The gig economy exploits workers: it’s time for change

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Imagine for a moment that it’s Christmas eve, and you’re out making rounds for a delivery company. You should be at home but you’re out in the streets, because last week your motorcycle was stolen and you couldn’t get compensation from the company, so you’ve got to work double to pay for it. Worst of all, demand is low today, and since you’re paid per delivery you make, you’ve barely made £7 for the whole day. 

Now if anything in that passage seems remotely unfair to you, then you’re not alone. Sadly, not much of it is exaggeration; Frank Field MP’s inquiry and the Taylor Review regarding the gig economy have revealed even worse conditions for workers in the sector. Stories of Parcelforce couriers charged £400 for not turning up to work jar with Deliveroo riders’ reports that an oversupply of riders for that day can drive their wages down to £4. Liabilities acquired in the course of their job – fuel, vehicle repair, injuries and the like – are not covered by their ‘employers’. Most harrowingly, the delivery company Hermes, which manages a squadron of self-employed couriers, has been reported to have harassed and penalised workers for spending time with their loved ones with cancer and on their deathbed – all because of a lack of mandated care leave. The gig economy is simply not fair to its workers. 

“At the root of it, companies are essentially able to treat workers as disposable.”

The question that naturally arises is: How did it get so bad in the first place? At the root of it, companies are essentially able to treat workers as disposable. There is no restriction on the supply of workers hired, potentially resulting in less work and less pay for workers. This means that workers are replaceable at any time – allowing such firms to lower their wages and remove protections. If you don’t like it, you can leave. Except that they can’t. Most of their skills are useful only in such jobs, so their options for leaving the sector are slim without paying for further training. And what if you can’t find another job? You might as well stick with the poison you know. 

What, then, can we do about this? Recently, Hermes announced a deal struck with GMB to allow their couriers to opt to sign an employment contract and get a minimum wage, holiday pay and other employment guarantees. However, it is important to note how this agreement developed in the first place; this was a result firstly of a court case that Hermes had lost, and secondly because a union, GMB, stepped in to negotiate. Other cases, such as one brought by Deliveroo riders for better wages and working conditions, lost at the Central Arbitration Committee. Furthermore, given the nature of work in the gig economy, as well as the fact that some contracts explicitly forbid the formation of unions, the assumption that a union will be available to cut a deal with such firms is probably wishful at best. 

“Ultimately, the goal should be to tip the balance more towards gig-economy workers.”

Taking a cynical perspective, Hermes might simply have cut the deal to save its reputation. While this may inspire other companies to take up related policies regarding their employees, this leaves too much up to individual companies, some of which, like Uber and Deliveroo, are unlikely to want to drop the ‘self-employed’ moniker for their workers. 

Rather, what should be considered is for the government to mandate certain requirements for such firms, even if their workers are technically ‘self-employed’, be it to cover incurred expenses, ensure holiday pay, or introduce a contract system to limit the supply of workers and allowing for a minimum wage. Doing so would ensure that every company – and not just those that are under legal and union pressure – will be obligated to treat their workers fairly, while also sending a powerful signal to all firms that they have to treat workers fairly. Ultimately, the goal should be to tip the balance more towards gig-economy workers. Only then can we ride our Ubers and enjoy delivered meals without guilt. 

Image Credit: shopblocks via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)