The Gig Economy - It's Not Rock And Roll, It's Boss And Control

08/11/2016 11:02

Now that digital taxi app Uber is planning to dig further into our lives, apparently by accessing our mobile device calendars, perhaps we should dig further back?

Politicians need to take the so-called 'gig economy' which Uber represents to task and make them far more responsible for those they employ.

The recent landmark employment tribunal ruling giving rights to London Uber drivers was a start, and not just for the firm's 40,000 employees, as we might now be allowed to call them. But there is much further to go given suggestions that between 20 and 30 per cent of workers in Europe are now working 'independently', but under the auspices of a branded digital platform with barely a human guiding hand in sight.

We should start by recognising the job opportunities and consumer benefits from disruptive technologies, and its permanence within the economy. The gig economy is also helping to disperse and encourage entrepreneurship, which is no bad thing given how concentrated wealth has become in recent decades.

Companies such as Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb deserve their success. They have given people income streams and unheard of work-life flexibility; and all whilst challenging comfortable cartels to up their game, or at least lower their prices.

But success brings responsibilities. No company exists within a bubble. The grey area Uber and similar other companies have created between employment and self-employment raises fundamental questions about obligations in the Twenty-First Century.

At a basic level, employed people oblige their firms in the UK to pay National Insurance, which funds the wider workings of society, and enjoy the benefits of paid holidays and pension contributions. This is part of the social contract: work in return for pay and benefits, and also the wider investment society makes in things such as health, roads and telecoms infrastructure without which the business cannot succeed.

What the gig economy model does is largely ignore that contract, reducing it to a raw economic husk of self-advantage. It requires no particular employer commitments and offers no sick and holiday pay. All of which, of course, means no employer National Insurance contributions to the Treasury. If every UK business went that way, the UK really would be in a financial black hole.

The Conservative former digital minister Ed Vaizey has suggested a minimum wage for people caught in this twilight realm between full and self-employment. He has a point. It cannot be right that vast corporate fortunes are being made apart from the employment obligations painstakingly and painfully won over many decades. Society is about rather more than a smartly delivered pizza.

It is tempting to think the rise in self-employment and the gig economy represent some sort of return to the genuine market economy of the Eighteenth Century, a time when people traded with each other to survive as the industrial revolution gave them the tools with which to do so.

This feels different. It seems more like the Nineteenth Century, when a handful of companies tried to develop monopolies that, in the end, required legislation to bust. The only difference is that instead of revolving around coal, steel and raw materials, the gig economy's titans are trying to secure intellectual property - ours - in return for some conveniences.

We should tread warily. The independence enjoyed by, say, Uber drivers seems illusory, given that it is the proprietary technology that gives them work and sets prices. Airbnb helps its hosts be better, but largely to protect its own brand value.

Even the use of the word 'gig' somehow denies the significance of what is taking place. Work is not a rock concert, as we seem to be invited to believe, and perhaps we need to stop looking at the the casually dressed young people now redefining it as corporate rock stars. They may wear t-shirts, but they have more in common with the Nineteenth Century industrial giants Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller, and Henry Ford. We should plan accordingly.

Comments

CONVERSATIONS