Gig economy: flexibility at what cost?

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In Pimlico Plumbers v Gary Smith [2017], the court grappled with the murky body of employment that is the gig economy; an economy built upon ‘independent contractors’ who lack entitlement to basic workers’ rights. Gary Smith won this legal battle, yet the troubling questions shed light on exploitation.

Perhaps best defined as a “labour market characterised by short term contracts,” the gig economy takes the form of app-based businesses such as Deliveroo or Uber. Currently in Britain, 1.3 million workers are employed within this market. The competitive nature of this economy promotes a climate that encourages low-paid flexible work; Deliveroo’s dramatic “600% growth in 2016” is only possible due to this flexible model.

Its popularity is undeniable. The flexibility it provides is appealing to the increasingly self-employed workforce; it offers an empowering and refreshing change to the traditional 9-5 and caters for the modern worker, typically the student. 85% of Uber drivers said they work in the gig economy “to have more flexibility in [their] schedule and balance [their] work with [their] life and family.” Additionally, numerous studies show a remarkable link between wellbeing and the option to ‘take an hour or two off during working hours to take care of personal or family matters’.

However, problems occur alongside classification as an independent contractor. This branding provides for Britain’s “vulnerable human underbelly.” One worker noted that “I am treated as an employee – in fact, worse – but with no holiday or sick pay, no security and no pension.” This use of self-employment treats contractors and employees alike, yet deprives them of protection. Contentions are fueled by a lack of rights against unfair dismissal, redundancy and minimum wage. The plunge into financial insecurity and uncertainty concocts an “absolute recipe for a stress-related illness.”

Flexibility in itself is also questionable as it is determined on when the company needs you, with often unsuitable hours, leading one commentator to note that flexibility “is not a benefit of working for Uber; that is a benefit of working for a good company.” Moreover, a lack of restrictions on usage distorts this flexibility to dangerous levels. Common sense dictates that multiple jobs and senselessly long hours will create unnecessary accidents from tiredness and lapses in concentration. Is the risk worth the reward?

Fundamentally, in an attempt to curtail costs, employers have been become predatory. Basic rights are warranted and this has to an extent been proven in the courts; Uber drivers in the UK won the right to be classed as workers, entitling them “to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the national minimum wage.” Moreover, The Taylor Review on modern employment practices focuses on tackling exploitation primarily though labelling these workers as 'dependent contractors' so that they can receive more employment rights. It seems these abusive practices are increasingly outdated and parliament in coalition with the judiciary are slowly recognizing and safeguarding the gig economy worker.

By Concobhar Jolliffe-Grimes (2nd Year LLB)

Ben Lin