Gig Workers of the World Unite (…on a WhatsApp group)

The FT’s new ‘Big Picture’ podcast series discusses the important trends shaping today’s business world.
Paul Lewis
Apr 30, 2018

The latest, must-listen episode, The Changing World of Work, might be of particular interest to HR and learning professionals, as FT writers Sarah O’ Connor, Emma Jacobs and Martin Sandbu reflect on how the traditional employer-worker relationship is ‘coming apart at the seams.’

Although most employees continue to enjoy traditional jobs, the rise of a contingent workforce (which the FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance wrote about here) is changing the employment landscape. In the UK, a huge growth in self-employment has come with temporary contracts on a ‘paid-per delivery basis,’ characterised by agency work and zero hours’ contracts, without pension or job security. The podcast notes a bifurcation of the jobs market in southern Europe too, with 80% of jobs in France, for example, having great employment contracts while the rest struggle with poor pay and protection.

The UK gig economy now accounts for some 4% of the total workforce. For those with specialist knowledge, this can be both flexible and profitable. But most are ‘lousy jobs’ making deliveries or taking care of the elderly. They come with heightened performance anxiety, lack security, and deter essential elements of normal jobs, such as taking a holiday. Worse, such jobs don’t always offer much flexibility, especially when it comes to childcare. From Hollywood actresses to London bike couriers, employment risk has shifted back to the employees. To put it another way: who do they complain to when their rights are abused?

Gig work is often compared unfavourably with relatively stable manufacturing jobs. But the latter weren’t always secure either. Many of their benefits were introduced as a result of fierce industrial struggles. Similar unionisation battles may lie ahead for gig workers. Although it might be easier to organise like-minded, culturally united groups of workers on a factory floor, doing the same for gig workers isn’t impossible. Instant, mass communication allows disparate workers to talk to each other through a simple WhatsApp group. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, for example, recently won pay rises for 90% of cycle couriers. However, today’s collective bargaining involves a different mindset from that of old-school, 1970’s trade unions.

Government can play a part in creating a new balance of power. The podcast asks whether the introduction of a basic universal income might allow the most vulnerable workers to negotiate with an employer without risking total destitution. Or would unscrupulous employers see this as a way to avoid paying a living wage?

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring