Parcelforce couriers who deliver packages for Marks & Spencer, John Lewis and Hamleys can be charged up to £250 a day if they are off sick and cannot find someone to cover their shift.
Details of the policy applied by the Royal Mail-owned business emerged days after rival courier company DPD was criticised for charging some drivers who take time off for illness. And it will fuel concerns about precarious working conditions in the “gig economy”, amid a series of disputes about the employment status of people who work for firms such as Uber and Deliveroo.
About a quarter of Parcelforce’s 3,000 couriers are self-employed owner-drivers, meaning they are paid per delivery and must fund their own vehicle, fuel, insurance and uniform. It has emerged that some owner-drivers who take a day off due to illness, but cannot find cover, are being told they must pay Parcelforce £250 per day missed.
The sum is meant to cover the cost of finding a replacement courier. Parcelforce’s self-employed couriers typically earn about £200 for a shift of 12 hours or more, meaning the added penalty can see them lose out on £450 a day if they are ill.
One courier, who asked not to be named for fear of being blacklisted, said drivers were being unfairly punished for illness, while many felt unable to take any holidays.
“We all hate it,” he said. “My colleague handed in his notice after being told he was being fined £750 for being off sick for three days.”
He added: “If we’re off sick, we don’t get any payment at all but we still have the same costs, apart from fuel.
“We have to pay for the van and insurance and there is also the threat hanging over us that if we don’t cover our contracted area, they say we have to cover their costs in bringing in agency drivers to cover the work that we don’t do. We then get charged £250 a day.”
The courier said the decision on whether to charge sick drivers was “entirely at management discretion”, meaning some drivers are penalised while others are not.
He added: “The manager suggested to me that maybe five or six of us should get together and employ someone off our own back to cover our runs if we’re off sick.”
The courier said he typically earns about £600 a week before tax, once the cost of fuel and insurance is taken into account. Parcelforce organises the rota patterns for its self-employed drivers and also requires that they undergo three days’ unpaid training. Parcelforce parent Royal Mail, which was floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2013 and is no longer government-owned, made a profit of £742m last year.
In a statement, Parcelforce said: “At Parcelforce, around 75% of drivers are employees with the remaining 25% owner-drivers, who are contracted on a self-employment basis. Self-employed owner drivers working with Parcelforce can expect average earnings from £45,000 to £70,000 per annum.”
“As self-employed subcontractors, they are contracted to ensure the services are provided but not to provide them personally. Many owner-drivers do not actually do the route themselves, but employ someone to do it for them. Self-employed owner-drivers agree to cover the cost of fulfilling their routes if they are unable to do it themselves and are unable to provide cover. Parcelforce ensures that collections and deliveries are carried out and that customer service levels are met.”
Frank Field MP, who chairs the House of Commons work and pensions committee, said: “It almost looks as though some companies are now engaged in a bidding war, to see who can slap the biggest penalty on workers who are sick.
“Again it goes to show how badly we need a national minimum level of decency to be enforced in the gig economy, alongside a national living wage, so that workers aren’t ripped off by the companies they work with.”
The details of Parcelforce’s contract with self-employed workers comes amid political pressure over the status of gig economy workers, with employment lawyers due to give evidence before MPs on the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy select committee on Tuesday.
A series of high-profile cases has prompted Theresa May to launch an independent review of employment status in the UK. The chair of the review, former Tony Blair adviser Matthew Taylor, warned last month that precarious employment terms were becoming an increasing cause for concern.
“The fact that too many workers feel that they have no control and no voice contributes to the quantum of misery and anger in British society,” he said.
Last week the ride-hailing app Uber was granted the right to appeal against an employment tribunal ruling that its drivers were not self-employed, but were workers. If upheld, it will mean Uber must pay the minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay.
Courier companies have come under particular scrutiny, with Hermes and DPD both in the spotlight over the terms of their contracts.
Delivery company DPD charges self-employed drivers £150 if they can’t work due to illness, the Guardian revealed last week. Hermes has also fielded a legal challenge from workers who dispute its classification of them as self-employed. And drivers for takeaway delivery company Deliveroo have fought back against contract terms that prevented them from seeking staff member status through the courts.