The number of people working for digitally enabled gig economy platforms has nearly trebled in England and Wales over the past five years, according to research published by the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
The research – which was carried out by the University of Hertfordshire alongside BritainThinks – found that some 14.7% of working adults, or roughly 4.4 million people, now work via gig economy platforms at least once a week in 2021, compared with just 5.8% doing so in 2016 and 11.8% in 2019.
This means almost a quarter of the workforce (22.6%) have done platform work at some point, an increase on the 11.5% that had done so in 2016.
While “platform work” covers a wide range of jobs, including taxi driving, deliveries, cleaning, software development and office work, all are accessed and administered digitally via a website or app.
According to TUC, an overwhelming majority of people use platforms such as Uber, Deliveroo and Upwork to supplement other streams of income, which can lead to exceptionally long days as workers patch together a living from multiple sources.
“Everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “But millions of working people are having to rely on casual and insecure gig economy work to make ends meet – often on top of other jobs. Gig economy platforms are using new technologies to carry out the age-old practice of worker exploitation. Too often gig workers are denied their rights and are treated like disposable labour.
“The Supreme Court Uber judgment earlier this year was just the beginning. Unions won’t rest until pay and conditions have improved for gig workers. It’s time for change. Ministers must stop letting gig economy platforms off the hook. That means giving all gig workers trade union access, banning zero hours contracts and boosting workers’ rights across the board.”
Poor conditions and low pay
The union body further warned that the “spiralling” of the gig economy will lead to more people experiencing poor conditions and low pay, as bosses will often falsely claim that gig workers are self-employed and therefore not entitled to basic rights such as national minimum wage, paid holidays or sick pay, and trade union recognition.
In February 2021, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers should be classified as workers rather than self-employed individuals as the company argued, giving its roughly 70,000 drivers the right to be paid the national minimum wage and receive statutory minimum holiday pay and rest breaks, as well as protection from unlawful discrimination and whistleblowing
Although Uber signed a collective bargaining agreement with union GMB in May 2021, marking the first time Uber has recognised a union of its drivers anywhere in the world, smaller unions criticised it as a PR stunt due to the fact it does not allow drivers to negotiate on earnings.
According to research published by the Oxford Internet Institute in the same month, which looked at labour standards throughout the gig economy, most digital platforms in the UK are currently failing to provide basic standards of fair work and pay.
In response to the poor working conditions present throughout the gig economy, the TUC is calling for workers to have greater trade union and individual rights.
This includes the government introducing a new definition of “worker” to give those accepting platform work the full range of legal rights that full-time employees are entitled to; a complete ban on zero-hour contracts; and a right of access to workplaces for unions, which would also include a digital right of access to reflect the growing use of algorithmic decision-making by platform employers.
The TUC, in conjunction with the polling, has also released a report containing a series of analytical essays written by trade unionists, labour activists and academics about the impacts of platform work.
“Our research shows that the gig economy is a substantial part of the UK’s workforce and I expect it to continue to grow,” said Neil Spencer, head of the Statistical Services Consulting Unit at the University of Hertfordshire, and co-author of one of the essays. “Gig work can offer flexibility, but many workers also experience lower pay and poor working conditions.
“Those classified as self-employed also have less rights than employees,” he said. “It is vital that pay and conditions for gig workers are improved to protect those who rely on this work as a source of income.”
In another essay about using data to build collective power, James Farrar, general secretary of the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ADCU) and director of its associated data trust Worker Info Exchange, noted that “worker control in the gig economy has always been exercised by algorithmic means”, adding that “the individual and collective insight that a worker-controlled data trust can provide is a powerful organising force and a catalyst for driving transformational collective workplace action”.
In March 2021, in a case brought by the ADCU on behalf of Uber and Ola drivers, a Dutch court ordered the ride-hailing firms to provide their drivers with greater access to data held on them, and rejected their claims that drivers were abusing their data access rights by seeking to use it for collective bargaining purposes.
“Despite this new front of legal action, we are at the beginning of a long road to exposing management control and building a strong collective voice for platform workers,” said Farrar in the essay.
“Data lies at the heart of platform business models and winning control and transparency for workers over how their data is held and processed will catalyse the development of collective power.”