You may have seen the term “gig economy” in newspaper headlines. From stories about discrimination to legal cases against well-known businesses like Uber and Deliveroo, the gig economy has certainly captured the nation and world’s attention. As issues within the gig economy come to light, we must question how we define employee rights in today’s world.
What is the gig economy?
Most simply defined, the gig economy is how companies deliver and pay for work. Within the gig economy, workers are paid per assignment or “gig”. Gigs can include everything from cleaning a home to tasks that require experience and training. In fact, 28% of people working within Britain's gig economy undertake accountancy, legal advice, or other consultancy work while 18% are involved in plumbing, building, or other skilled manual work.
Why is the gig economy so controversial?
Most companies don’t consider these workers as employees, which makes it legal to ignore workers rights (a landmark case against Uber says otherwise). While gig work is meant to offer greater flexibility than contract employment, workers don’t get sick pay, paid holidays, and sometimes aren’t even paid minimum wage.
A 2017 report by Frank Field revealed that some gig workers could make as little as £2.50 per hour and aren’t offered any job security. He also reported that gig workers feel pressured into taking assignments so aren’t working a flexible schedule. Companies often prefer gig contracts as it allows them to cut costs and avoid providing benefits like pensions or paid holidays. Concerns raised within this report were grave enough to prompt the UK government to launch an “emergency intervention”.
How can problems with the gig economy be fixed?
Following Frank Fields’ report, the UK government published The Taylor Review to investigate and address many of the problems of the gig economy. As the most significant report on the gig economy to date, it proposes a number of ways for the UK government to fix the critical situation.
One recommendation is for gig workers to be categorised as “dependent contractors”. As dependent contractors, these workers have more rights and employers would need to take more responsibility for their well-being.
The Taylor Review also presents the concept of “good work”, a working condition everyone in the UK should be entitled to. “Good work” incorporates factors like wages, employment conditions, education and training opportunities, work-life balance, and collective representation. It is the government’s responsibility to make sure that employers comply with these standards.
Essentially, the Taylor Review promotes the positive features of the gig economy by supporting a flexible work environment but also ensures that gig workers are entitled to certain rights and benefits.
What’s happened since the Taylor Review was published?
In February 2017, the UK government promised to overhaul current employee rights to accommodate the Taylor Review recommendations. These changes will include stricter holiday and sick pay rights and more stringent penalties for companies that violate employees’ rights.
While most people, including Matthew Taylor the author of The Taylor Review, welcomed this announcement, unions took a more cynical view. Union leaders claim that the 1.8 million workers on zero-hour and self-employment contracts will still be vulnerable to mistreatment from their employer.
Union leaders’ concern for people on zero-hour contracts is understandable. Like gig workers, employees on zero-hour contracts also lack job security. While workers on zero-hour contracts are paid per hour instead of per gig, both systems are used by companies to cut costs and ultimately workers are left feeling vulnerable and uncertain about their next paycheck.
The gig economy certainly has a place in modern society. It allows people to choose a flexible work schedule; something that’s not always an option with full-time contracts. However, we should all have access to certain employment rights and job security. The government’s recent promise will hopefully go a long way towards changing the mistreatment occurring within the gig economy. As this promise was only made a few months ago, concrete changes have yet to be seen so whether they’ll actually achieve “good work” conditions is unknown, and concerns remain for workers on zero-hour contracts.