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Gig economy workers trapped in cycle of insecurity, report says

By Marianne Curphey

Government 'must act to help those who find promise of flexibility is just a myth'

The gig economy offers the illusion of flexibility but many of its workers are trapped in a cycle of financial insecurity, a new report claims.

Many workers find that they have to be available 24/7 in order to be considered for work, yet they lack the safety net of traditional employment, according to the report from Doteveryone, the responsible tech think tank, entitled Better work in the gig economy: Enabling gig workers to live with financial security, dignity and dreams.

It argues that while the platform economy is now worth an estimated £2bn (€2.4bn, $2.6 bn) to the UK economy and the number of gig workers doubled between 2016 and 2019, many feel trapped by insecurity and piecemeal payments.

Martha Lane Fox, executive chair and founder of Doteveryone, said: “We have seen many gains as a society and as consumers from the fantastic pace of technological change and the flexible and independent nature of work today. As this research shows, there are many perils. We underestimate them at our very grave risk.

“The gig economy can be fantastically empowering if you can work on the terms you wish for. But it can also be destabilising, dehumanising and dispiriting if you don’t. The convenience of a taxi ride or a takeaway must not be traded for the rights of people to work with financial security and dignity and to fulfil their dreams for the future.”

One in ten people in the UK now receives a job via a digital platform at least once a week. The report says that for those with existing skills and financial means, gig work can offer flexibility and freedom.

“But for those who don’t, the app has become a trap," it says. "They have no option but to work gigs, and no way out once they’ve begun. In this research we listened to those who are in the trap.

"They told us how gig work strips them of financial security, dignity and any dreams for the future. We heard from them how gig work is ‘like quicksand’ – low pay becomes unlivable pay after costs are accounted for – and the promise of flexibility is an illusion.”

The report makes a number of recommendations:

  • The Government should develop and enforce a minimum gig wage that accounts for the costs of doing gig work
  • Platforms should provide greater data transparency to show workers how their earnings and costs fluctuate and tell customers how the price they pay is split between workers and the platform
  • Companies should create governance structures that give gig workers a voice in the design of platforms they work for
  • In a world where interactions are mediated through an app and often automated or ignored, workers should be able to reach a human to answer questions or seek redress
  • The government should adapt the National Retraining Scheme to support gig workers.

“Platforms’ desire for unchecked growth and a passive regulatory environment mean while others benefit from the innovation of the gig economy, some workers are bearing the brunt: living on the breadline, being treated as a data point and with no options or time to move out of their situation,” the report says.

“This is neither fair nor sustainable. It risks creating an underclass adrift from the opportunities others enjoy.”

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