The gig economy is the name for the increasing amounts of short-term contract or freelance work that is increasingly present in the labour market. The gig economy has been praised for allowing flexibility and is particularly attractive to younger workers who do not want to be tied down by a full-time job. However, it has also been subjected to a huge amount of criticism. This is because gig work often means fewer employment rights, zero hours contracts, and little to no access to sick or holiday pay. Examples of gig workers are food delivery riders, couriers, cleaners and care workers.
What many of these workers have in common is that in January when the government was beginning to set out its post-Brexit immigration policy, they fell under the umbrella term used to discriminate between the immigration coulds and could-nots – ‘unskilled’. Then COVID-19 struck. Ignoring for a moment the prejudicial implications of this terminology, the skills of these workers: delivering food and goods; cleaning spaces that must remain open; caring for the old and vulnerable, are keeping the country afloat. They have gone from being ‘unskilled’ to ‘key’. And a huge proportion of them work within the gig economy.
Not only has COVID-19 highlighted the essential work done by those in the gig economy, it has laid bare its problems. Prior to COVID-19, many firms that operated within the gig economy did not provide any sick pay to their workers. If they got ill, they had no income. That has now changed for some.
Previously there was no sick pay available for Deliveroo riders but now there is a ‘rider support fund’ which promises financial support for those who must self-isolate. Courier Hermes has also promised its self-isolating workers sick pay, despite it being non-existent before. But still, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) says that many gig workers are ‘falling through the cracks’.
The fact that it took a pandemic for these workers to get access to what seem to be the most basic employment benefits reveals the lack of support there for many in the gig economy. For the best outcomes for individuals, the future of work should not be focused on growing the gig economy as we have known it, but on building deeply human businesses that value greater diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing. Organisations that support their employees or contractors and help them to develop will achieve more than those who do not.
The gig economy is not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, with the slow-down of the furlough scheme and predicted job losses, it will likely only become more prevalent. It is vital that our newly recognised key workers continue to be valued, and supported, even after the pandemic is over.
But the gig economy is not the only way of working that is becoming more popular. Our next blogs will cover the purpose economy, discussing what it truly means to have purpose in the workplace, and another will discuss how the knowledge economy highlights the need for research-based and technological solutions.