A new study commissioned by the British government published recently concluded that Britons working in the “gig economy” deserve greater protections from their employers.
The Taylor report comes in response to criticism of contemporary employment practices such as zero-hour contracts and the failure of some companies to extend basic workers’ rights – like overtime – to its employees.
The number of self-employed people now working in the “gig economy” is quite remarkable. Reports vary but it’s estimated about one million people worldwide drive for the (heavily criticised yet somehow still number one) ride-sharing service, Uber, alone.
That’s one company among dozens now competing in the ride-sharing space globally. Unsurprisingly, the disruption caused in this space is a cause of great concern for traditional taxi drivers, an economic species that should be put on the endangered list, if it hasn’t already been.
While many perceive the Taylor report to be little more than a politically motivated attempt by Theresa May’s government to regain popularity after an election which cost her party a majority in parliament, it adds credibility to a misguided belief that the same kinds of protections offered to employees in conventional economic sectors should be extended to workers in the gig economy.
Not only is this unfair to workers in more traditional positions, it also panders to a tiny number of unhappy ride share drivers. Most workers in the gig economy can’t believe their luck.
In the gig economy, staff choose if and when they want to work. They can also work simultaneously for different employers without fixed contracts. This kind of autonomy – frequently enjoyed only by those working in what many might consider to be the lowliest of positions on the social pecking order – is a first in modern labour history. All thanks to pioneering companies like the newly named, H-Uber-Is.
Of course this is over simplistic. When it comes to getting paid, there is no “if” or “when” for most of us. Only how much and how often. I’m not suggesting most Uber drivers are sitting around on bean bags playing video games until they casually decide it might be time to put a few hours in. Still the “perk” of choosing ones schedule isn’t even enjoyed by those in the so-called C-Suite (chief executives, chief financial officers and the like).
How many of us have worked in positions where entire afternoons are spent watching the clock twiddling our thumbs, not simply to avoid working but because there is no more pressing work needed that day. Instead of being allowed to leave the office and spend the remainder of our day doing something more productive or fun, we are obliged to remain at our desks in the event that some unexpected workload falls from the sky? It happens and had someone not been there to handle it business might have been lost.
The time spent being simply present and available (albeit idle) may be frustrating, but it is still time one is recompensed for. Salaried positions, which include benefits such as private health insurance, are the reason why an employee is obliged to remain at her desk long after the working day is done.
Power to determine one’s own work schedule has, in this one regard, been taken out of employers’ hands, and put squarely into the hands of employees (not while driving, of course).
But it comes with a caveat: the price you pay for legitimate autonomy over your work schedule. The loss of employee benefits. The tech which has provided the platform for a gig economy to emerge at all has also provided the systemic infrastructure for liberal economics in its purest form to thrive. If the first victim of war is innocence, the first victim of libertarian economics is protection.
Your boss can’t make you drive people around all day if you don’t want to. Nor can she make you sit in your car and wait for a fare even when things are slow. On the flip side, however, she’s no longer obliged to provide you with any additional economic or social protections above and beyond the hours you actually put in. Not only that but your actual wage is almost entirely at the mercy of market forces.
To the social and democratically inclined, this appears harsh and dangerously reliant on the unreliable. But the gig economy is only truly thriving in “sure thing” sectors – food, transportation, accommodation – where demand can periodically ebb, but will always come flowing back.
So much so that it has provided a financial lifeline to many working in even less reliable sectors, like the arts. Many Uber drivers are budding musicians or actors exploiting the flexibility afforded to them by the laissez faire rules of the gig economy so they can make themselves available last-minute for auditions, impromptu live performances etc. All because the kinds of protections afforded to the majority of workers in more traditional sectors of the economy are rarely extended to them.
Besides, liberal economics only thrives if consumer demand nurtures its development. So if we’re so concerned about workers’ rights, we need to stop perpetuating the system. Call a taxi to pick you up from the pub and pay €50 instead of €20 for the same journey.