Towards privatized social and employment protections in the platform economy? Evidence from the UK courier sector

Rolf, S., O'Reilly, J., Meryon, M. (2022), Research policy

Platform capitalism has facilitated the widespread replacement of employment contracts with contracts for services. These offer significantly fewer social and employment protections for the independent contractors engaged. What does this mean for the future of national social and employment protection (SEPs) systems? We show how the question of platform workers’ employment status – and therefore access to SEPs – remain unresolved under UK law. Drawing on socio-legal theory, we demonstrate why digital labor platforms represent a challenge to existing modes of employment law and labor market regulation. In the absence of immediate legal ‘fixes’, some unions and firms are innovating new ‘privatized social protection systems’. A ‘Self-Employed Plus’ (SE+) agreement in the UK parcel courier sector developed between Hermes, a UK-based courier service, and the GMB union represents an important example of such attempts being made to bridge the current regulatory void. We critically analyze the agreement and draw lessons for platform governance theory. We demonstrate that privatized SE+ provisions potentially offer significant benefits for platforms by reducing regulatory oversight, boosting productivity, and enhancing managerial control over platform complementors. At the same time, while they risk undermining national SEP systems and degrading worker protections, they also offer a window of opportunity for trade unions to gain a foothold in the platform economy.

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