Has the Taylor Review now clarified the status of workers in the gig economy?

Mark Graham and Alex Wood discuss the recommendations of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices around the issues of fairness and corporate responsibility in the gig economy.

The Taylor Review recommends greater clarity on the status of work, suggesting that gig-workers be called “dependent contractors”. Credit: Alexander Baxevanis (CC BY 2.0)

The gig economy has maintained a steady visibility in the news over the last few years, particularly the question of the employment status of gig workers — who deliver our food, drive us around, clean our houses, write reviews, translate, code and design. In particular, attention has focused on the role of automation (and “algorithms”) in structuring the work people are offered, and how they are managed and compensated. In addition to concerns about loss of traditional employment, there are worries that the competitive nature of the work could place a downward pressure on pay rates and lead to insecurity and work intensification — thereby reducing productivity.

Last week the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices released its findings, adding an important point of reference in these discussions. An independent review of employment practices commissioned last year by the Prime Minister and incorporating input from a range of stakeholders, it proposes (among many other things) greater clarity about the status of work — for example suggesting that gig-workers be renamed as ‘dependent contractors’. It states that improving the quality of work should be an important part of the UK’s productivity strategy, and calls on the Government to “adopt the ambition that all work should be fair and decent with scope for fulfilment and development.

The OII’s Mark Graham and Alex Wood have undertaken research on the gig economy over the last few years, including interviews with hundreds of gig workers, as well as with platform owners and unions. We caught up with them to discuss the Review’s recommendations, in particular around the issues of fairness and corporate responsibility in the gig economy, the role of unions, and the likely effects of increasing automation on work.

Ed.: The Review notes that opportunities for those wanting or needing work flexibility “should be protected while ensuring fairness for those who work through these platforms and those who compete with them.” (p.110) What are the main issues around fairness for gig-workers?

Alex: Fairness in the gig economy would mean that the rights and protections which have been established over hundreds of years in order to protect workers from the much greater power of employers were guaranteed to workers in the gig economy. The imagined flexibility of the gig economy is often a myth, with workers having to be available to work when clients demand. So we should also be looking for ways to ensure this promised flexibility is actually realised in reality. Doing so means increasing the power of workers and limiting the power of platforms particularly with regards to their ownership of data produced by other actors. The fact that workers can’t take their online reputations with them means that workers get locked into particular platforms, giving that platform monopoly-type power over them.

Mark: Our ongoing research shows that gig economy workers massively value flexibility. They enjoy not having fixed hours every day. And, for some types of work, value getting to choose where they perform their work. However, the idea that most workers in the gig economy have full choice over how, when, and where they work is an illusion. We have interviewed Ghanaian gig workers, for instance, who end up doing work in 48 hour shifts with no breaks: simply because they don’t want to lose one of their Western clients. They know that if they don’t take the work then someone else will.

They are driven to pull these sorts of hours both by their own precarious position (they need income; and they are the breadwinner in their family) and by the huge oversupply of labour on some of these platforms. Elsewhere, there are plenty of workers in the gig economy who earn far below national minimum wages, or spend dozens of hours away doing unpaid ‘work for labour’ (e.g. searching and applying for jobs).

Is it right to listen to gig workers who want more control and flexibility in their working hours? Yes, absolutely. But is it fair that we have a system that can deprive workers of sleep for days and impose on them all of the costs of precarity simply because they want a decent job and income for them and their family? I think, no. I do not want to argue for a return to some form of previous idealised world of work, nor would I argue that we should not value giving workers more control over their work-lives. However, we may need to think more carefully about trade-offs between fairness and flexibility in the gig economy. A system that affords one person’s flexibility, can be harmful and exploitative for someone else. A fairer world of work would make sure that it ultimately protects those who are weakest and most vulnerable in any work place (or platform).

Ed.: The Review notes: “A greater voice in the organisational decisions that affect your job can make people feel better about their work. It can also add to a more collegiate environment between management and staff, boosting the feeling of fulfilment and increasing productivity.” (p.15) How can online platforms create a collegiate environment between people who may never see each other face to face?

Alex: Our research shows that even gig workers who work online are usually part of social media communities related to their work. Workers use these groups to support and help one another decide what rate to set and how to deal with difficult clients. They also use the internet to voice their dissatisfactions with platforms. Interestingly many online gig workers live in major urban centres and thus have the potential to meet up face-to-face with other workers. I’ve observed many of these attempts to build gig worker communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles and this is something which will hopefully develop in the future.

Mark: It is worth remembering that many workers do actually see each other face-to-face. This is especially the case for tasks have a certain amount of geographic stickiness to them. Deliveroo drivers, for instance, congregate in certain places whilst waiting for orders to come in. Or forthcoming research by Jack Qiu and Julie Chen has shown how, in China, drivers for Didi (a Chinese version of Uber) often live in the same urban villages.

The pamphlet “Towards a Fairer Gig Economy” (M.Graham, J.Shaw, Eds) includes contributions from scholars, workers, and trade unionists. Available: meatspacepress.com

However, it would also be correct to note that at the same time many others live quite atomised work lives and rarely (and sometimes never) get to communicate with fellow workers. Our research has shown that some workers have therefore turned to social media in order to engage in horizontal communication with one another: Facebook groups, Whatsapp groups, sub-Reddits, and other channels all serve to allow workers to share strategies, complaints, and job opportunities. They potentially also serve as independent sites from which workers can launch collective strategies to attempt to pressure employers and platforms to improve working conditions.

More broadly, if a goal really is to give workers a greater voice in organizational decisions that affect their jobs, then we should look to formal mechanisms of collective representation and bargaining. All workers should have legally protected ways of voicing their desires for improved working conditions to platform management. This is a point made strongly in our pamphlet ‘Towards a Fairer Gig Economy’.

Ed.: On page 9 the Review states: “The best way to achieve better work is not national regulation but responsible corporate governance, good management and strong employment relations within the organisation […].” I guess that reads to me like putting foxes in charge of chickens?

Mark: There is no such thing as ‘responsible corporate governance.’ Corporations exist to make money, and they will naturally maximize their opportunities to do so. We have regulations in many other domains of the economy to govern corporations. For instance, we don’t trust in responsible corporate governance when it comes to minimum wages or environmental protections. So, why should we in the context of the gig economy? We need strong, but smart, regulations that strike a balance between protecting the most vulnerable, maximize the collective power of workers, and allowing gig economy companies to operate successfully.

Another way in which we can pressure companies to do the right thing is through strategic alliances between consumers and workers. The Fairtrade Foundation has paved the way in showing how consumer pressure can be brought to bear on companies in order to make them improve working conditions and standards. There is no reason why we can’t also adopt similar strategies in the context of the gig economy.

Alex: Transparency is important so that employers can be held to account, but independent oversight is also necessary to ensure that rules are being followed and companies are reporting accurately. This is why strong unions and state enforcement bodies are vital. For too long the UK has needed a labour inspectorate.

Ed.: The Review also mentions “Consultative Participation & Collective Representation” (i.e. unions) as an indicator of quality work.

Mark: Large unions in this country have struggled to deal with the challenges brought about by the gig economy. However, newer and smaller unions such as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain have achieved some successes in the gig economy. They have, for instance, been able to unionize Deliveroo riders in Brighton.

I believe that trade unions in the gig economy have a lot of potential to help workers avoid a situation in which atomized workers in need of a job are pitted against each other in order to lower wages and working conditions. However, again, they have more potential for the kinds of work that are ‘geographically sticky’, i.e. work such as delivery driving that can’t easily be outsourced to other places. In a recent publication, my colleague Amir and I outline why unions have a much harder task ahead of them for the kinds of work that easily cross international boundaries.

Alex: I would say that beyond small “indy” unions, such as the IWGB, UVW and IWW, UK unions have done little to try and organize these workers, focusing instead on taking legal cases to Employment Tribunals. The response of the major unions to the Review suggests that they are more interested in trying to regulate the gig economy out of existence than represent these workers.

Ed.: Thinking more broadly, the Review mentions “accelerating automation” (p.7) as a future challenge. I’ve seen both optimism (automation will free us up) and pessimism (“is your job in danger from robots?”). Given the Review notes a general stability in the proportion of full-time employment (p.23) — are fears of the effects of technology on jobs currently overstated?

Alex: Yes. There is no real peer-reviewed evidence that automation is reducing overall employment. The studies that are often quoted rely on speculative methods or anecdotal evidence. Since the early days of capitalism jobs have been transformed through automation and in some cases even destroyed, but new jobs have also been created. Our focus should be on far more immediate concerns such as rampant inequality and climate change.

Mark: Like Alex, I have seen no convincing evidence that robots and automation are going to significantly reduce the number of available jobs. To me, the bigger concern is the rapid networking of the world. Every year, we bring hundreds of millions of new people onto the Internet: most of whom live in low- and middle-income countries. Many of these people will seek jobs online. We therefore need to prepare for a world in which jobs are not necessarily being automated out of existence, but one in which the exploded economic geography of work means that we face the very real risks of a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. We need to develop and adapt strategies that are fair to both workers in high-income countries who will face massive competitive pressures, and workers in lower income countries who are seeking ways to support themselves.

Ed.: The Review addresses “Modern Working Practices”. Given the rapid pace of technological and market development how long do you think the recommendations will stay relevant?

Alex: Well even the highest estimates of the gig economy suggest that it amounts to only around three percent of the UK workforce, and this is probably a significant overestimation due to sampling bias. So it is easy to exaggerate the pace of change. Moreover, while technology may have developed massively in the last 200 years, when we look at the social relations which govern our economy and wider society the continuities are quite amazing.

Mark: I imagine that we will be talking about (and guided by) this review for at least the next few years. Unless we quickly approach a future in which the machines actually do take over, there are some principles in the report governing the relationships between workers and their bosses that will be relevant irrespective of how technology changes.

However, we should indeed be cognisant of how quickly technology is changing, and the social, economic, and political reverberations that those changes can have. Ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a world of always-on smartphones and almost-ubiquitous app-based work. It would have been hard to imagine the office buildings in Nairobi where Kenyan workers are training driverless cars for use on European and American roads. And it would have been hard to imagine the kind of pervasive algorithmic governance that is increasingly regulating many jobs.

The future of work can take many paths in the next few years, and we need to make sure that we are channelling it more fair and less harmful directions. If you want a taste of what a fairer world of gig work might look like, we have produced a new pamphlet with contributions from scholars, workers, and trade unionists about just that: meatspacepress.com.

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Prof. Mark Grahamis a geographer who focuses on economic development, labour, power, participation, and representation. @geoplace

Dr Alex Wood is a sociologist of work and employment, focusing on the changing nature of employment relations and labour markets. He is currently researching worker voice, organisation and action in the online gig economy. @tom_swing

Mark and Alex were talking to the OII’s Managing Editor, David Sutcliffe.

[Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not necessarily the position of the Oxford Internet Institute or the University of Oxford.]