Though classified as self-employed sub-contractors for tax purposes, most bike couriers have in practice a rather more restrictive relationship with the firms that hire them. You may not get a guaranteed income or any benefits, but if you don’t work a full week you’ll generally be out of work pretty quickly. You’re often obliged to wear some sort of uniform or carry a branded bag. The better companies take a deposit for radios and xdas (the palmtop computers on which you receive job details and record signatures) which you get back when you leave, as long as nothing’s been damaged.
Last month one of London’s largest courier companies, CitySprint, informed its riders that they would have to fork out £3 a week to rent some new bags they’d ordered. A disgruntled courier leaked the memo:
The new bags are good, but at £3 a week if you’re going to work for any longer than a year or so you’d be better off buying your own. At CitySprint you’re not allowed to.
The company have form for treating their riders badly. In 2007 they sacked a long-serving courier who wanted to take Christmas Eve off. The GMB got involved, but CitySprint’s solicitors, Carter-Ruck, provided a robust defence.
Already squeezed by the recession, couriers are now being asked to pay extra for equipment they are obliged to use. Despite the several thousand pounds a year (and the free advertising) this will generate, CitySprint couriers will still not be considered full employees and will be denied all the benefits this would entail.
According to the DirectGov website, one of the ‘basic questions’ you can ask yourself to ascertain your employment status is if as a worker ‘you provide the main items of equipment to do your work’. Whether a bag and uniform constitute the ‘main items’ necessary for couriers to do their work is debatable. But since you have to provide your own bicycle I suppose CitySprint must be in the clear, as Carter-Ruck would no doubt be pleased to confirm.