Gig economy transfers risks to workers and power to bosses

It's not just apps - this is a long-term trend


Today sees the launch of a new TUC report mapping insecurity at work in Britain today, and how key risks associated with work have been transferred to working people, while the financial rewards from flexibility accrue to employers.


It’s the first in a series of reports from the TUC, in which we’ll seek to understand more about what’s driving these forms of insecurity, the experience of insecure workers, and most importantly what we can do to reverse this trend.

But we wanted to start by trying to set out why we should be concerned about these forms of insecure work, and try and get a handle on what exactly the problem we’re trying to address is.

This year has seen an increasing and welcome focus on the changing world of work – sometimes described as the gig economy, sometimes seen through the prism of the huge increase in self-employment, and sometimes zeroing in on zero hours contracts.

Employers have sought to manage the financial risk that comes from the inability to guarantee a constant demand for a product or service by employing workers on contracts that offer flexibility for the employer, at the expense of pay and certainty for the employee.

And because these contracts often come with lower pay and fewer rights and protections, the risk of being unable to work due to sickness or caring responsibilities, is also transferred to working people.

Technology has played a role in these shifts, with online platforms offering a way for employers to break up work into smaller tasks, and contract workers on a piece work basis.

(We think that the impact of technology on the employment relationship, our focus here, should be looked at separately from its impact on the employment experience – in the form of surveillance or monitoring, or on the supply of work and whether robots will replace humans altogether in the labour market).

But the change in the balance of risks between workers and employers cannot be simply attributed to new technology.

Unions have long been concerned about the nature of the relationship between those requiring and those supplying employment, from the days of piece work, through labour exchanges, the increase in temporary work in the 1990s, to today’s zero hour contracts, agency workers and growing army of self-employed.

And while some of the today’s insecure workers may work for ‘platform’ companies like Uber or Deliveroo, many of them work in areas using little technology.

What unites the agency worker at ASOS, the care worker missing out on the minimum wage, and the lecturer employed on a zero hours contract is not an app, but the lack of rights, protection and power they experience at work. It’s this shift of risks that we think we should be talking about when we talk about insecurity at work.

If these shifts are fundamentally about a transfer of power at work, our solutions need to address that too. You won’t be surprised to read that we think unions have a critical role to play here.

Of course, unions are already winning gains for workers across the country: today’s totemic examples of insecurity, Sports Direct, Uber, or ASOS have come to prominence because unions have been organising in their workforces for better terms and conditions.

Unions are also innovating to reach more workers facing insecurity and to build on the long experience of organising self-employed people in the entertainment sector and beyond. We know there’s more we need to do ourselves – to reach out to young workers and to make the best of new technologies to help us do that.

But we could do much more with a better framework of union rights. It’s still a shock to me that there’s no right for unions to access a workforce where they are not currently represented.

That seems like a simple first step for a government that was serious about helping working people get the working lives they deserve.

Kate Bell is Head of the TUC’s Economic and Social Affairs Department (ESAD) and a former Work and Pensions advisor to Ed Miliband. 

See: ‘Gig economy’ sees zero-hours workers earn a third of average wage

See: TUC’s O’Grady blasts JD Sports over ‘degrading’ warehouse conditions


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