Health or money? Gig economy workers face heartbreaking choices

Finances continue to dwindle for Britain's 5 million self-employed as they lie in wait for Rishi Sunak's rescue plan

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Uber drivers have been hit hard by a drop off in business much like the wider gig economy
Uber drivers have been hit hard by a drop off in business much like the wider gig economy Credit: Telegraph/Telegraph

“Financially we’re done, psychologically we’re done,” says Celal Sahin, one of the 45,000 Uber drivers based in London.

“We have around 15 direct debits across the likes of electric, gas, telephone bills, insurance...maybe I could survive for three weeks, maybe a month maximum.”

Sahin is among the many self-employed workers in Britain’s gig economy whose income has been rocked by coronavirus. 

Last week, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled an unprecedented £350bn rescue package for Britain’s economy. He outlined plans that sought to look after PAYE workers and businesses but left the self-employed in the dark.

Currently, people who are self-employed can claim £94.25 a week in statutory sick pay from the state - an amount that was met by many with derision. 

The Chancellor is weighing up another package for the country’s 5 million self-employed people that would mimic the measures introduced in Denmark and Norway. An option being considered by the Treasury is paying contractors a proportion of their income using earnings made in recent years, it is understood. 

In the meantime drivers for the likes of Uber and Ola, and riders for food delivery services like Deliveroo and Just Eat, remain rooted in financial limbo.

“What should we do? We can’t go and steal stuff," says Sahin.  "The way they’re treating us, they’re forcing people to do something wrong. If you have kids at home and they’re looking for food and you can’t go out and drive you have no option.”

Uber says that it will pay drivers for 14 days if they get official confirmation from the NHS that they should self-isolate. But Sahin’s confirmation letter has been sitting with Uber for five days, and funds are yet to be released. 

“We are supporting drivers and couriers who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or placed in quarantine by a public health authority,” an Uber spokesman said. 

“Drivers and couriers in these situations will receive compensation for a period of up to 14 days. This has already begun in some markets and we are working to implement mechanisms to do this worldwide. We believe this is the right thing to do.”

The ride-sharing company also says that if its drivers are diagnosed with the virus or told to self-isolate they can claim £1,225 over a 15 day period. 

But even if drivers are not sick, some of them say they are still left at risk by being in the car with other people who may have the virus. 

“The Government should shut the driving apps down,” says driver Hadi.

“After the Prime Minister spoke we were waiting for TfL to say that they were going to suspend all licenses for the next three weeks, but they didn’t.”

Hadi says the companies "won't care less, they're just there to make a profit". He says the choice of whether or not to go out and drive is left entirely with the drivers. Even with Government measures, many gig economy workers will fall through the cracks.

"I'll put it this way, when the Government says it's going to doing things like freezing the rent, not everybody has a tenancy agreement," he says.

"Some people just rent a room somewhere and they'll be paying cash on a weekly or monthly basis. If they can't afford the rent the landlord will just kick them out. There's a lot of those kind of people in the industry itself and we rely on it on a daily basis. If we don't have work through the apps then there's nothing we can do."

In the midst of Johnson’s speech on Monday he outlined how restaurants and cafes should all close except for those offering delivery services. The order to allow takeaways took its place alongside pharmacies, supermarkets, and petrol stations, which could all remain open.

To date, Deliveroo has introduced a range of measures following the outbreak, including a “no-contact” delivery option. Customers can choose to have their delivery left at the door, thus reducing the capacity for transmission of the deadly disease.

The company also pays riders more than statutory sick pay if they’re instructed to remain indoors. But for many riders it's a distressing time.

“Personally, I continued to work because I rely on my wage with Deliveroo to pay my rent and my bills. I am trying to distance myself to people I may meet during my working hours but once in restaurants it can be very difficult,” says Martin, a student rider based in Scotland.

A spokesman for Deliveroo says the safety and well-being of its riders is the company's "absolute priority".

Deliveroo is providing financial support for riders across the world who are diagnosed with the virus or who are told to isolate themselves by a medical authority, and we are making masks and sanitiser available to riders for free."

“At this very moment I do not know if I am going to go to work tonight," says Martin. "On the one hand I need to pay my rent and pay for food and medicines but on the other hand I have a cough, weak muscles and therefore should not take the risk to contaminate others.”

Elsewhere, Just Eat is offering a 14-day relief payment to its couriers who are self-isolating, amounting to two thirds of their weekly earnings from the past six weeks.