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This post is by Anthony Savage of Sparta Health

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the lives of billions of people around the world, and in the scramble to contain the virus, lockdowns has thrown a wrench into the machinery of the labour market. With Boris Johnson urging UK employees to work from home wherever possible, companies having to close due to a lack of business, and rampant redundancies, uncertainty in work has skyrocketed in all areas as the world reels from the economic impact of a pandemic (1). And yet, it can be argued that those involved in the so-called “gig economy” have been hit the hardest by the effects of Covid-19. These non-traditional forms of work, boasting flexibility and self-sufficiency for the worker, have a dark side, with individuals being inadequately taken care of and lacking access to benefits considered essential for more standard employees.

There is no widely accepted definition of what constitutes the gig economy. Nevertheless, the term is generally associated with short-term working relationships, demand-based work and pay, and the direct connection of workers to customers through an online or mobile platform (2). The gig economy differs from zero-hour contracts, a working paradigm purporting to offer similar flexibility, in that individuals are typically paid per task completed, rather than having a fixed hourly salary. Workers are rarely under contract and often work for multiple companies simultaneously. Gig economy work is typically associated with industries such as ridesharing, food delivery services, and low-skill work in general. However, platforms like Upwork have been expanding the market for more highly skilled gig workers, like architects and software engineers. The lack of contracts and minimum required hours makes gig work an attractive proposition for those in an uncertain position, or whose erratic schedules render them unable to commit to a standard 40-hour work week contract; if one is busy on any given week, they may simply not work, and put in more hours when their schedule allows. However, the flip side of this coin represents a worrying trend for the treatment of workers by large corporations such as Uber, especially in the context of a pandemic as dangerous as the one currently facing us.

Issues plague the gig economy even under normal circumstances. By and large, legislation is slow to catch up with the technological development that allows gig workers to connect to their customers directly and be paid on a task-per-task basis. The end result is that many companies that rely on gig workers class these individuals as independent contractors as opposed to regular employees. This means that companies are under no obligation to provide their gig workers with sick pay, paid holidays, or a minimum hourly wage. Furthermore, the demand-based nature of the work means companies have no duty to guarantee any kind of regular hours to their gig workers. This all makes a decent amount of sense if we think of gig work as a “side hustle”: flexible work for those who already have a full-time job to earn extra money in their free time. However, the reality is that for many low-skill workers, and an increasing number of high-skill ones, gig work comprises a significant percentage, or even all, of their income. Relying on work that doesn’t offer appropriate benefits as your primary source of income is a precarious position to begin with, but the Covid-19 pandemic has shed an uncomfortable light on just how dangerous the treatment of gig workers is.

Due to their being classed as independent contractors, gig workers are not eligible for company furlough schemes, and as previously mentioned, rarely have provisions for sick pay, so they tend to have little in the way of protection from the virus or help to work from home. The end result is that gig workers have had to make a difficult choice between protecting their health by staying at home, or maintaining their financial situation by going to work. The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme provides some support for those who do not benefit from company furloughs, but in the end has not provided an adequate safety net for many participants in the gig economy. While some companies have made attempts to provide extra help for their gig workers during these uncertain times, many of the measures implemented are clearly insufficient; for example, Uber has implemented cleaning procedures for their cars and made the wearing of masks compulsory for drivers and riders, as well as offering financial assistance for drivers who cannot work due to self-isolation during the period of isolation (3) (4). However, the cleaning of cabs is not subject to any external inspections, and financial assistance available only during periods of self-isolation, does nothing to help drivers’ finances in general, such that they must still face a choice between their income or their health. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the pandemic has led to an increase in the use of services typically associated with the gig economy such as food delivery (5), so much so gig workers are likely to have continued to work or even increased their level of work during lockdown, perhaps putting themselves at a higher risk of infection.

The overall effect is clear: the pandemic has made obvious the untenable situation of the gig economy and highlighted the need for change. Legislation must be put in place to ensure companies provide adequate protections for their gig workers, especially those for whom gig work comprises most or all of their income. Treating gig workers like contractors for whom the company has no responsibility has proven to leave them unprotected when tough times come. Legislation must catch up to the changing landscape of the labour market, or more employees will be forced to face challenges like Covid-19 on their own.

About Anthony Savage 

Anthony Savage is the Medical Services Manager at Sparta Health, having joined the team in 2017 and is responsible for the overall operational delivery of our high quality services to our clients. He has a solid background in workplace physiology, as well over 12 years of delivering, and holding senior management positions, for leading injury and condition management providers.

He is known for his innovative approach in his design and execution of services and his ability to build enduring relationships.

References

  1. Powell A, Francis-Devine B, Foley N. Coronavirus: Impact on the labour market. 2020 Aug 12 [cited 2020 Aug 13]; Available from: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8898/
  2. Islam BW Faisal. What is the ‘gig’ economy? BBC News [Internet]. 2017 Feb 10 [cited 2020 Aug 13]; Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38930048
  3. Uber announces new COVID-19 safety measures [Internet]. Intelligent Transport. [cited 2020 Aug 12]. Available from: https://www.intelligenttransport.com/transport-news/98895/uber-announces-new-covid-19-safety-measures/
  4. COVID-19: Financial Assistance [Internet]. Uber Blog. 2020 [cited 2020 Aug 12]. Available from: https://www.uber.com/en-GB/blog/covid-financial-assistance/
  5. How COVID-19 Is Impacting Online Food Delivery Platforms [Internet]. CitiGPS. 2019 [cited 2020 Aug 12]. Available from: https://www.citivelocity.com/citigps/how-covid-19-is-impacting-online-food-delivery-platforms/
Gig Worker

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