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The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the large number of jobs in the UK economy which are highly insecure. 5 million people are self-employed, a status which includes many who work almost exclusively for one company. Over a million people now work on ‘zero hours contracts’ under which they have no fixed working hours.
Altogether it is estimated that 3.6 million people are in various forms of insecure work, including including agency, casual and seasonal workers and the self-employed earning less than the minimum wage. Research suggests that nearly 1 in 10 workers in the UK do ‘platform work’ via an app at least once a week, with nearly two-thirds of those under the age of 35. Many such ‘gig workers’ were among the first to lose their jobs as the economy closed down. Yet it is estimated that over 1.5 million self-employed people have been unable to get government support.
‘Gig economy’ jobs can provide welcome flexibility. But many come with very low pay, and by definition a high degree of insecurity which makes normal household budget planning very difficult. They tend to have few employment rights, such as paid holidays, sickness pay, and protection against unfair dismissal. And it is difficult for them to organise collectively, for example through trade unions.
A key route to improving the conditions of gig economy and other insecure workers is to extend to them some or all of the labour rights and protections covering employees and other workers. This was the broad approach taken by the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, which has been partially acted upon by the government. But it was widely criticised for not going far enough.
One idea gaining traction is that of ‘portable benefits’. Attached to the employee and not the employer, a portable benefits account would allow workers and employers – and potentially the government – to pay into services such as sick leave, pension contributions, maternity leave and health insurance.
One of the reasons that gig workers have few rights is that it is very difficult to organise and bargain collectively when workers are dispersed and have a fragile relationship with their contracting company. However a number of trade unions have been organising gig economy workers and in some cases winning significant improvements in working conditions and workers’ rights.
The fundamental imbalance between the power of digital work platforms and the workers who use them has led some to call for ‘platform cooperatives’ , in which the platforms would be owned by ther workers themselves.