A Riddle for May: How to Protect Workers in Booming Gig Economy

  • U.K. premier is reviewing labor practices in Uber-like jobs
  • Jobs czar sees ‘exploitation’ but mostly ‘genuine confusion’

What if your gig at a U.K. startup means you have flexibility but no paid sick leave, no time off and no pension?

That was a focus of discussion at the Google campus in London and part of a review into changing U.K. working practices that Prime Minister Theresa May asked Matthew Taylor to examine. The 56-year-old job czar was appointed to find ways to clarify and secure rights for the growing ranks of self-employed and casual labor in Britain.

Read here about why ’Sharing Economy’ comes wrapped in faith and fear.

Matthew Taylor

Source: RSA

In an interview at Google’s free office space for tech entrepreneurs, he acknowledged “there is exploitation, there is bad practice, there are nasty people” in the booming gig economy and the British workplace at large. People with the freedom to make up their own work hours then don’t know what, if any, benefits they can have. New businesses are trying to contain costs and cut their tax bills.

But for Taylor, “a lot of what goes on is genuine confusion.” He is already sketching out a recommendation that employers should hand workers a “basic statement” of the terms of their employment and entitlements after a week or so of work to end any ambiguity.

He’s also mulling an app to allow both employees and employers to plug in the particulars of their employment to determine whether they’re officially deemed an “employee,” a “worker” or “self-employed.” Each category comes with a different set of entitlements.

Muddy Rules

At stake is whether a movement away from traditional long-term contracts and 9-to-5 jobs liberates workers or puts them more at risk. Without clear rules, the courts have stepped in with cases stacking up against companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Pimlico Plumbers Ltd. where employees want benefits their employers say they’re not entitled to.

“We’ve had good conversations with the big gig platforms,” Taylor said. “I don’t think that they get out of bed every morning thinking ‘how can I avoid taxes? how can I screw workers?’ They are clever people who will adapt to the regulatory environment, but at the moment the regulatory environment isn’t always clear to them.” 

According to Taylor, some three-quarters of self-employed people like the flexibility it affords. And employers see the benefits too, especially startups such as CityMunch, an app which publicizes restaurant deals, and which uses the space in London provided by Google.

‘Lifeblood’

Flexible contracts “are the lifeblood of companies like mine at an early stage,” CityMunch Founder Robert Lynch said in an interview. “I can’t afford a whole web or app designer, but I can afford a quarter of one. We have to have the flexibility; we need it to be nimble.”

Taylor’s review was commissioned in October and he will report his findings later in the year. The Google campus was his first stop in a nationwide tour during which the panel he leads aims to speak to businesses and workers about their concerns. The review will also examine agency work and zero-hours contracts of the type used by Sports Direct International Plc, a retailer that has drawn criticism over its working conditions.

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