We have all had, at one point or another, an experience with Uber, Airbnb, UpWork or Deliveroo. Admittedly, I probably see the Deliveroo guy more often than I do my flatmates. This driver is part of a compelling new proposition. Employees are free to choose their working hours, have no David Brent-esque boss breathing down their necks, and, truth be told, get paid reasonably well for their labour. Tech unicorns are seemingly restoring power back into the hands of the work force. The consumer too, is riding this wave of empowerment – benefiting from greater choice and competitive prices. Whilst the existence of a gig economy is nothing new, today’s manifestation is revolutionary in terms of accessibility to labour and labourer empowerment. Yet, whilst this appears to be a win for all parties involved, a closer look reveals a dire need for strict regulation and oversight.
Too often, these workers find themselves stripped of the rights and benefits of permanent, full-time work- such as sick and holiday pay – an issue regularly overlooked by regulators and trade unions. This was painfully brought to light by the case of Don Lane. Working in Dickensian conditions, the nature of his contract forced Don to miss appointments with specialists to treat his diabetes. For a missed day’s work, a courier contractor is fined £150 should they fail to find a cover – a precarious task given the training and certification required for the job. This policy is common practice in the industry and since some contractors earn as little as £2.50 an hour, the threat of a looming fine often dictates their life much as a full employment-contract would. Don, after one such fine, proceeded to miss three consecutive appointments and give priority to his contractor. In early January of this year, he collapsed at the wheel and died in hospital. Don’s wife and son were left behind with no entitlement to compensation and no grounds to stake a legal case- Don was, after all, self-employed in the eyes of the law. In an economy with as many as five million workers or 34% of the workforce in the UK alone, one must question how many Don Lanes there are and how long it will be before we wake up to the potential perils of gig-employment. With a new booming start-up every week, there are myriad seemingly quick-fix employment opportunities to help those urgently in need of cash. Unfortunately, it is the most vulnerable who cannot afford to be drawn into such unregulated and, in Don’s case, shackling forms of employment that yield no social security or protection. It is critical that we have greater government oversight and safeguarding in place for these contractors – a matter desperately in need of the House’s attention when it returns in September.