'Gig' economy sounds like finding cheap tickets to see your favourite band. In fact the 'Gig' economy is a 'labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs’. Depending on your point of view it is either a working environment that offers flexibility with regard to employment hours (usually an employer's point of view), or it is a form of exploitation with very little workplace protection (the exploited worker's point of view). The latter is the view of the GMB Union based on research into 'precarious employment' unveiled at its 100th annual congress in Plymouth last week.
Already you'll see that we need to expand our vocabulary to keep up with this - the 'gig' economy, 'precarious employment', 'flexibility', 'underemployment', 'false self- employment'. More people will be familiar with the term 'zero hours contracts' usually prefaced by 'exploitative'. You'll soon get the hang of it!
The GMB's research based on a survey of nearly 3500 people of working age, found that up to 10 million Britons or nearly a third of the UK workforce do not have secure employment. These are people who according to GMB General Secretary Tim Roache, 'go to work either not knowing what their hours are, if they’ll be able to pay the bills, or what their long-term prospects are. That’s a sorry state of affairs in the 21st century and a product of government’s failure to tackle bogus self-employment, the use of agency contracts as a business model and point-blank refusal to ban zero-hours contracts.'
Sarah Butler, reporting on the survey in the Guardian’s Business Section (5 June 2017) wrote, 'Further interviews of those who identified themselves as insecure workers found that 61% had suffered stress or anxiety as a result of their current job and the same proportion said they had been to work while unwell for fear of not being paid, losing their job or missing out on future hours. The rapid change in employment practices was highlighted by more than three-quarters of those interviewed who said they had previously been in permanent employment.'
Having provided advice to clients on these ‘zero-hour’ contracts when they were on the rise, I am particularly alarmed by this increase. I am only too aware of the devastating effect this type of work can have on individuals and their families. Appearing before a Sheriff to explain why you and your family should not be evicted is a tough gig with no guaranteed regular income. The Housing Benefit system cannot keep up with irregular earnings. Universal Credit has also failed to prevent soaring rent arrears and homelessness and don’t get me started on trying to get Tax Credits in place for workers with no regular hours.
To make matters worse, for someone working in the ‘gig economy’ claiming benefits and reporting a change in circumstances during periods of reduced or nil income is a full-time job in itself. It’s almost impossible not to become destitute and accrue overpayments of benefit which are recovered from future entitlement.
High-interest doorstep lending, illegal lenders, pawning belongings and food banks are becoming the only coping strategies for some. The strain of all of this on families inevitably leads to relationship breakdowns and mental and physical ill-health. This is compounded by the absence of employment rights and access to sick pay, holiday pay and pensions, making it impossible for people to save for the future.
The Citizens Advice Bureau’s findings published in their report ‘Out of Hours’ in 2015 highlighted the effect unpredictable work patterns have on maintaining relationships and found that those with dependant children experienced difficulty balancing work and childcare, arguments caused by financial unpredictability, and difficulty planning family life, both day to day and for the future. I have encountered countless examples of ‘flexible’ employment resulting in homelessness and ill-health, leading to reliance on ill-health benefits.
Adrian Gregory, the chief executive of the London-based recruitment agency Extraman, gave evidence to an MP-led inquiry into the future of the world of work in March. He told the committee; 'Combining the money removed from workers with the money avoided in tax, an educated guess would be that around 15% of the total income of the recruitment industry is misappropriated. This would amount to around £4.5bn each year. I would think this figure is conservative.' He called on HM Revenue & Customs to set up a specialist unit to investigate rogue employment agencies and to tighten enforcement on holiday pay. He said industry estimates suggested that 70% of holiday pay, totalling nearly £3bn a year, was never paid.
Recently, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee published the contracts it received in its inquiry into self-employment and the 'gig' economy, including from Uber, Hermes, Deliveroo and Amazon. The Committee had requested copies of the contracts after concerns were raised about them. Frank Field, chair of the Committee branded Uber’s contract “gibberish” and “almost unintelligible”.
GMB won a landmark Employment Tribunal case against Uber in October 2016, successfully arguing that its drivers were workers rather than self-employed. Tim Roache, GMB General Secretary said: 'Workers are being lied to and obliged to sign their rights away by corporations using every trick in the book. All the forced self-employment contracts being brought to us by members are not just nonsense, they are unlawful. Bogus self-employment is rife in the 'gig economy' it's bad for workers, bad for taxpayers who underwrite low pay, and bad for the economy. GMB will challenge every bogus contract given to our members to ensure we have workers' rights fit for the twenty first century.'
'Workers' rights fit for the twenty first century' - now that's a 'gig' worth getting tickets for.
blog by Karen Osborne, employment lawyer