Zero Hours, Zero Powers? The Gig Economy and the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

Sarah Hake

The gig economy has emerged as a phenomenon that many of us are now familiar with. Uber, Deliveroo and others are supposedly popular with workers and consumers alike, promising flexibility for workers and a seamless service for customers.

The CIPD has estimated that 4% of people in the UK work in the gig economy. Of these people, only 25% use the gig economy as a regular source of income, as opposed to a form of income supplementation. Despite the relatively small proportion of people who work in the gig economy, a huge amount of attention has been paid to it, with stories related to employment classification, terms and conditions of contracts and others hitting the headlines. The world of work is changing, and there is a growing engagement with this type of working. It is vital that this work be able to offer fundamental rights for those working in the gig economy. Two-thirds of gig economy workers believe they need more rights, according to CIPD research.

The ILO publication, ‘The rise of the “just in time” workforce: On demand work, crowdwork and labour protection in the “gig-economy”’, specifically addresses this economy and the opportunities and risks it poses in relation to the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. ILO member countries are expected to respect and promote these principles and rights, regardless of whether or not they have ratified any relevant Convention. The four fundamental principles are the freedom of association, elimination of forced labour, effective abolition of child labour and elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. I shall discuss the ILO’s position on these principles below.

In the gig economy, the ability of workers to exercise rights to association and collective bargaining is weak. Association is difficult because of the nature of online working. The competitive nature of this type of work, such as in crowdwork, makes it difficult for workers to cooperate with each other. What is more, companies can constantly monitor online activism, easily shutting it down and deactivating accounts if they want to. Despite these difficulties, the ILO has identified opportunities in relation to the right to association. Potentially, trade unions and regulators can target workers in the gig economy and help to ensure decent work for these individuals.

Forced labour and child labour are also potential problems in the gig economy. Because the nature of this type of work might not necessarily follow traditional practice, as reflected in the rise of sweatshops to harvest online currency for internet gaming, practices could go undetected, having detrimental effects on the ability to provide decent work. These problems also exist in relation to child labour.

With regard to discrimination in relation to employment and occupation, the gig economy can present opportunities. Virtual work can mean that individuals can avoid personal contact, and the anonymity associated with some aspects of this work can reduce risks of discrimination. The ability to work from anywhere may present income earning opportunities for individuals who may not be able to work in a traditional employment setting, such as those who are homebound due to disabilities. However, the gig economy also presents risks in relation to discrimination. Employers operating in the gig economy can add geographical restrictions when looking for workers. This may eliminate entire communities from partaking in work, and there may be no indication that this restriction has been made on objective grounds, such as for language purposes. Bias of customers can play a huge role in the acceptance of a worker and when leaving reviews, which might affect the ability of gig workers to secure more work.

An individual’s employment classification can determine what rights they may be afforded within the workplace. Many workers in the gig economy fall within the self-employed category, which means very little rights are given to them. The ILO recognises this as another issue with the gig economy. The exclusion of self-employed workers from labour laws means that they might also find themselves excluded from regulations ensuing the fundamental principles and therefore decent work. Misclassification can also have detrimental consequences for the freedom to associate and the right to collective bargaining.

The gig economy poses both benefits and risks for workers. It has given an ability to work to those who might not have previously been able to, and also provides a form of income supplementation for many. But there are also many potential risks. The ILO is now facing a challenge in a world of technological change where the lines of traditional work have been blurred. It is also the case that some workers are happy to be engaging in this type of economy despite the risks it poses. How can the ILO ensure that employers are meeting basic standards in these businesses when workers are happy with how it is? The ‘Just In Time’ paper is a positive start in addressing this form of work, and as the gig economy continues to develop it shall be interesting to see how the ILO aims to regulate and provide decent work for those in this economy.

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Sarah Hake is a Postgraduate Taught student in Human Resource Management at Sheffield University Management School.

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