The government has been urged to stage an “emergency intervention” to protect gig economy workers, amid concerns they are being forced into contracts that sometimes pay less than £2.50 an hour and can be cancelled at any moment.
The allegations are detailed in the latest report by the former work and pensions committee chair, Frank Field MP, into the gig economy, where people work flexible hours on short-term or freelance contracts without the rights of permanent employees.
Field’s report comes nine months after Theresa May promised in her maiden party conference speech as prime minister to “make sure that, in our modern and flexible economy, people are properly protected at work”.
Its findings are likely to intensify scrutiny of a government-backed review by former Tony Blair adviser Matthew Taylor into modern employment practices, which is expected to be published early next week.
Field’s report focuses on firms including Parcelforce, DPD, and – for the first time – British Car Auctions, owner of webuyanycar.com.
Complaints raised by staff interviewed for the report include being fined hundreds of pounds unless they worked while ill, while others said that self-employment meant they ended up earning as little as £2.22 an hour, or even losing money.
Field also claimed that Parcelforce, owned by Royal Mail, “tied each driver’s hands behind their back” by requiring them to sign a contract forbidding them from challenging their employment status.
He said the clause – which echoes a similar passage dropped by Deliveroo after a backlash from couriers – was “symptomatic of the threatening and hostile environment in which some people are required to work”.
He added that such contracts were “too often characterised by poverty wages, chronic insecurity and appalling treatment”, with terms designed to subsidise company profits.
The report cites testimony from some of Parcelforce’s 3,000 couriers, about a quarter of whom are self-employed owner-drivers who are paid per delivery and must fund their own vehicle, fuel, insurance and uniform.
Many of the owner-drivers, it says, were persuaded to give up their status as full employees – which granted them superior workers’ rights – on the promise of better pay and more flexibility.
Two Parcelforce drivers told Field “we are frequently warned we could lose our jobs if we don’t do as we’re told”, while a DPD driver said “conditions of employment are precarious, to say the least”.
The report said drivers were “coming to work with broken bones” to avoid fines of up to £400 a day for failing to work their shifts. One Parcelforce courier said he paid for a colleague to join him on deliveries “whilst I sat next to him with a bucket in case I was sick”.