A fairer gig economy

The rise of ‘on-demand’ work managed by online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo is changing the way work is organised and challenging traditional forms of employment. Research by Hertfordshire Business School is informing policymakers seeking to protect labour standards in this precarious new work environment.

“There is a fundamental mismatch between the fluid and rapidly evolving labour markets of the digital age, and categorisations of work and social security still rooted in the mid-20

In the so-called ‘gig economy’, workers get paid for each ‘gig’ they do - such as making a food delivery - instead of receiving a regular wage. This allows people to work flexible hours as they juggle other priorities, and benefits employers, who don’t pay unless there is work available.

Those working for online platforms in this way tend to be classified as self-employed contractors, rather than employees. As such they have no protection against unfair dismissal, no right to redundancy payments, the national minimum wage, sickness or holiday pay. Yet nor do they have the freedoms associated with freelance status: their rate is fixed, and they have limited rights to refuse work, or challenge negative customer feedback or arbitrary suspensions.

This precarious way of working has prompted civil society organisations and European Union committees to lobby the European Commission to protect the rights of the growing gig economy workforce.

A new bill of workers’ rights

“…the transition to a more and more digital work environment has clearly affected peoples’ working environment 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.”

Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, was commissioned by Brussels-based Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and trade union UNI Europa to carry out the first study into the extent and nature of the ‘platform economy’ across seven European countries.

Her research team conducted surveys of 17,000 online workers in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy, gathering data on the type of work undertaken, their employment conditions and their relationships with online platforms.

The ‘Work in the European Gig Economy’ study established that a high proportion of the population – 9% in the UK (equivalent to some 5 million people) rising to 22% in Italy – have worked for online platforms. Only 7% - 13% of these workers regarded themselves as self-employed.

A key finding was the lack of a sharp distinction between gig economy workers and others. Instead, the study found a broad spectrum of casual, on-call work spread across diverse industries and occupations.

As a result, Professor Huws has suggested the solution to the growing precariousness and disentitlement faced by such workers is to write a new ‘bill of workers’ rights’ to clarify the obligations of all employers and protect all workers from the ‘platformisation’ of work.

The report’s investigations and findings are now providing an evidence base for future policy actions across Europe. The research has informed policy responses by European Commission (EC) directorate-generals (DGs), EU-level agencies and statistics bodies, European Parliament committees and civil society organisations; fed into political and regulatory debates in the UK and other EU member states; and stimulated public debate in several countries over the human impact of this changing world of work.

Professor Huws gave evidence to the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, whose subsequent joint report was cited in a resolution calling for 'fair working conditions and adequate legal and social protection for all workers' in the growing gig economy. She submitted evidence to the UK Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry into self-employment and the gig economy, which led to an invitation to give oral evidence to the Taylor Review of modern working practices, commissioned by the Prime Minister.

FEPS/UNI Europa have extended the study to a further six European countries, including France and Spain, while Professor Huws’s ‘manifesto’ for ‘A New Bill of Workers’ Rights for the 21st Century’ has been published by UK thinktank Compass. Her work is leading to new collaborations with senior policymakers and continues to receive high-profile media coverage as the debate about our future working lives continues.

Headshot of Ursula Huws

Ursula Huws

Ursula is a Professor of Labour and Globalisation and editor of the journal Work Organisation, Labour and Globalisation. Her research is on the economic and social impacts of technological change, the restructuring of employment and the changing international division of labour for decades. Her current  focus is on the gig economy and its implications for welfare reform and labour policy.