In the past few years, the “gig economy” has ballooned in size to make up around 5m people - or 16 per cent of Britain’s workforce. These are jobs on short term contracts or freelance work, but with few rights or protections. Services are booked through apps or platforms where workers are paid for each piece of work they do, not by time worked, and those workers are in insecure working arrangements.
Most of us have used these services, and increasingly so throughout the pandemic - ordering goods online or ordering takeaways or a cab home. As a Labour MP, I’ve spent plenty of time hearing about and from workers in the gig economy, but I wanted to see first-hand what it means to be in this type of insecure employment.
I was given the opportunity to spend a day with an Amazon delivery driver, who we’ll call “Mike” to protect his identity. Amazon is the richest company in the world, and its owner, Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest person on earth. The astronomical wealth that allowed Bezos to launch himself in a rocket to the edge of space is in stark contrast with the conditions of the workers who create that wealth, key workers such as Mike.
Delivery drivers like Mike are technically self-employed and contracted through an agency used by Amazon, which means that even though he has no holiday pay, entitlement to the National Minimum Wage, Statutory Sick Pay, or other basic rights that most of us take for granted, the lack of which has been so devastating throughout the pandemic, Amazon controls almost every facet of his work.
The incredibly demanding delivery targets placed on Mike forced him to work at a frantic pace in the sweltering heat and made him park illegally. He said regularly has to speed to meet his targets or else risk losing his income or his job.
Because of his "self-employment", he has no legal entitlement to rest breaks. Whether an Amazon driver has to urinate in a bottle or is able to find a toilet is a matter of luck. This is not just undignified but prevents women from this type of work for reasons that don’t need to be explained.
Amazon have said that they are “committed to ensuring that the people contracted by our independent delivery providers are fairly compensated and are treated with respect” and that drivers have a “number of ways" to share concerns.
Many of the drivers work full-time, but for others gig work is used to top up their incomes in order to put food on the table – a symptom of endemic in-work poverty, which 1 in 6 families now find themselves caught in.
What I found from talking to Mike and other gig workers is that they value the flexibility and can enjoy their jobs, but there is frustration at a complete lack of voice. Without being technically "employed’", they are dispensable, and they live with the anxiety of being unable to provide for their families if they fall ill and fear they could lose their jobs or income at any time with no recourse.
These sorts of gig economy services are now an important part of our economy, and their workers are key workers. But their employment conditions do not reflect that.
Too often bogus self-employment is used to exploit gig-economy workers for everything they are worth, but without any of the basic rights and protections that all working people should have — this is why Labour is pledging to end bogus self-employment and insecure work. Only the greed of the economy’s richest companies and the inaction of our government stand in the way of giving Mike and millions like him rights and protections from day one to provide the security they deserve with the flexibility they want.
Andy McDonald is shadow secretary of state for employment rights and protections and Labour MP for Middlesbrough
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