The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the large number of jobs in the UK economy which are highly insecure. 5 million people are self-employed, a status which includes many who work on contracts for a single company. Over 900,000 people now work on ‘zero hours contracts’ under which they have no fixed working hours.
Altogether it is estimated that 3.6 million people are in various forms of insecure work, including agency, casual and seasonal workers and the self-employed earning less than the minimum wage. Research suggests that nearly 1 in 10 workers in the UK do ‘platform work’ via an app at least once a week, with nearly two-thirds of those under the age of 35. Many such ‘gig workers’ were among the first to lose their jobs as the economy closed down in the pandemic. But it is estimated that over 1.5 million self-employed people were unable to get government support.
‘Gig economy’ jobs can provide welcome flexibility. But many come with very low pay, and by definition a high degree of insecurity which makes normal household budget planning very difficult. They tend to have few employment rights, such as paid holidays, sickness pay, and protection against unfair dismissal. And it is difficult for gig economy workers to organise collectively, for example through trade unions.
The UK government has commissioned independent research on the size of the gig economy, the characteristics of those participating in it and their experiences.
Research conducted for the TUC has shown how work organised through digital apps has been spreading throughout the economy, with 15% of the workforce having undertaken 'platform' work of this kind at some point.
The TUC has surveyed the rise of insecure work across the economy.
The Fairwork Foundation examines the impact of the Covid crisis on the 50 million gig economy workers throughout the world.
The Institute for the Future of Work's 2021 Global Labour Market Resilience Index listed the UK as the 12th most resilient labour market in the world. It recommends greater devolution to enable more dynamic responses to inequality and insecure work and devolving vocational training to the local level to fill national policy gaps.
Regulating the gig economy
A key route to improving the conditions of gig economy and other insecure workers is to extend to them some or all of the labour rights and protections covering employees and other workers. This was the broad approach taken by the 2017 Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, which has been partially acted upon by the government. But it was widely criticised for not going far enough.
One idea gaining traction is that of ‘portable benefits’. Attached to the employee and not the employer, a portable benefits account would allow workers and employers – and potentially the government – to pay into services such as sick leave, pension contributions, maternity leave and health insurance.
The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices commissioned by the government in 2017 recommended reform of labour law to give self-employed workers dependent on labour platforms access to legal protections such as the minimum wage. The House of Commons Library has published a review of the report and responses to it.
The TUC has called for a much wider set of reforms, including the effective abolition of zero hours contracts by giving workers the right to a contract that reflects their regular hours, along with a statutory presumption of employment rights unless an employer can demonstrate that an individual is genuinely self-employed.
The RSA has proposed a portable benefits scheme to provide rights and protections for gig economy workers.
Organising gig workers
One of the reasons that gig workers have few rights is that it is very difficult to organise and bargain collectively when workers are dispersed and have a fragile relationship with their contracting company. However a number of trade unions have been organising gig economy workers and in some cases winning significant improvements in working conditions and workers’ rights.
The fundamental imbalance between the power of digital work platforms and the workers who use them has led some to call for ‘platform cooperatives’, in which the platforms would be owned by the workers themselves.
The TUC and Cooperatives UK have explored the challenges of trade union organising among precarious workers and how precarious workers’ bargaining power can be strengthened.
IPPR has proposed that gig workers should be auto-enrolled into trade unions (with an ‘opt-out’ provision mirroring auto-enrolment into pensions).
The New Economics Foundation argues for the formation of platform cooperatives, owned by the workers using them, which would fundamentally change the current power imbalance between platform operators and workers.
Wired magazine surveys the growing global movement of gig economy workers organising to improve their working conditions.