You don’t need to do much analysis to conclude that modern Britain is an unbalanced society operating at breakneck speed. Yesterday, Doteveryone published an extensive report into the gig economy, an area that brings into focus the more dramatic side-effects of technology such as the legal-lag created by innovation, and the changing relationship between employer and employee.
Why does the gig economy warrant such a detailed study? When we think of the gig economy the first reaction is to think of innovation and flexibility. Working patterns that fit around modern living. However, Ken Loach’s well received 2019 film “Sorry We Missed You”, paints a different picture; one that talks about zero-hour Britain and service economy serfdom. Doteveryone’s research provides the tough real mirror-image for the imagined struggles of a hard-up working class family hit hard by the financial crash.
“The gig economy feels like quicksand… (the platform) wants to keep you in the low-paying box so you don’t evolve”.
These are the words of Christina, a 28 year-old mother of two balancing a part-time psychology degree with 40-hours a week on a cleaning platform. She is wholly representative of a group of workers described throughout the report; lacking financial security, dignity, and whose dreams have been crushed. It’s these three outcomes the recommendations made in the report seek to address.
But before we get into the solutions, what makes this area tough to legislate? Size. The gig economy is varied, containing more than just Uber drivers and Deliveroo riders and the report divides gig workers into two broad groups; workers with strong safety nets and workers who cannot leave the gig economy. The second group is the focus of the new study, workers who suffer more of the negative effects of the gig economy. This ‘furthest first’ approach is aimed at supporting those with the greatest need with the aspiration it benefits everyone.
Concerning financial security the report recommends a Gig Minimum Wage. Whilst the National Minimum Wage has improved the conditions for the lowest-paid workers, it does not cover gig workers.
Regarding dignity the report concludes that workers need access to a human to solve their questions whilst at work, and that should be achieved through companies creating governance structures designed to give workers a voice. The gig economy is creating a more volatile workforce, and understandably so. Where a human dispatcher might build understanding and rapport with a taxi driver, an algorithm can’t. Without the ability of workers to air grievances traditionally, and slowly escalate issues, workers can take action seemingly out of the blue with huge disruption caused to consumers.
Finally where dreams are concerned the adoption of a National Retraining Scheme to provide holistic support is proposed. That would take the form of ‘Help Hotspots’ and accessible drop-in support.
“I do not have the time to improve my skills, because my number one priority is to be earning enough to survive, be comfortable”.
These recommendations would be a huge step forward, but also prompt further questioning. At yesterday’s press briefing London was described as a bell-weather for the gig economy. The report makes the case that there are huge hidden costs to being a gig worker. The need to be always on; flexible working becomes never ending work, competition creates pressure to go above and beyond such as providing extra free services (a cleaner cleaning a fridge for free). I think it’s fair to suggest that in London some of these hidden costs may be lower. Certainly as an Uber driver or Deliveroo rider there are more consumers, and more businesses, using platform services. You hopefully can choose not to work with businesses who mistreat or take advantage of gig workers. Whilst a National Gig Wage is a strong recommendation does there need to be regional variance and some sort of weighting to support gig workers in economically depressed and remote areas?
I would suggest there is likely to be a higher proportion of workers falling into the first category of gig worker (not the furthest first) in the South East. As platform-services reach beyond the capital, are they actively taking advantage of a cheaper workforce? That would seem to be true.
There is also concern for the lack of investment in the gig workforce and the role of automation. It is no surprise that Uber is looking to replace drivers with autonomous vehicles. However the jobs that are lost aren’t likely to be replaced with jobs unskilled workers are suitable for. Training is an absolute must, but we don’t know what future roles we are going to be training people for. The majority of school aged children will enter the world of work and hold a position we don’t even have names for yet!
Whilst Deliveroo have implemented an academy how effective is that going to be, and what body is going to be able to hold that programme to account in some way? I can’t see major platforms investing in gig workers when there isn’t a clear business case for doing so. It is with these developments in mind that I think the argument for some sort of universal income becomes more relevant.
“I wish they’d treat us like people, not robots”
Whilst there are clearly some major questions to answer, the report offers some practical recommendations that can be implemented in a quick and cost effective manner.
Also, there is one small action that all of us can do today that makes a big difference to the gig worker; tip! Technology is about removing friction and enhancing experiences, and currently some tech platforms are doing the opposite to some of the most vulnerable amongst us.
Baroness Lane-Fox introduced the report at the House of Lord’s, citing the slower pace of our second chamber as a virtue. An antidote to the destructive political cycle in the Commons. In fact (if I’m honest) when legislation is discussed I’m guilty of overlooking the role played by the Lords. When dealing with a topic as complex and impactful as the gig economy the recommendations need to carry weight. Whilst tech is moving ever more quickly our response cannot be rushed; to avoid stories such as those told by Ken Loach, loaded with misery, becoming increasingly visible we need a considered response. The onus is now on the tech community, politicians and consumers to pull together and take positive action. Doteveryone have fired the starting gun.
Read the full results here.
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