This month, the UK has a historic opportunity to improve trans rights. The government is currently consulting the public on whether it should make it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognised through the Gender Recognition Act.
When courier Hayley Stanley transferred to Gnewt Cargo from NBC Couriers, she had no reason to think that she would end up at the center of a landmark employment rights case that is the first to test LGBTQ rights and discrimination in the UK gig economy.
She claims that she was bullied at work because she was transgender. Gnewt Cargo, a subsidiary of Menzies Distribution, denies this and says that she was sacked in January after she deliberately damaged the main door of its premises.
At the heart of this matter is not the dismissal itself but a question—do gig economy workers have the right to work free from discrimination and bullying?
“I’m six foot tall,” Hayley says. “It’s not like I blend in. Going to work in a skirt and makeup, you are conscious what people are saying or doing but mostly you just get on with your life."
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In the gig economy, workers like Hayley are treated like independent contractors with few employee rights despite often fulfilling the role of employee. Under UK law, it is illegal to discriminate against someone because they are transgender, but employers do not have to offer such protections to gig economy workers.
The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), who have been at the forefront of other test cases in the gig economy world, is supporting Hayley in her discrimination claim against Gnewt Cargo and Menzies Distribution.
“[Gig economy] contracts allow employers to wield excessive control over their workers and facilitate instant dismissals with no due process,” IWGB vice-president Max Dewhurst explains. “This results in a culture of fear and extreme insecurity and anxiety for the workers.”
Hayley’s daily routine with Gnewt was similar to her previous role with NBC. She would arrive at around 7 AM, delivering parcels around London until 4 PM. Hayley alleges she would arrive at work every day to find her loading bay packed with large, empty boxes and crates—up to 50 at busy times like Christmas—that she had to remove before she could start work.
Other couriers allegedly referred to her directly as a “geezer” and “bloke” while sniggering and muttering comments under their breath. On one occasion, she claims she arrived to find the company had even installed a staff canteen in her bay.
Hayley says the harassment wasn’t limited to verbal insults and inconsiderate co-workers.
“I was cycling home along Borough High Street and my front wheel was wobbly and it came off,” she says. “Someone had loosened the quick release nuts on my bike. I could have been killed.”
According to her claim filed with an employment tribunal in July, this was not the first instance of vandalism. A month later, her tyres were allegedly punctured.
Gnewt did not respond to repeated requests for comment on these specific allegations of harassment. The company told Broadly in a statement: “Ms Stanley Hayley previously worked with Gnewt Cargo as a self-employed contractor. We ended that relationship in January of this year after an incident, captured on CCTV, in which she purposefully damaged the main roller shutter door of our premises by ramming it with a loaded pallet truck.”
Hayley denies this and says that she was only trying to remove the pallets, boxes, and cages blocking her bay. “I have to go in and out that door, so if I’d broke it intentionally, it would have stopped me working,” she says. “It was a complete accident.”
The company also maintains that Hayley was treated as any other independent contractor. “As a result of her action, the company incurred a large repair bill and was obliged to employ additional security for a number of days while the shutter could not be lowered. The decision to terminate her contract was purely due to this incident and any other self-employed contractor would have been treated in the same way.”
Gig economy companies ask that independent contractors behave like workers without seeming to offer them any protection from bullying in the workplace. This is something Hayley and IWGB hope to address with her claim.
She says of the transphobia she has faced outside of work in daily life: “I’ve been attacked. I’ve had beer thrown in my face, been punched in the head, but mostly I can just get out of it myself anyway. Obviously, it’s a problem, you’re always aware of it but it’s not been a huge problem for me.
“I never had any problems at NBC, apart from disagreements over normal work stuff,” she says. “I’m not a shrinking violet, but these are things I am going to complain about because I can’t do anything about it myself.”
It’s now a waiting game for Hayley, IWGB, Gnewt and any gig economy workers watching the case with interest. Documents were filed for her claim in July, a defence will likely follow and a full hearing has been scheduled by the Employment Tribunal that is expected to take place between April 8 and 12 in 2019.