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.

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 are 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

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 (some 5million 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 the evidence base for future policy actions in the UK and across Europe. Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, is using the methodology underpinning Huws’s surveys to inform its own first collection of data on online platform work.

Professor Huws gave evidence to the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, whose subsequent joint report was cited in a [June 2017] resolution calling for 'fair working conditions and adequate legal and social protection for all workers' in the growing gig economy. She also gave evidence to the UK Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry into self-employment and the gig economy, and 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.