The gig economy: 2 million Britons are part of this new workforce that has some fringe benefits. But the reality is poorer working conditions, higher costs and fewer opportunities for growth
Perhaps workers like Megan, a postgraduate whose last job was not only hell but costly, will not see the point of accessing the legal system if they do not consider doing so. Megan (not her real name) had been at the bottom end of the pay scale in her previous role for seven years, and on the brink of redundancy when a new company offered a salary that she felt could not be matched by the going rate for similar work. But having saved money in the interim, she stepped into the role. She began to accrue overtime, then hours she did not want to undertake became compulsory. Even taking into account the £12 an hour she was offered, Megan found this work was poorly valued and largely meaningless.
The contract’s “You can’t leave” clause was a toothless promise that she could only be dismissed from the job if she deliberately resigned; refusing to do so would leave her with no grounds for dismissal. Such serial overwork inevitably made her ill and dangerous. When she started to be sick more frequently, she started to blow her nose instead of wiping it, which made her prone to the debilitating condition hayfever. She fell ill a lot more, and was taken off sick more often.
She was never offered more than 24 hours of sick leave in a year – even for periods when she was ill and had never been to see a doctor. At work, she was often locked in a cramped room with a person other than her, whom she was not allowed to communicate with. She felt detached from her work colleagues, and exasperated at her inability to communicate. When she proposed to leave, her colleague stopped her at the door, threatened to take away her £500-a-month benefits, and shoved a cup of coffee into her hand in a clumsy attempt to coerce her to stay. She was convinced that if she agreed to stay, no one would need to do any training in order to fill her role.
What Megan was offered was like the rough equivalent of a 2-for-1 offer on antidepressants at your local pharmacy. Her new employer seemed to view her performance, and that of the others on her team, as merely tolerable, and barely worth paying any interest in. At the same time, their boss was a respected scholar with a professorship. Megan felt excluded, and unable to speak out against the degradation she experienced on a day-to-day basis.
Several weeks after initially taking the role, Megan left to return to her family home and health.
The gig economy: are workers too scared to speak out? Read more
Allegations against Uber emerged earlier this year, and an investigation was launched. We were told that the decision was not taken lightly and, after a “complex, systematic investigation”, the government decided not to pursue prosecution against Uber, for fear that it could set a precedent that would disrupt the company’s business model. Uber’s foreign subsidiaries should still face action. (Legal settlements are currently being negotiated in the US and Canada.)
Megan’s story highlights concerns about the increasing influence of the gig economy – and also those responsibility for ensuring workers have access to legal support. The precarious nature of gig work requires workers to worry constantly about leaving, which can reduce workers’ morale and hinders them from creating and updating relationships at work. At the same time, unions and HR departments must ensure that the workers they represent are consulted and involved in decisions about the future of their company. With so many job titles and jobless status changes, it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage employee issues without requiring workers to consult their HR departments, lawyers and potential employers before making decisions. Companies like Uber do not seem to have realised that many of the workers they employ cannot, or will not, serve as effective lobbyists or any other form of significant communications personnel on their behalf.
• Kamau Richardson is senior policy officer at UK Trade and Investment