What does the gig economy mean for you? | University of Oxford
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In the gig-economy, people access paid-work through online platforms which enable workers to be hired to do a specific task, or gig. For example, driving jobs like Uber and delivery tasks such as Deliveroo. But also traditional freelance tasks, like website and graphic design. Image credit: Shutterstock

What does the gig economy mean for you?

Lanisha Butterfield

How does £130 in driving fines result in a young man taking his own life?

That question lingers long after the credits roll on the BBC drama ‘Killed by my debt’, which tells the harrowing true story of Jerome Rogers, a 19-year-old courier, who tragically took his own life after debts stemming from two outstanding motoring offences spiralled beyond his control – from £65 each, to more than a thousand pounds within a matter of months.

A combination of unfortunate and all too common circumstances – flexible, insecure employment, working class background, age and unique health factors, prevented him from clearing the debts and ultimately led to his untimely death.

These factors not only made him ripe for exploitation in today’s society, but were also enabled by the very economic structure that now underpins it, the gig-economy. If at this point, you’re thinking, ‘the what?’ you are not alone. ‘Gig-economy’ is a phrase commonly used in society, but little understood by many.

To bring some clarity to the subject, ScienceBlog talks to Dr Alex Wood, a sociologist and researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, who focuses on the changing nature of employment relations and labour markets, to breakdown everything you need to know about the ‘gig-economy’ and how it could affect you in the future.

What is the gig-economy and how does it work?
The gig-economy is the way in which people are now finding work in non-standard ways. So, instead of working for a traditional employer, they access paid-work through online platforms which enable workers to be hired to do a specific task, or gig. For example, driving jobs like Uber and delivery tasks such as Deliveroo. But also traditional freelance tasks, like website and graphic design.

It’s important to understand that the system of work comes with no frills. Zero-hour contracts and no benefits like holiday pay, sick pay or even a minimum wage.

How has it affected employment?
People are basically working in a much more flexible way. They can be juggling multiple-tasks any given time, and all hours of the day. There is no fixed way of working – the days of the 9-5 are long over for many workers.

On the one hand, this can be a positive set-up if you have control of the work you do, and are able to choose for yourself who you work for, what tasks you perform and when you do them. But to be in this privileged position your skills have to be in high demand, and the reality is that a lot of people are competing for these roles.

When you don’t have this control it can lead to employment instability and insecurity.

People have to work to survive, and if you don’t know where your next hour of work is coming from it can make it impossible to budget and plan for everyday life such as childcare, social life and holidays. Which can lead to people becoming really isolated.

It’s important to understand that the system of 'gig' work comes with no frills. Zero-hour contracts and no benefits like holiday pay, sick pay or even a minimum wage.

How can this instability affect people’s lives?
In these circumstances workers become desperate and feel they have to work whenever an employer wants them to. They relinquish all control which can be incredible stressful, mentally and physically. Control is key. 

Often in the press the gig-economy is discussed positively as something mutually beneficial to employers and workers. But in reality it is a trade-off. The reasons why each side wants flexibility are very different.

If the employee is in control, the employer is not, and they are in a position where they have to match labour supply to customer demand. But, for the worker, it is about survival and trying to make a living – as we have seen horrifically reflected in the case of Jerome Rogers.

Who is most at risk?
People competing for less in-demand skilled roles can unfortunately be taken advantage of. Unlike more skilled roles, where there is a much smaller pool of people who can perform them, there are a lot more people that want and can do the job. That means these workers do not have alternative opportunities, so if a client or platform makes unreasonable demands or wants them to work anti-social hours, they have no other choice but to do it. People need to work to survive, so they have to work whenever they are asked to.

We need to rethink our understanding of workers’ rights and employment law. The purpose of the law is to protect people in a vulnerable position, if it is not doing that anymore we need to change the law to make sure that these people are protected.

Most workers who are part of the gig-economy are also not part of a trade union, so they don’t have the protections that come from having a collective voice, which makes them much more vulnerable.

Who has the most to gain?

If workers have skills that are in demand then it can be positive for them, because they can pick and choose who they work for and when. But, in most areas there is a lack of high quality jobs and there are no good quality alternatives available.

For employers however, the benefits are much more obvious. Employing people by task allows a business to reduce labour costs and avoid paying for services that were once expected such as pensions.

Can people make the gig-economy work for them against the odds?
Collective organisation is really important, for example being a part of a trade union.
It is interesting that just last week, Deliveroo workers in London and across Europe went on strike to protest changes to their pay. Even though protections did not exist for these workers when the gig-economy structure launched, they are working collectively to put them in place. Workers who are in a vulnerable position should be able to come together and protect themselves.

Can you tell us a little about your research?
At the moment I am looking at collective organisation and community amongst gig economy workers who are doing remote gig work, in my paper 'workers of the internet unite?'
They operate on similar gig-economy style platforms to Uber and Deliveroo, which perform direct tasks, only these people work remotely from anywhere in the world, supporting digital labour, such as transcription and editing. Even these workers are coming together to create collective organisation.

What can be done to regulate the system and make it fairer?
We need to rethink our understanding of workers’ rights and employment law. The purpose of the law is to protect people in a vulnerable position, if it is not doing that anymore we need to change the law to make sure that these people are protected.

Trade unions should also be able to represent them. Often these platforms claim that workers cannot have a trade union because technically they are a business working for a client, not a direct employee.

There needs to be a recognition that if people are in a dependent situation they are automatically more vulnerable, and should have labour protections. For example, a minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay. Things that were considered a right in traditional jobs should also be a right in the gig economy.

Dr Wood's paper 'Workers of the internet unite?' is available to view here