Don’t you just love it that you can order food and someone will discreetly leave it in front of your door? All those cheap Uber rides, fast translations of your documents, and graphic designers ready to deliver your vision within a day are courtesy of the gig economy. The workers that secure their gigs through online platforms love the flexibility to work on their terms and without strict rules. But for many of them, what’s packaged as freedom is, in fact, a minimally paying, exhausting job with zero benefits.
The gig economy has been around for a while, and legislation didn’t keep up with its boom. But that’s about to change. The European Commission has launched a consultation that encourages trade unions and employers’ organizations to discuss the best path forward and find an agreement. If they won’t, the commission plans its own legislation by the end of this year.
The dark side of the gig economy
Euronews’ report paints a sad picture of a gig worker’s reality. Many don’t make minimum wage, endure cut-throat competition, and risk losing their jobs if they do something wrong. It could be as simple as canceling too many orders if you’re a driver or deliver food. Needless to say, paid sick leave, vacation days, insurance, and other guaranteed employee benefits are unimaginable for gig workers under current rules.
Oxford researchers recently backed these claims up with data. They looked at UK’s most popular digital labor platforms — including Uber, JustEat, and Deliveroo. They rated the companies based on ten criteria, such as fair pay, the ability to appeal decisions, and transparent contracts. The results were disappointing, with the ride-hailing app and food delivery service Bolt and Amazon Flex scoring zero and failing on all accounts.
New rules for gig workers
While the European Commission believes that the platform economy is here to stay, they also know a major shakeup is needed. Among the issues on the table are employment status and algorithmic management, collective representation, and access to social protection. The solution should not be universal – the commission acknowledges that each platform has its specifics. But whatever the platform, exploiting workers should not be an option. “For all of our work on the digital economy, these new opportunities must not come with different rights. Online just as offline, all people should be protected and allowed to work safely and with dignity,” said Margrethe Vestager, competition commissioner and chair of the Europe Fit for the Digital Age group. Moreover, she points out that the social rights of people are the same as in the traditional economy. On top of that, the competition between platforms and traditional companies needs to be fair.
And it’s not just about righting the wrongs: the European Union needs a sustainable, unified system. “This very promising sector has a lot of good dimensions such as a better work-life balance for people, more flexibility, access to the labor market for people who are sometimes in very difficult circumstances,” explained Joost Korte, the EU Commission’s Director-General for Employment for Euronews. “Otherwise, what will happen is that we would come to different solutions in different member states, which will be negative in the context of the single market,” he added.
The case for thriving gig economy
The gig economy plays a significant role in the future of work. And so to some extent, independent work needs to be defined as such. Should the new rules fail to correctly distinguish between gig workers and employees, it would threaten the existence of independent work altogether. What if legislators don’t get it right? They will waste a massive opportunity for underrepresented groups that need flexibility and independence. Such as… women.
While you may not meet that many female Uber drivers, women heavily rely on flexible gig work in some instances. Take Etsy, for example: between 2014-2015, 87 percent of the workers were female. For women who often carry the household chores on their shoulders, independent work can be the only way to work.
The gig economy has the potential to be incredibly empowering. That’s especially crucial for people who can’t work in strict hierarchies with rigid rules. Legislators should keep that in mind, and whatever practices they enforce should build upon this empowerment.