Platform capitalism has facilitated the widespread replacement of employment contracts with contracts for services. These offer significantly fewer social and employment protections for platform labourers. What does this mean for the future of national social and employment protection (SEPs) systems?

Attempts to address the question of platform workers’ employment status and access to SEPs remain unresolved under UK law. In this project we drew on socio-legal theory, to demonstrate why platforms represent a challenge to existing modes of employment law and regulation and, consequently, SEP provision.

In this context, some unions and firms are innovating new ‘privatised social protection systems’. We explore why 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 analyse the agreement and draw lessons for platform governance theory.

Research question

Why do digital platforms offer privatised SE+ provisions — and with what consequence for platforms and platform governance, workers, and regulators?

Method

Interviews with key stakeholders from the firm, trade unionists, and couriers, and conduct document and legal analysis. We situate the case within the UK’s legal-regulatory structure for platform employment and engage socio-legal theory.

Key findings

  1. Platforms using self-employed labour are of growing significance in the UK labour market. One reason behind the increasingly widespread use of self-employment is to sidestep obligations to provide social and employment protections associated with the traditional contract of employment and maximise flexibility of working patterns.
  2. Major regulatory challenges are emerging to the platform employment model. One is the growing threat of litigation for employee status from trades unions. But despite these challenges, no consensus has emerged as to the employment status of platform labour. The legal-regulatory framework surrounding platform work is, as such, increasingly complex and disjointed.
  3. To stymie such regulatory threats, many platform firms are innovating new contracts with their (self-employed) workers aimed at providing benefits similar to those associated with a contract of employment. These can be categorised as privatised social and employment protections (SEPs), and amount to de facto intermediary employment statuses combining features of self-employed and worker/employee status.
  4. We examine one attempt to offer privatised SEPs in the UK parcel courier sector – Hermes’ Self-Employed Plus (SE+) status – to examine the effects of privatised SEP provision on business strategy and working conditions. SE+ is unique insofar as it was developed in dialogue with the GMB, a trade union representing Hermes couriers which successfully litigated the firm at employment tribunal.
  5. We find that privatised SEP provision can expand managerial control over platform workers while preserving maximum flexibility for the platform. It thus represents a new form of platform governance of labour. It also offers unique affordances for trade unions and organised labour. In Hermes’ case, recognition of the trade union has driven the platform business model toward ‘emergency corporatist’ form of cooperating with grassroots union members, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, regulators and policymakers should be aware of the patchwork and contested nature of privatised SEP systems.

Researchers

Dr Steve Rolf, Research Fellow, Digit Centre

Marc Meryon, Partner and Head of Industrial Relations, Eversheds Sutherland

Professor Jacqueline O’Reilly, Co-Director, Digit Centre

Research outputs

The project was discussed at a Digit Debates talk on 10 November 2021.  Watch the recording below: