When the then Conservative cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit, fondly remembered how his dad went out on his bike to look for work he could hardly have imagined how many hundreds of thousands of people would be doing just that.
The number of delivery riders working in the gig economy has boomedduring the pandemic, and for some it has been a good way to earn some extra cash. Others, however, are stuck working long hours below the minimum wage and with no employment rights or benefits. Like a gigging musician playing in a pub, in the gig economy you bring your own equipment and the amount you earn depends on the number of people who show up. Today, many gig economy workers register with apps which connect them to customers requiring something or someone to be picked up or dropped off. Often, when they log into the app, they don’t know how many jobs they will get or what they will earn. They receive nothing for waiting time, no compensation if they are injured on the job, and no guidance on how work is allocated. This has led gig economy workers to demand recognition from these apps-based companies that they are employees.
When the supreme court dismissed Uber’s appeal against an employment tribunal in February 2021, it was a landmark victory for workers’ rights, taking aim at unethical practices in the gig economy which mask employment as self-employment. The ruling included requiring Uber to recognise that working time starts when their drivers log in, and ends when they log off. Since then, Uber has recognised their 70,000 UK drivers as workers, paying in-work employee benefits, setting up auto-enrolment pension schemes, and allowing them to take paid holidays.
However, as I raised in the House of Commons after the supreme court judgment, the ruling only applies to drivers working at Uber (and not even to Uber Eats couriers). We urgently need legislation to create a level playing field for all, providing certainty for platforms and workers alike. Research from Fairwork at the Oxford Internet Institute has shown that other digital platforms have serious progress to make in order to deliver fair pay and work conditions. It reports that only two platforms, Pedal Me and Just Eat, could demonstrate their workers are guaranteed to get the minimum wage after costs.
The EU recently proposed a new directive that would improve conditions for those working via digital platforms, establishing the criteria to be met for a platform to be judged to be exerting too much control on the worker for them to be regarded as self-employed. Importantly, platforms will also be able to give self-employed platform workers benefits without there being a risk to their self-employment status. This directive would not apply here of course, so we have an opportunity to learn from what works, or not, as other countries seek to tackle this issue too.
Indeed, at the last general election, the government promised to reform employment law, building on the recommendations of the Taylor review, to both encourage flexible working but also ensure that workers have the right to request more certainty in their contracts. The forthcoming employment bill provides the perfect opportunity to show that, post-Brexit, the UK can lead on establishing clear and easy-to-use rules that work for platforms, consumers, and workers, whether they are employed or self-employed.
Better working rights for the gig economy will be good for consumers too. Drivers will be less likely to hop between apps and cancel jobs when a better offer comes along if they know they have a guaranteed minimum income based on the number of hours they are available for work. It will also create a level playing field between local businesses that use their own delivery staff, as well as those that use apps. We need to ensure that bricks-and-mortar businesses that pay their taxes and treat their workers fairly are not discriminated against by a system that allows highly profitable apps to do neither.