A Deliveroo driver holds his delivery bag

The government has a new solution for keeping ‘gig economy’ workers happy

A review this week will release a new system of classifying workers to tackle the tradeoff between flexible work, and secure income

If you deliver burgers for Deliveroo, drive cabs for Uber, or are employed by a courier company, a review coming out this week might mean big changes to your rights at work.

The UK government has published a review into working lives and how they're changing – a big part of that is looking at the way companies like Uber and Deliveroo employ people.

Gig workers currently operate somewhere between being fully employed (which would mean getting paid sick leave, holiday pay, etc) and independent contractors (which would mean they'd get none of that).

This review will create a whole new category of workers, called ‘dependent contractors’. They would be people who work on a 'gig' basis – i.e. as and when, but quite often – for a large firm like Uber, rather than working full-time for a single company, or taking a bit of work from lots of different companies.

Deliveroo riders make wage demands during a protest outside the company offices in Torrington Place, Fitzrovia, London.
Image: © Jonathan Brady / PA Wire/Press Association Images

In 2016, Deliveroo workers went on strike to protest against a new rule which would have changed their system of payment from an hourly rate to a pay-per-job model. The main different would have been they'd no longer be guaranteed a certain amount of money – one of the drivers, Hassan put it this way: “They want to pay $4.40 every order. They don’t want to pay $9.15 an hour. But if I waited here 10 hours and did one delivery, I go home with just three pounds (around four dollars). I can’t live on that.” 

Under the new rules, companies would have to prove that these ‘dependent contractors’ could earn at least 1.2 times the minimum wage by taking jobs through them – in other words, the company would have to show that on average workers like Hassan can get enough work per hour, on a high enough rate to be able to earn a little over the current minimum wage, which is £7.20 ($9.30).

The 1.2 figure is what's called a 'piece-rate', based on how payments are worked out in ‘piece-work’ industries (where people are paid by the amount produced, rather than the hours they work).  A 'piece rate' is considered fair if the average worker can earn 1.2 x the minimum wage in an hour, because that would then allow for slightly slower workers to also be able to earn the minimum wage.

The idea is to give gig workers more rights, while keeping the freedom to work when you want (in a have-your-cake-and-eat-it kinda way)

Using the piece rate legislation, the government can “ensure those working in the gig economy are still able to enjoy maximum flexibility whilst also being able to earn the [minimum wage] if they so wish”.

See, on one side, the gig economy seems like a great thing. More and more people are working freelance, technology means we don’t have to be tied down to offices. Being able to pick the work we want, when we want, feels like a logical set-up.

But gig work can also be pretty problematic – it rarely comes with any health care benefits, minimum wage or paid leave, and the companies employing the workers get around paying the taxes companies normally pay on the people they employ (known as National Insurance) because they don’t technically employ them.

Drivers and riders have protested against their working conditions all over the world, showing there's definitely a darker side to the chilled out work-as-you-like vibe that the companies themselves promote.

“The companies get all the benefits, while workers take on all the risks, and the state will be expected to pick up the tab," said Frank Field, who leads a committee of politicians which published a similar report to the one expected this week. "They're motivated by profit, and profit only."

But it's also a tradeoff – flexible work means less flexible income, and one of the biggest challenges ahead is finding the balance that makes people feel secure, without undermining the whole idea of flexible work in the first place.

But is it just letting gig employers off the hook?

By introducing a whole new category of workers – the 'dependent contractors' thing – the Taylor Review is still letting 'gig employers' get away with not classifying their workers as workers. A load of the court cases that Uber drivers have taken out against their employer have found that they are workers, so critics of the government review (like the Trades Union Congress, which represents workers in a lot of different industries) think the review isn't going far enough. Frances O'Grady, who's the General Secretary of the TUC, said "From what we've seen, this review is not the game-changer needed to end insecurity and exploitation at work."

She said she doubted the report would "shift the balance of power in the modern workplace".


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