LONDON (AP) — Britain’s top court said Tuesday that riders for one of the country’s biggest meal delivery companies don’t have collective bargaining rights because they aren’t employees, a setback for gig economy workers who are pushing for better pay and working conditions.
The Supreme Court’s ruling came in a case filed by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, which had sought to organize the people who deliver takeout meals for Deliveroo, a rival of companies like Uber Eats and Just Eat. After Deliveroo refused to negotiate, the union appealed, arguing that the company was violating rights guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
But the court ruled that the right to collective bargaining applies only when there is an “employment relationship” between the workers and the company. Deliveroo riders aren’t employees because their contract gives them the “virtually unfettered right” to pass deliveries on to a substitute, the court said.
The decision is the latest in a series of U.K. court decisions that are defining labor rights in the gig economy, where companies have sought to define workers as independent contractors with few of the job protections or benefits of traditional employees. While some workers enjoy the flexibility this offers, others say they are forced to work long hours just to make ends meet, with insecure employment making it difficult to plan for the future.
In a landmark ruling in February 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers were not independent contractors under U.K. law because the company controlled how they provided their services. Tuesday’s ruling in the Deliveroo stalls the expansion of worker rights, at least for now.
The ruling is a “very significant win for Deliveroo,” said Nick Hawkins, a partner at the U.K. law firm Knights.
“This will be a ruling that other gig economy business will have been watching closely, with no doubt some checking for the existence of substitution clauses in their contracts,” Hawkins said.
Deliveroo welcomed the decision, saying it confirmed lower court rulings that the company’s riders are self-employed.
“This is a positive judgment for Deliveroo riders, who value the flexibility that self-employed work offers,” the company said in a statement.
The union called the ruling a disappointment.
“Flexibility, including the option for account substitution, is no reason to strip workers of basic entitlements like fair pay and collective bargaining rights,″ the union said. “This dangerous false dichotomy between rights and flexibility is one that Deliveroo and other gig economy giants rely heavily upon in efforts to legitimize their exploitative business models.”
But attorneys like Shireen Shaikh, employment senior counsel at the law firm Taylor Wessing, said it would have been surprising if the court had reached a different conclusion. That said, she pointed out that since the litigation began, Deliveroo had reached a voluntary agreement with the GMB union that offers a mechanism for negotiating pay and other conditions “outside the statutory framework we associate with employees and workers.”
“This demonstrates how the legal question of status is sometimes becoming distinct from the question of which rights to afford to gig workers, not least from a reputational … perspective,” she said in statement.