28 November 2017

Academics from the University of Hertfordshire are using the publication of the study’s findings to call for a fundamental redefinition of work in the digital age and the creation of a new bill of workers’ rights to protect millions of workers in the European gig economy.

The findings of a groundbreaking research project to map the scale of the ‘gig economy’ within Europe have been published in a new report entitled ‘Working in the European Gig Economy’. This report presents the results of an innovative survey revealing, for the first time, the extent and characteristics of workers using online platforms to gain work and covers Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Online platforms are used for managing work in a range of sectors across Europe and beyond. The study sought to identify the proportion of the population using online platforms, how much income they derive from this source and the characteristics of these workers.

Crowd work

A high proportion of the population (ranging from 9% in Germany and the UK to a high of 22% in Italy) reported having done some crowd work. Crowd work is defined as working ‘virtually’ from their own homes via an online platform such as Upwork or Clickworker; providing driving services via a platform like Uber, or working in somebody else’s home for a platform like Helpling, Handy or Taskrabbit. In the majority of cases this was a very occasional supplement to other earnings. However estimates, based on percentages of adult populations, found that as many as 5.68 million people in these seven European countries could be earning over half of their income from crowd work; this includes over a million people in the UK (1.33m) and Germany (1.45m) and more than two million people in Italy (2.14m).

Academics from the University of Hertfordshire, in collaboration with the Federation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), UNI Europa and Ipsos Mori, surveyed more than 17,000 workers to investigate the scale of crowd work taking place in Europe and shed light on the realities of their working lives, including the stresses, fears and health hazards they face.

Risks for workers

Further in-depth interviews with crowd workers helped researchers identify the risks facing the gig economy workforce which include long working hours, long and unpredictable unpaid waiting times, sexual harassment and even being asked to take on tasks relating to drug dealing or stolen goods. Crowd workers also discussed the difficulty in communicating with platform personnel, arbitrary terminations, frequent changes to payment systems and the impact of customer ratings, complaining that platforms take the side of clients against workers.

'We desperately need a new bill of rights'

Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire and lead author of the report, said: 'One of the most striking findings from our research is the impossibility of drawing a sharp line between gig economy workers and others. What appears to be happening is a move towards a general ‘platformisation’ of European labour markets, where work for online platforms represents part of a broad spectrum of casual, on-call work spreading across diverse industries and occupations in a complex intermingling of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’.

'This suggests the solution to addressing the growing precariousness and dis-entitlement of gig economy workers is not to create a special set of regulations to protect only them, as this risks watering down existing rights of employees. What we desperately need is new bill of rights that clarifies the rights and obligations of all workers and all employers.'

Ernst Stetter, Secretary General, FEPS, said 'Surveys show that the transition to a more and more digital work environment has clearly effected peoples’ working environment. Interviews with crowd workers that were conducted in the context of the study revealed a range of physical and psycho-social health hazards. Some of these were linked to working long hours, including long and unpredictable waiting periods (for which they were not paid). The challenge for progressives is to face this digital transformation by making sure that European working and employment standards apply to all workers in the traditional and the platform economy.'

Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa, the European services union, said: 'The gig economy opens the door to a new world of ‘just-in-time’ work. Crowd workers are often part of a ‘hidden’ work force who do not have a stable income, relying on daily or weekly payslips. Employment relationships are also fading and most gig workers often see themselves as ‘temporary workers’. We need inclusive EU legal frameworks to ensure that crowd workers get the same protection afforded to all workers. It is essential that the right to unionise and to collectively bargain reaches crowd workers as soon as possible.'

The report Working in the European Gig Economy: Research Results from UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy, is available from the FEPS website