As liberals, we should support different types of working

Prior to the lockdown kicking in, UK employment was remarkable. The decline in unemployment is something that should be applauded and something that begun when we were in Coalition. The benefits of employment are well known such as having more money to spend and improved mental health.

One of the reasons for this strong growth is people taking up roles within the gig economy, such as Uber, Deliveroo or Just Eat. The negative attitude towards the gig economy needs to go and I will present multiple reasons why.

Firstly, the academic evidence on the gig economy highlights the benefits that it can have for the individual. It may seem like a counterintuitive result but research by Professor Stabile shows that gig economy workers in the UK score higher across a range of psychology wellbeing than workers in the mainstream economy.

Research by the Oxford University School of Economics and Management supports this also. This is predominantly due to non-monetary factors. The flexibility of the gig economy has allowed many people to enter the labour market for the first time, or to re-enter for those that have left. This research shows that the median London driver earns about £11 per hour after taking away costs, higher than the £10.75 London Living Wage.

It’s not just the academic research. Once the Government started to act in response to COVID-19, one of the things they did was make it easier for restaurants to become takeaway services.

The gig economy is making this process easier. Gig economy providers had the existing infrastructure, which restaurants did not have. Anecdotally, I am seeing a lot of new food providers appearing on the different gig economy apps that I use. These restaurants are able to gain some cash flow in what is a very difficult time for the food and drink sector.

This should not only be the case during times of crisis, however. When we go back to normal, whenever that is, we should continue to make it easy for restaurants to operate as a takeaway service. It is a way of supporting consumers, especially those that have young families so might not be able to go out to a restaurant. It also helps to support people using the gig economy to earn a living.

We should be the party that supports those wanting to work in whatever way they want, whether they want to be a part-time employee, a full-time gig worker or set up a business. We are a liberal party and the starting point is accepting that people want to work in many ways and making sure we support them in doing so.

* Tom Purvis is a member of the Sheffield Liberal Democrats and is standing in the next local elections

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  • Peter Martin 20th Apr '20 - 9:31am

    “We should be the party that supports those wanting to work in whatever way they want…..”

    You’d also be the Tory Party MkII. This is essentially their line.

    Why would anyone want to be at the beck and call of their employer with no guaranteed hours, no sick leave, no holiday pay, no statutory rights? Beats me! Are you sure this is what the workers want or is it really what the employers want?

    Give the workers a genuine choice and then we’ll know for sure.

  • James Belchamber 20th Apr '20 - 9:42am

    This comes across as written by someone who has never lived with the insecurity and vulnerability of a job like this, and how it too often is flexibility for the employer instead of the employee.

    I remember, for example, that when I worked at a bar to make ends meet the manager would “punish” me for trying to make my schedule flex around my needs by taking away hours I could work. One week I was asked to work on a day I never work and couldn’t work, and said so, and then an hour later received my hours for the week – literally zero. I had no power in that – I was poor and needed the money for food and rent, and they knew it, so they controlled me through it.

    Job flexibility meant that *I* had to be flexible for the good of the company, not the other way around.

    I am actually a supporter of the gig economy (and think we can resolve the issues and it does generally pose some advantages for people who can genuinely choose whether and when to work) but any article that doesn’t acknowledge that current growth is largely on the back of exploited, vulnerable workers is frankly staring through the wrong end of the telescope.

  • The research shows, as I pointed out, that they have higher satisfaction than employees that work in the “normal” way. The whole point of the gig economy is to work when you want. The rights question is a different one and the same debate was had about agency workers in the early-2000s, and now the debate on whether we have/don’t have agency workers has disappeared for the most part. The debate is around should people have the right to decide how they want to work and I think wholeheartedly we should support that!

  • @James Bar work =/= gig work, this is a distinction that needs to be made clearer, and perhaps I could have done it more. Gig work needs to be actually flexible and allow the individual to truly choose their own hours etc. Flexibility will work for some people, other people would prefer to have fixed hours. The reason why I think we should support the gig economy is because it does allow flexibility and the research shows that those within the gig economy enjoy that benefit.

    For the record, I grew up in Redcar, which is one of the poorest places in the country and have worked plenty of jobs on minimum wage, £3.64 in a shoe shop so I know what it’s like to not earn that much from a job.

  • James Belchamber 20th Apr '20 - 10:11am

    @Tom Purvis from the perspective of the power dynamic between an employee and an employer, bar work == gig work. Indeed, it’s slang to call a job a “gig” where I come from – and lots of bars and restaurants now use “gig” apps to staff their venues. Pop on to as an example and they’re literally advertising a bartender on the front page right now.

    For people with enough money to walk away from a “gig” the work is “flexible”, and for people who don’t have enough money to walk away from a “gig” it’s “being flexible”. This disparity of freedom should be the main concern for Liberals right now, not that on a macroeconomic scale it seems to work. On a macroeconomic scale lots of things that cause harm “seem to work”.

    Also: it’s not about “not earning that much”, it’s about whether earning or not earning that money is the difference between surviving or falling in to poverty/homelessness/etc. As a party we need to shake off this middle-class perspective – it limits us.

  • Phil Beesley 20th Apr '20 - 10:41am

    I reject Tom Purvis’s proposition.

    Let’s start with the etymology of the word ‘gig’ and the expression ‘gig economy’. A bunch of people put together a group to play music, perform comedy or short act plays etc. They perform gigs to showcase their talents as aspiring artists, or to raise a few quid to support their hobby. A few itinerant performers make a living from gigs as a niche performer or show band or after dinner comedian. They tend to be brilliant marketing people who know somebody to design a great T shirt or to compile a great demo video in their bedroom. A small number make a shed load of money. Remember long tail distribution?

    In the ‘gig economy’, nobody earns a fortune by selling their own labour and talents. Few people rise up through the system owing to their abilities because there are few full time jobs. The only people who get rich are the people running ‘gig economy’ businesses.

    The London Living Wage is defined as being sufficient to pay household bills and to make modest savings. One hour’s labour at that rate is insufficient to pay the daily London Congestion Charge. Tom informs us that ‘the median London driver earns about £11 per hour after taking away costs, higher than the £10.75 London Living Wage’.

    Or looking at it another way, half of London drivers earn a smidgeon more than the 60,000 or so people working for an organisation paying London Living Wage. And half earn the same or less. But without holiday pay or maternity security.

    Tom also tells us that ‘gig economy workers in the UK score higher across a range of psychology wellbeing than workers in the mainstream economy’. We are lacking cause and effects here. Maybe the ‘gig economy’ employs more optimists? Some people will be working part-time or short-term because they have longer term plans.

  • Laurence Cox 20th Apr '20 - 10:50am

    @Tom Purvis
    James Belchamber is right. Even if you were earning at the London Living Wage of £10.75 per hour before and working 40 hours a week, earning £11 per hour would only give you the same wage from 39 hours, so you are still virtually working full time for the same earnings. If gig workers were earning £15 rather then £10.75 per hour, that would be a difference worth talking about.

  • Great article! I definitely agree that as a party we need to look again at this, we sometimes seem too eager to tell gig economy workers what’s best for them, rather than actually listening to what they want. Many workers like the flexibility these jobs offer.

    Something else that the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted, is that working from home and working flexible hours is a valid option for many people. Now that it’s been established that I can do my job just fine from home, it’s going to be hard to justify going back to commuting and being stuck in an office 9-5 again, once this is all over. It’s no wonder really that Uber and Deliveroo are surging, when the vast majority of workplaces are so inflexible. The idea that people should have the right to decide how they want to work, be that in the gig economy or more flexibility in “traditional” jobs, is a fundamentally liberal idea and we should be supporting that.

  • The problem isn’t the Gig economy, the problem is that rents and council tax are far too high, consuming a huge chunk of earnings. Building an excess of dormitory style buildings with single rooms and shared facilities that cost a fraction of current rentals would giver those in the Gig economy the chance to save the vast majority of their earnings and then use that money to take the next step up in their life.

  • John Littler 20th Apr '20 - 6:31pm

    Tom puts a one sided view of the gig economy. Yes of course a proportion like the flexibility but a large proportion have been pushed into it by pressures and threats from Job Centres or inability to get anything regular, partly as those jobs have now been replaced by the contracts.

    The great majority of courier drivers have been pushed into it and some were mis-sold a deal which works them to death, causes them to break the speed limit and never pays what they were promised. Nor does it pay holidays, sick pay, maternity, pensions etc. The better couriers such as Fedex have been pushed into this way of working as a race to the bottom, without which they could not compete in a very competitive business. The worst of all situations, as even good employers have to play dirty with their workers.

    The studies do not seem to reflect what I have seen on the ground. Nor do they meet a whole load of hoops that the HMRC have set for determining what is self employment and what is actually disguised employment, but they have turned a blind eye. The present rules require at least 4 employers of substantial not trivial amounts, that the staff buy their own clothing, vehicles and stationery etc. Nothing about many of these gig jobs offers any criteria of defined self employment, except that the PAYE taxes are not collected and zero hours guarantees the worker no pay, but just to be available to work and effectively not to work for anyone else. It is a terrible system which the government and HMRC have turned a blind eye to the rules and left many workers vulnerable and in debt with no union or anyone to speak for them. This storing up big problems in a lack of pensions, inability to pay for mortgages or good housing and mounting personal debts.

    If this party supported the continuing gig economy without much stronger regulation in favour of people, I would probably resign

  • John Littler 20th Apr '20 - 6:38pm

    The HMRC should have enforced the self employment rules on these gig firms that brazenly ignored them. Previously, employers who employed people as Self Employed when they clearly failed to meet the tight criteria set by HMRC, would have had the employer pay any back taxes going back at least 7 years, plus compound interest and a fine as well.

    HMRC have forced businesses into bankruptcy pushing for such back taxes. So why have these large net based newcomers got a way with it? It seems to me that Commercial Lawyers and sheer brazenness, while other countries stopped the practices and the sky has not fallen in. But these practices should not be confused with over regulation in some other European countries where it is almost impossible to lay off workers.

  • Peter Davies 20th Apr '20 - 8:19pm

    As liberals, we should support different types of workers. Leaving aside whether gig work is a good or bad thing, it exists. We should be looking to support the workers in it and ensuring that they have the same rights as the conventionally employed or self-employed. In particular, we should be sorting out the benefits system and the way it interacts with the tax and national insurance systems.

  • Phil Beesley 20th Apr '20 - 8:50pm

    Peter Davies: “Leaving aside whether gig work is a good or bad thing, it exists. We should be looking to support the workers in it and ensuring that they have the same rights as the conventionally employed or self-employed.”

    You are absolutely right, Peter. Everyone deserves the same employment rights.

    Sadly some people think that when you wrap words like web, transformational, hit, hot around conventional vernacular, it is supposed to mean something. Neologisms weekly, but weakly comprehended.

  • Phil Beesley 20th Apr '20 - 11:32pm

    Tom Purvis: “One of the reasons for this strong growth is people taking up roles within the gig economy, such as Uber, Deliveroo or Just Eat.”

    That’s the cuddly side of the ‘gig economy’.

    Who chops up carcasses?

  • John Littler 22nd Apr '20 - 4:46pm

    Phil & Peter
    “Leaving aside whether gig work is a good or bad thing, it exists. ”
    So does crime. Is drug dealing legitimate because it exists?

    I agree with regulating and decriminalising it, but not just turning a blind eye as HMRC have done in not enforcing the self employment/PAYE rules to these large, mainly foreign owned net based companies.

    On the one hand, tech companies mainly in USA grow massively with huge profits, while HMRC gets little back to support the NHS, education, roads, rail and the Police etc., all of which the tech companies and it’s staff rely on.

    The gig economy workers have often been forced into these contracts that guarantee no earnings, while the option of hanging onto benefits until something regular arrives is no longer an option. They often do not earn enough to keep a roof over without debts, to pay the bills and buy food and they have the insecurity of knowing that even when times are benign, next week there may be nothing. There is nothing for sick pay, maternity, paternity, holidays or pensions and many are forced into purchases or loans for vehicles.

    If the LibDems support the gig economy, the public would often be horrified that we are irrelevant to dealing with their day to day problems and would have transformed into a UK version of the German FDP, a party a Frankfurt Taxi driver described to me as “for the rich”

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