The fragmentation of work over the last decade has given birth to the on-demand economy. In this new world of work, we can no longer expect to work a standard nine to five week; instead, self-employed and traditionally employed workers alike scramble to make a living from online labour platforms and zero hour contracts, where stable work hours and income are not guaranteed. The most recent data suggests that 4.6 million people in the UK experience precarious scheduling, meaning that their working times are regularly altered by their employer, often with little notice. Precarious scheduling, and the instability and unpredictability it entails, is unsurprisingly associated with lower well-being and feelings of insecurity.
Through the course of my research, I have interviewed over 80 shop workers in the UK and US about their experiences of the on-demand economy. These interviews made clear how the oft-recited claim that flexibility can benefit both employers (by reducing labour costs and enabling a more efficient service) and employees (by improving work-life balance) is a fiction.
In reality, when working time fluctuates at the employer’s demand, it is a form of precariousness. Working time unpredictability and insecurity affects people’s family and social lives. For example, one shop worker, Brad, explained:
“It essentially makes you feel like at any point you can be pulled away from your family and your life to do what your boss wants you to do… You can’t plan anything… it does just take all the organisation out of your life.”
This impact on family and social life leads to an almost permanent sense of insecurity. Another worker told me:
“You are just wondering like, oh my God, are they going to change my hours, are they going to cut my hours next week, am I going to have enough money for my rent next week?”
Precarious scheduling also creates a power imbalance which managers can take advantage of in order to punish workers:
“You’re disciplined like a child… “I’m going to take your hours, I’m gonna take your days because you spoke back.”
In October 2016, the government announced the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. This offered a much-needed glimmer of hope to many workers trying desperately to stay afloat in the capricious whirlpool of on-demand work. Unfortunately, six months after the review was published – and approaching a year and a half since it was announced! – little has seemingly been achieved. Despite having held this major review, the government’s response has mainly consisted of highlighting the need for further consultation on proposals to improve work in the on-demand economy.
In particular, recent research suggests that one in four self-employed workers who rely on labour platforms such as Uber and PeoplePerHour may earn less than minimum wage. As these workers are usually classified as self-employed, they lack the protection of labour laws such as the minimum wage. Labour law exists in recognition of the vulnerable position of employees due to their dependence on their employer and is meant to protect them from exploitative practices. In the spirit of the law, self-employed workers who are dependent on online labour platforms to connect them to clients should have such protections, too. The Taylor Review proposed a number of changes to the law in order to make it easier for such workers to access legal protection, such as the minimum wage. Yet the government has committed only to holding consultations on the enforcement of employment rights.
It’s a similar story for the 1.2 million UK agencies workers. Again the government is only willing to consider ending the ability of agencies to employ these workers on cheaper pay rates than permanent workers.
However, among the delay and indecision, there are some concrete policy announcements. Perhaps most importantly, the government has announced “a right for all workers, not just zero-hour and agency, to request a more stable contract”. The focus on all workers, rather than just those on zero hour contracts, is important for the 3.5 million people in the UK who still experience precarious scheduling though they are not on zero hour contracts. Unfortunately, here too the government has provided little detail of how this would work in practice; how they would ensure that workers, who by definition are in a precarious situation, could make use of it without fear of retaliation? And how employers who ignored it would be sanctioned?
It is often argued that a better option would be to simply ban zero hour contracts. This approach would have two serious downsides: employers would respond by moving workers onto contracts that only guarantee a few hours of work per week, and this would also threaten seasonal industries with variable demand. While workers in precarious positions require more stability, there are some workers such as students or those with caring responsibilities that do benefit from short-hour contracts.
In 2014, Cambridge’s Dr. Brendan Burchell and I presented a report to civil servants and government officials which suggested a new “right to make statutory applications to work additional core hours and/or to have greater schedule security” as a way to reduce precarious scheduling. We were clear that given the vulnerable position of those suffering from precarious scheduling, strong enforcement mechanisms would be necessary. We argued that employers who turned down workers’ requests for more hours or for stable schedules needed to be audited to ensure their reason for doing so was not fallacious. Employers who were wrongly rejecting worker requests, we argued, should be fined.
As the government moves forward with their response to the Taylor Review, it is essential that we push for strong and accessible enforcement mechanisms to strengthen the position of vulnerable workers. It is vital that we continue to pressure the government to ensure they stop delaying protection for gig economy workers.
Alex J. Wood is a sociologist of work and employment, focusing on the changing nature of employment relations and labour markets. He is currently researching worker voice, organisation and action in the online gig economy.