.

"The new Owner Driver Worker contract is designed to generate driver earnings of £28,800 per annum on average, based on a standard five-day week contract, with no upper cap on earnings. In addition, workers will receive 28 days paid holiday, a pension and sick pay.

"DPD scrapped the £150 charge for medical appointments in February and abolished it completely in July. It has been replaced with a clear and consistent points-based system, which includes a full review process before any points are allocated. There have not been any instances of ODFs having service failures as a result of dirty vehicles.

"DPD regularly reviews driving hours and has seen no evidence to suggest drivers are working longer than legally allowed. DPD takes any accusation of bullying in the workforce very seriously indeed and any specific allegations will always be investigated thoroughly by DPD."