A new bill of rights for all workers — not just those in the gig economy

Research mapping the gig economy across Europe provides new insights into the wider ‘platformisation’ of modern-day work. The findings call for the creation of a new welfare state model that is fit for the labour markets of the 21st century and places the rights and wellbeing of the workforce at its core.

Dec 6, 2017 · 14 min read

A study by the University of Hertfordshire, in association with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and UNI Europa, has shed new light on the extent and nature of work managed via online platforms across Europe. Around 17,000 gig economy workers were surveyed in seven European countries, including the UK.

A striking finding, says lead author Ursula Huws, Professor of Labour and Globalisation at University of Hertfordshire, is the impossibility of drawing a sharp line between ‘gig economy’ workers and others. Rather, platform-based work represents part of a broad spectrum of casual, on-call work spreading across diverse industries and occupations in a complex intermingling of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. This has laid bare a fundamental mismatch between the fluid and rapidly evolving labour markets of the digital age, and categorisations of work and social security still rooted in the mid-20th century.

The research results suggest the solution to the growing precariousness and disentitlement faced by gig economy workers is not to create a special set of regulations to protect them. This could risk watering down existing rights of employees. A new bill of rights is needed to clarify the obligations of all employers and protect all workers from rising precarity and the ‘platformisation’ of work, Huws argues, but it must go beyond merely tweaking existing institutions such as the benefits and tax systems. The starting point should be a fundamental redefinition of what employment actually is, in recognition of the way the current model has been eroded to a point that it no longer applies to large sections of the workforce.

Ten policy recommendations: a new bill of workers’ rights

1. Establish a new legal definition of self-employment designed to cover only people who are genuinely freelance i.e. those who work autonomously for multiple clients; are able to negotiate their own rates of pay; can determine how the work should be done; are free to employ assistants.

2. Introduce clear and consistent rules for how genuine freelancers should be treated by the tax and social security systems, and to which benefits they are entitled. Specific schemes could cover pensions, insurances, maternity/paternity leave and sick leave.

3. All workers other than those defined as self-employed should be classified as ‘dependent workers’, covered by a comprehensive new bill of rights. The onus of proof relating to employment status should be placed not on workers but on those who employ them.

4. Online platforms or other organisations that put workers in touch with clients should be deemed to be either employment agencies or temporary work agencies and covered by all the relevant regulations, again with the onus of proof resting on these organisations to prove they are not. Existing definitions of these types of agencies should be examined to identify their applicability to online platforms. Where platforms are deemed to fall within the definition of temporary work agencies, the workers should be regarded as employees of these agencies in line with current regulations.

5. The statutory minimum wage should be deemed to apply to all workers, regardless of employment status. Where workers are paid ‘piece rates’, equivalence with hourly rates should be ensured. Rates for casual workers should include an allowance for travel time, waiting time, preparation time and time spent bidding for new work.

6. Introduce a right for all workers to be informed in advance of any termination of employment and to have the opportunity to give their own side of the story — where this is not already covered by existing statutes that apply to employees. The study identified arbitary terminations by online platforms as a particular source of stress for workers.

7. All workers — whether or not they are employees — should have the right to challenge negative customer ratings, and the right to appeal. The research showed perceptions among workers that online platforms tend to take the side of clients against workers.

8. Establish guidelines for insurance and legal liability relating to workers, customers and third-party intermediaries based on current good practice by crowd work platforms.

9. Where work is managed through online platforms, develop clear health and safety guidelines to protect workers, their clients and the general public. Identify the bodies that should be responsible for regulation, compliance, inspection and, where necessary, certification of service providers and their staff. This may involve putting additional resources into inspectorates to enable compliance.

10. Research is urgently needed to assess the strengths, weaknesses and feasibility of alternative welfare models, including a form of universal basic income. The intermittent nature of crowd work, and the complex ways in which workers combine it with other forms of work, suggest that the simple binary categorisation of job-seekers into those ‘in work’ and those ‘seeking work’ no longer fits the reality of flexible labour markets.

Read the full essay by Ursula Huws, published by thinktank Compass: A new bill of workers’ rights for the 21st century.

Study background

The report Work in the European Gig Economy — Research results from the UK, Sweden, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy identifies the proportion of the population using online platforms to secure work, how much income they derive from this source and the characteristics of these workers. The study sought to shed light on the realities of their working lives, including the stresses, fears and health hazards they face, and the benefits these new forms of work bring.

The research project was launched in January 2016. It was carried out by the University of Hertfordshire, in association with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and UNI Europa, the European services workers’ union. Co-funding for national surveys was provided by the trade union Unionen in Sweden, the TNO Research Institute in the Netherlands, The Chamber of Labour (AK) in Austria, trade unions Ver.di and IG Metall in Germany, the trade union syndicom in Switzerland and the Fondazione EYU in Italy.

Ipsos MORI carried out fieldwork for the surveys in seven countries, between January 2016 and April 2017. The report also draws on 15 in-depth qualitative interviews with crowd workers, part of an ongoing project.

Key research findings

· A high proportion of the population (ranging from 9% in the UK — equivalent to around 5m people — to 22% in Italy) reported having done some crowd work. This included either working ‘virtually’ from their own homes via an online platform such as Upwork, providing driving services via a platform like Uber, or working in somebody else’s home for a platform like Helpling. In the majority of cases this was a very occasional supplement to other earnings.

· According to estimates, as many as 5.68 million people in these seven European countries earn more than half their income from crowd or gig work; it ranged from

· 1.6% of the online adult population in the Netherlands (equivalent to 200,000 people) to 5.1% in Italy (equivalent to 2.2m people). In the UK it was 2.7% (equivalent to 1.3m people).

· Only 7% to 13% of crowd workers regarded themselves as self-employed. When asked about their employment status, more than half of all crowd workers (except those in Italy) said they were employed full-time.

· Crowd or gig work cannot be distinguished precisely from other forms of work but forms part of a continuum of casual, on-call, temporary or other forms of contingent work and is usually combined with at least one other form of income generation.

· Online platforms are part of a diverse online ecology and cannot be differentiated precisely from other sites that may put buyers and sellers of labour in touch with each other, such as bulletin boards, directories, agencies and classified advertising sites.

· Crowd workers were more likely than non-crowd workers to be searching for regular employment. They were also more likely to be deriving income from other sources, such as selling goods or renting out rooms online.

· Many crowd workers appeared to be using crowd work as part of a strategy to piece together an income from whatever sources were available rather than adopting it as a freely chosen lifestyle choice.

· Crowd workers are relatively evenly balanced between men and women and are more likely to be in younger age groups, although crowd work can be found in all life stages.

· While crowd workers typically valued the flexibility of crowd work, there were complaints about many aspects of work organisation and working conditions. Particular sources of stress and grievance included difficulty in communicating with platform personnel, arbitrary terminations and perceptions that platforms always take the side of clients against workers.

· Interviews with crowd workers revealed a range of physical and psychosocial health hazards. Some of these were linked to working long hours, including long and unpredictable waiting periods for which they were not paid. Workers also reported exposure to risks resulting from a reluctance to refuse work that was known to be dangerous for fear of receiving a negative customer rating.

The full research results can be accessed in the main report: Work in the European Gig Economy.

Discussion of findings

A changing labour market: the old dichotomies are splintering

The evidence is that it is increasingly difficult to draw clear distinctions between ‘organised’ and ‘unorganised’ labour as we find a growing proportion of the workforce piecing together an income from multiple sources.

The research that underpins the Work in the European Gig Economy report found that nine per cent of the UK workforce was carrying out some form of work for an online platform, but the majority were using this to top up income from other sources. Only 2.7 per cent of people in the UK gained more than half their income from online platforms but this 2.7 per cent nevertheless represents the equivalent of 1.3 million people.

No sharp line could be drawn between ‘gig economy’ workers and others. Rather, this type of work appears to represent part of a broad spectrum of casual, on-call work spreading across diverse industries and occupations. It is a kind of work that is broken down into discrete tasks, managed via online platforms and requires workers to be permanently logged on, not knowing from one week, day or even hour to the next when work will next be available.

Interestingly there is no simple correlation between being low-paid, on-call and prepared to accept just about any extra work that is available and being non-unionised, as other statistics show. Workers using online platforms to top up their regular salaries may in fact be members of trade unions in relation to their primary employment.

A wider ‘platformisation’ of work

The Work in the European Gig Economy study has highlighted the blurred lines between crowd or gig work and other forms of casual, on-demand work. There is an argument that a focus on work managed by online platforms as a ‘new form of work’ diverts attention away from the reality that there are dynamic changes taking place across multiple industries and sectors, affecting other types of work.

There is evidence of a more general ‘platformisation’ of work taking place where several of the practices associated with the ‘gig economy’ are creeping into regular workplaces, perhaps driven by the need to compete with the business models of online platforms.

“The challenge for progressives is to face this digital transformation by making sure that European working and employment standards apply to all workers in the traditional and the platform economy.”

- Ernst Stetter, Secretary General, FEPS

It is now common for full-time employees to be expected to check for emails and text messages outside working hours, thus extending the working day. The surveys in seven European countries demonstrated that more than a third (35%) of those who were not gig workers sent or received work-related emails from their homes outside of normal working hours. For people frequently or occasionally working for online platforms it was 89 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Furthermore five per cent of non gig-workers in the UK were using apps to be notified when work was available (compared with 72 per cent and 37 per cent of frequent and occasional gig workers) while nine per cent — nearly one in ten — were expected to use a specialised app or website to log their work (compared with 76 per cent and 49 per cent of gig workers).

Other features associated with online platforms that are becoming increasingly prevalent among regular employees include the use of customer ratings to discipline workers, tracking their whereabouts using GPS-related apps, and other forms of surveillance based on capturing data on workers’ performance and using it to set ever more sophisticated targets for future work.

As argued here, there are signs a new model of work is spreading, in which workers are increasingly expected to be available on demand, managed digitally and expected to subordinate their own needs unquestioningly to those of customer or clients, carrying out work that has been reduced to standardised, measurable tasks.

Even when workers are organised and have permanent contracts, pressures to meet performance targets can lead to stress and unpaid overtime, and have been associated with high rates of mental illness in some professions, such as academic work. When confronted with evidence that customers have given a poor rating to the service workers often it is difficult even for established trade unions to defend them strongly. Where work is carried out casually, or as a second job, the lack of representation and voice become acute.

The new model of work can thus be seen as one in which workers are increasingly atomised and disenfranchised while simultaneously, in an apparent paradox, being more tightly controlled and interconnected than at any previous time in history, thanks to digital technologies.

Listen to BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed discussion on Platform Capitalism to which Ursula Huws contributed:

Reimagining the welfare state

There is a fundamental mismatch between the fluid labour markets of the 21st century, in which many people do not know from one hour to the next when they will next be working, and welfare systems rooted in the 20th century notion that anybody who is economically active is either ‘unemployed’ or ‘in work’ and, if ‘in work’, is either an employee or self-employed.

At present, those who fall between these categories are effectively denied access to any guaranteed minimal level of income that acts as a safety net and must live daily with a level of insecurity and inability to plan ahead that is threatening to physical and mental health.

The welfare system is in need of a wide-ranging reform. One possible solution is a universal basic income granted as an unconditional right to all citizens. This would need to be closely linked with mechanisms to ensure that employers contribute to its cost, perhaps through raised National Insurance contributions. Welfare reform is discussed in greater detail in Huws’s Compass thinkpiece: A new bill of workers’ rights for the 21st century.

Strengthening workers’ rights in digitalised labour markets

Alongside welfare reform, there is a need for a significant rethinking of workers’ rights appropriate for today’s labour markets.

The creation of a new bill of workers’ rights should start with a redefinition of what employment actually is in recognition of the way that the existing model, left over from the mid-20th century, no longer applies to large sections of the workforce. The model itself was never firmly established in law. For example in the absence of a formal contract of employment, there is currently no single acid test that establishes whether or not a worker is self-employed.

Drawing on a long history of case law, courts and tribunals must weigh up many factors to decide whether or not a relationship of subordination can be said to apply. Recent test cases involving the likes of Uber, City Sprint, Addison Lee and Pimlico Plumbers, have ruled that workers defined by their employers as ‘independent contractors’ are in fact ‘workers’ (though not ‘employees’) but it has been up to the workers and the unions supporting them to raise the money to bring these cases to court.

What is needed is a clear legal definition of self-employment designed to cover only people who are genuinely freelance, i.e. those working autonomously for multiple clients, able to negotiate their own rates of pay, determine how the work should be done and free to employ assistants if need be. Clear and consistent rules should be laid down covering how these genuine freelancers should be treated by the tax and National Insurance systems, and their entitlement to benefits spelled out. This could be supplemented by specific schemes to cover things like pensions, insurance and provisions for maternity and paternity leave and sick leave.

“We need inclusive EU legal frameworks to ensure that crowd workers get the same protection afforded to all workers. It is essential that the right to unionise and to collectively bargain reaches crowd workers as soon as possible.”

- Oliver Roethig, Regional Secretary of UNI Europa

Once the self-employed have been clearly defined, all other workers should be deemed dependent workers, with the onus of proof placed not on these workers but on those who employ them to prove otherwise. Online platforms or other organisations that put workers in touch with clients should be deemed to be temporary employment agencies and covered by all the relevant regulations with respect to their responsibilities, again with the onus of proof resting on these organisations to prove that they are not.

A comprehensive bill of rights should be drawn up to cover all dependent workers, regardless of who they are employed by. As well as including existing rights, such as the right to be paid the statutory minimum wage, to receive payment for public holidays and to join a trade union without being penalised for membership, this should include a range of other rights.

These should include rights for interns; agreed procedures to be followed in the case of suspension or termination of employment; rights to challenge customer ratings; rights in relation to data protection; clear rules relating to insurance and legal liability; health and safety rights, including rights to call in inspectors; rights to information, including an obligation on employers/platforms to provide hotlines or other direct means of communication for workers over both work-related and HR-related matters; training and certification of skills; and procedures for addressing harassment, intimidation and discrimination.

The solution to the growing precariousness and disentitlement of gig economy workers cannot be the creation of a special set of regulations to protect them. What is desperately needed is a clarification of the rights and obligations of all workers, and all employers.

Listen to CBC Radio’s piece on Platform capitalism, digital technology and the future of work, for which Ursula Huws was interviewed:

Policy|Herts reports

Evidence-based policy insights from University of Hertfordshire researchers


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Engaging policymakers in evidence-based research by University of Hertfordshire academics.

Policy|Herts reports

Evidence-based policy insights from University of Hertfordshire researchers