Blog: Rocking the ‘gig’ economy – is the world of work evolving or regressing?

Anne-Marie Boyle, Specialist Employment Lawyer at Menzies Law

Rather like Brexit (a word you never thought you would use so often), the gig economy will be one of those phrases you will start to hear over and over again. It comes from the US (natch!) and describes the arrangements whereby independent contractors take on a series of short-term projects to suit their financial and lifestyle commitments – hence moving from ‘gig’ to ‘gig’. It is a spectrum away from the solid ‘9-5 with benefits’ jobs that the majority of us work. However, it is estimated that by 2020 around 40% of the US population will be working as independent contractors.

For some, the gig economy will be the golden ticket. Freedom to chose  the ‘when’, ‘where’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ and the digital age have both certainly helped with that. There are many platforms now where buyers can access a ready supply of contractors. You can easily see the advantages for both sides: the buyer only purchases exactly the services they want, avoiding the expense of actually employing someone; and the supplier gets to find the ‘gig’ that suits them at that particular time. The likes of Uber are held up as the epitome of how the gig economy works best.

Down side

But we all know that a purely rock and roll lifestyle can turn a bit sour too. The fact is most independent contractors are not groovy hipsters, sitting at coffee bars, logging on and picking up the next project to work on every few days.  Rather, it is more often workers in the more deprived parts of society, who for one reason or another can’t actually get the secure 9-5 job they want, but instead find themselves on a  ‘zero hours’ contracts, not feeling very flexible and free at all.

In fact, the classic ‘zero hours’ contract that you see in the likes of Sports Direct is certainly getting attention for all the wrong reasons at the moment with stories are emerging of very poor working conditions.  A recent House of Commons Business Committee, commenting on Sports Direct, reported that  “The evidence we heard points to a business whose working practices are closer to that of a Victorian workhouse than that of a modern, reputable High Street retailer.”

Under scrutiny

The Government has promised that the forthcoming Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) will have a much broader remit and stronger powers than exist at present to tackle labour exploitation across the economy, introducing the capacity to search and seize evidence and investigate modern slavery where it relates to labour abuse and other offences.

And if all that isn’t enough, the Citizens Advice Bureaux reported only last month that women who are returning from maternity leave are much more likely to be offered ‘zero hours’ contracts instead of their permanent contracts (with Sports Direct being again named as a key offender in this area): the suggestion from the CAB being that these are inferior arrangements to those previously enjoyed by the female employees.

It is not just Sports Direct who are getting a bashing: various courier companies, such as Hermes, are having their working practices questioned.  Again, they use a pool of self-employed couriers to undertake daily delivery rounds. Stories are emerging here of drivers working very long days but still not being paid the national minimum wage.

The GMB union is currently supporting an Employment Tribunal case that is seeking to secure ‘worker’ status for exactly these types of ‘self-employed’ workers.  (There is that odd category of ‘worker’ in UK employment law who is not an employee but is entitled to the important rights of the national minimum wage and paid holiday.) Even the BBC has recently been criticised for their use of potentially exploitative contracts for junior members of staff working very long hours on productions but without the benefits of receiving overtime or ‘out of hours’ allowances.

There are many different types of working models, and the workplace has to evolve too. Companies offering flexible working practices such as home-working, term-time working, compressed working day, duvets days and flex-benefits are consistently rated highly by employees in ‘Good Employer’ surveys. So perhaps we don’t want to feel too ‘9-5’ any more, but we still want the basic employment protections that have become a main-stay of the employment world over the last 50 years.

We can’t have it all, I guess, but it would be a shame if what we get is an erosion of basic employment rights dressed up as ‘the modern workplace’.

Anne-Marie Boyle, Specialist Employment Lawyer at Menzies Law

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