Not so many giggles in the gig economy

Taking Stock #10: Not so many giggles in the gig economy

I don’t remember the first time I heard someone use the term “the gig economy”. In fact, I probably didn’t hear it at all, I most likely read it. I do remember my reaction though – I didn’t know what it meant.

Having spent the early part of my 20s trying to make a living out of playing music, I wondered if the gig economy was something to do with roadies, sound engineers, and live music venues. Silly me.

It turns out to have been nothing more than another name for something I knew as the sharing economy. Although, to be honest with you, dear reader, I had no idea what ‘the sharing economy’ was supposed to mean when I first heard it said, either.

Sharing is caring, right? We all know that. After all, we teach young children to play nicely and to share their toys with others. Sharing is a positive thing. A good thing. So calling something ‘the sharing economy’ makes it sound positive too.

It’s the same with ‘the gig economy’. Gigs are exciting. Lots of people look forward to going to a gig. And if you’re the one performing the gig, well that just makes you too cool for school. Am I right, or am I right?

“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare once asked through the character of Juliet. She went on to assert “that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But the realities of the gig economy are far from exciting, and there isn’t a lot of caring to be found in the sharing economy either. But the explosion of on-demand delivery services we’ve seen in the last few years has meant a similar-sized explosion in the number of people working in it, whatever you choose to call it.

There are plenty of stories of delivery drivers who have to work more than 12 hours a day to hit their parcel quota. There are stories too about the penalties they face – in some cases getting fined more than the value of an individual drop just for turning up earlier than the appointed time slot. And there are stories of drivers who have to urinate into plastic bottles because they can’t find time for toilet breaks.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that sounds fun or exciting.

And, of course, it gets worse.

In January of this year, a self-employed DPD driver called Don Lane died aged 53. Mr Lane collapsed shortly before Christmas, having failed to seek medical help for complications arising from his diabetes. This is thought to have accelerated his demise. His widow, Ruth, told the Guardian newspaper her husband didn’t want to take time out from working: “There was a constant threat of a fine. They had to deliver the parcels to tight slots and the pressure to get them done was huge. He was putting the company before his own health. He wasn’t able to do his parcels first and make the hospital appointments, so he would cancel on the day.”

This is probably as far from the promise of a fun and flexible approach to work as you can get.

But here in the UK where I’m based pressure is mounting to change the way the so-called gig economy operates. Deliveroo is being pursued through the courts by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain – it has applied for a judicial review of a ruling by the UK’s Central Arbitration Committee, which ruled Deliveroo couriers are not classified as workers. Meanwhile, Britain’s Supreme Court will rule any day now (it may even have done so by the time you’re reading this) on a case involving a self-employed plumber and the firm he was working for, and whether he is entitled to workers’ rights.

Flexibility is a wonderful thing to have where work is concerned. But it has to be a two-way street. If all the benefits are enjoyed by the company and all of the pressure is on the worker, something is wrong and ought to change; the same would be true in reverse. There needs to be a more equitable balance. Not just because of some abstract notion of fairness, but because the delivery sector deserves it.

An industry in which many businesses are only able to operate because they don’t have the same employee obligations as established businesses surely isn’t sustainable. And if your business model is built on a lack of balance don’t be surprised if one day you find the whole thing comes crashing down.

A level playing field, in which all businesses pay the tax they should and employees get the rights they deserve no matter where they work, creates an environment where you can only gain a competitive edge by developing better products and services, having more creative ideas, and executing them through superior business skills. Not by cutting corners, which is no way to add value to your retail customers, to shoppers, to your staff, or your investors.

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