What is the Gig Economy?

Merriam-Webster recently added ‘gig economy’ to their dictionary, defined as “economic activity that involves the use of temporary or freelance workers to perform jobs typically in the service sector”.

Not necessarily a bad thing, at one end of the scale this model works well for many contractors and skilled professionals. (As a freelance writer, I participate in the gig economy myself.)

👉 However, at the other end, drivers and cleaners, for example, are now considered to be self-employed contractors, without traditional entitlements like holiday pay or a fixed minimum wage.

In the UK, ‘gig economy’ worker numbers have doubled in the last year, up to 4.7m workers, according to the TUC and the University of Hertfordshire. That’s one in ten working adults, with one in seven having worked via a gig economy platform at some point.

The gig economy highlights the changing nature of work, as self-employment and short-term contracts take the place of traditional jobs. The trouble is, these workers can be all too easily exploited, especially considering the lack of long-term security; they are easier to fire, and have fewer rights than conventional employees. As such, gig economy workers would benefit from unionisation, such as joining the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB): a grassroots member-led union fighting for the rights of some of the “most ignored and marginalised workers in the UK”.

Ideally, workers are free to pick and choose what they want to do within the gig economy model, which does allow for flexibility. In reality though, many are worried about losing their jobs, and lack many of the safeguards of traditional employment.

Of course, the gig economy existed for hundreds of years, long before the term grew in popularity, and some workers do benefit from the arrangement. However, legislation needs to keep up with the changing job landscape.

👉 The EU recently approved more rights for workers in casual or short-term employment, including a cap on probationary periods and “a minimum level of predictability such as predetermined reference hours and reference days” for when they’re supposed to be working. It’s a step in the right direction, and member states have three years to put the rules into practice.

Depending on who you speak to, the increased prevalence of gig economy is either natural progress, or a very real concern, given the erosion of workers’ rights. For example, while automation may be a possibility in future, for now we still require human drivers, and they deserve a fair wage.

In any case, there is no longer an expectation of jobs for life, and the gig economy exists as a reflection of this reality.

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