Delivery company Hermes savaged by Frank Field over workers’ rights as debate over insecure Britain intensifies

A report by the chair of the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee contains some biting allegations of the ‟gig economy” that may represent just the tip of the iceberg 

James Moore
Monday 12 September 2016 14:44 BST
Frank Field's incendiary report into delivery company Hermes was sent to Theresa May
Frank Field's incendiary report into delivery company Hermes was sent to Theresa May (Getty)

Could it be that there is an organisation that makes Sports Direct, with its zero-hours contracts and much criticised working culture, look like something other than the worst employment option in town?

It seems scarcely credible, until you read the report into Hermes, the delivery company, written by the Labour chair of the Work and Pensions Committee Frank Field and his parliamentary researcher Andrew Forsey.

Wild West Workplace – Self-employment in Britain's ‘gig economy’ has been sent to Prime Minister Theresa May. It contains a series of allegations about the treatment of the men and women who fulfil deliveries for Hermes. It also argues that they pick up all the costs of self employment, for example, having to pay their own national insurance and pension contributions, while gaining none of the benefits.

Hermes managers, the report says, tell personnel when they’re going to work, and for how long. If they seek to capitalise on the “flexibility” their self-employed status should afford them, they won’t find themselves working for the company for very long.

The report’s authors claim that they have heard from one courier who “lost his job with Hermes while he was caring for his wife who was dying from cancer”. An isolated incident, albeit a horrible one? Not according to the report which is full of similar examples.

“The tales of couriers working when seriously ill are numerous, as are those of mothers having to bring sick children to work or risk losing their rounds,” it says.

“The field manager telephoned me while I sat in my bathroom extremely unwell and said in view of the rounds failing [they] would be looking to recruit for one of my rounds, halving my working and income… I’m probably a lucky one to be at least left with one round as other people have been left with nothing.”

“When my little girl was in hospital I was being chased about when I was going to do my rounds.”

“When a colleague’s husband was having their chemotherapy, we all mucked in to cover her. We knew that if we didn’t, she would lose her job.”

“A friend had an accident. She was on the operating theatre table. Her husband was outside the theatre with Hermes on the phone saying, ‘you’d better find her some cover, hadn’t you’.”

And so on.

The report also argues that some couriers make just £6.80 an hour, some 40p less than the minimum wage after their costs are factored in.

Hermes has reportedly said that it does not believe the report reflects the way the organisation operates, that its code of conduct requires couriers to be treated with “dignity and respect” and that it is committed to ensuring that everyone there operates in a “supportive and compassionate manner”.

I contacted the company myself, but have yet to receive a response.

Perhaps that’s understandable. Its people have a lot on their plates right now. The report found its way from Ms May’s desk to that of business minister Margot James. She sent it on to HM Revenue & Customs. Hermes will now have to deal with HMRC investigators, who will be despatched to take a long, hard look at working arrangements at the company.

“All aboard! Hermes deliveries kept on track by dedicated courier,” the company website gushes. One wonders if Michael Houston from South Lanarkshire received something more meaningful than being publicly praised in a self-serving press release for taking to the rails to ensure his parcels were delivered, when a remote area was all but cut off as a result of roadworks. Like the reimbursement of his fares, plus a Sports Direct voucher?

The incidents alleged to have taken place at Hermes appear horrible, but as with Spots Direct what is really worrying is that they may represent just the tip of a very large iceberg.

Hermes is just a small part of the “gig” economy highlighted by Mr Field. In it, companies use self-employed contractors while imposing conditions upon them that look very much like those imposed by employers on their employees. But without incurring any of the costs.

Couriers and cab drivers are the most obvious examples of jobs where this sort of thing is becoming increasingly common. But it has been affecting construction workers for some time, and hair dressers. too. The TUC, whose general secretary Frances O’Grady raised the issue of Britain’s insecure workforce in her speech to its annual congress, has even found some food manufacturing factories attempting to claim their workers are self-employed.

This is a practice that is growing, just as the use of zero-hours contracts and agency work is growing.

The defenders of these arrangements like to claim that they are “valued” by the employees, or the contractors, that are subject to them. That they derive benefits from the alleged “flexibility”. The trouble is this flexibility all too often works only for the employer. It is a one way street leading into exploitation alley.

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