The future of work is happening now and not on some far-off horizon. One in ten Brits takes a job via gig economy platforms at least once a week. And the services gig workers provide — the almost instantaneous taxi rides, cleaning, manicures or babysitting — are now taken for granted by consumers.
The data-driven innovation that matches customers’ wishes to workers’ capabilities has opened new opportunities — but these opportunities have not been shared evenly.
Christina is a 28-year-old mother of two studying for a psychology degree. Signing on to a cleaning platform seemed like the ideal way for her to finance her family while she gains her qualifications. It didn’t turn out that way.
“The gig economy feels like quicksand,” she told us during Doteveryone’s Better Work in the Gig Economy research. “[The platform] wants to keep you in this low-paying box so you don’t evolve. If there’s no work then you’re screwed.”
“It’s really stressful and you start contemplating doing two or three gigs at once. But you know you’re already physically and mentally stretched enough… If I wasn’t stretched and tired so much I could focus more on studies.”
Flexibility — at a cost
The gig economy is founded on a trade-off: workers give up some of the safety nets of traditional employment in return for the chance to work how and when they choose. That can be a fair exchange for people with the skills and financial means to dip in and out of platform work, such as those doing white-collar gigs in accounting or online therapy. But for those who don’t, the app becomes a trap.
“In the beginning [the platform] paid £10 to get all the [drivers from another platform] to quit their jobs,” one taxi driver told us. “So everyone was moving. Then they get you hooked, and they dropped it right down to £3.50 a delivery.”
The algorithmic puppet masters leave gig workers chasing new rides or tasks 24/7 with no insight into what they’ll be paid or what costs they will bear. They are always on, but their future horizon doesn’t stretch beyond when the next job will come along. And having their lives mediated by a faceless app leaves them feeling voiceless and disrespected.
“I did in the beginning write long emails pointing out ways the platform could work better for [workers]; with screenshots, detailed explanations of how they were making our lives difficult, but I realised that they don’t care about that,” said one cycle courier. “I wish they’d treat us like people, not robots.”
The gig economy does not need to be this way. The convenience of a taxi ride or a takeaway must not be traded for the rights of people to work with financial security and dignity and to fulfil their dreams for the future.
Minimum rights for on-demand workers
Change is underway. The European Parliament has also approved new rules setting minimum rights for those in “on-demand” jobs. In the UK, the 2017 Taylor review recommended basic protections to ensure fair treatment for gig workers. The GMB union has pioneered a Scandinavian-style approach to collective bargaining between employers and unions.
As the regulatory landscape starts to catch up to the reality of the gig economy, policymakers and platforms must make sure their remedies meet the needs of those most vulnerable to the impact of new technologies.
- We call for the creation of a minimum gig wage, that takes account of the car loans and bike maintenance and other unavoidable costs of being a platform worker and still means gig workers take home enough for them and their families to survive and to thrive.
- We recommend that gig workers are given a voice in the design of platforms through new governance structures. This will redress the power imbalance between platforms and workers, and in the long term will benefit companies as they learn from their workers’ insights.
- And we ask the UK Government to adapt its National Retraining Scheme, set up to address the expected impacts of automation on the economy, to provide the holistic support that gig workers need now.
But a lot can happen without regulation. We imagined a fictional platform, AvocaGo (it caters to the customer’s every avocado need), to show what’s possible: how platforms could give workers and customers transparency about the money they earn, could put humans behind the app to listen to what workers want and could offer workers ways to move into a career beyond the app.
The gig economy can be fantastically empowering if you can work on the terms you wish for. But it can also be destabilising, dehumanising and dispiriting if you don’t.
Changes to the gig economy must be designed for the furthest first. In doing so, we will serve the interests of everyone in society.
Catherine Miller is interim chief executive of responsible technology think tank Doteveryone.