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Making the Gig Economy work for everyone

A long time ago, in a coffee shop far far away... probably in Seattle or California, some ambitious geeks came up with a Utopian vision. The Internet should bring people together. Those who have the same interests and desires should meet.  The first manifestation of this vision was the sharing economy. Google helped everyone to share information, Facebook helped you to share your life, E-bay helped you to get rid of your junk and buy other people's junk. The boundaries that demarcated different laws and customs did not matter, as much as sticking to Google's corporate code: "Don't be evil."

As always happens, the successful counter culture then blended into the corporate world. Over time the sharing economy mutated into the platform economy.  Like the sharing economy, the platform economy is all about connecting people who want with people who can - with little regard for other boundaries. But instead of sharing information or swapping junk the platform economy is about buying and selling human services.  You can only be a successful platform if you are THE successful platform. All that matters is that you are there first. This creates a self-fulfilling cycle of success. It also gives monopolistic powers to the winning platform. Regulations are boring. Laws slow you down. The only business strategy that makes sense for platforms is to become big and then work backwards to being legal.

What about the workers?

Ever since Parliament banned children from going up chimneys, we as a society have decided that the world of work is too important not to be governed by law. So many of us spend so much time at work that our working lives have a really big impact on everything else. There has always been, and still is, a power imbalance between the resources organisations have compared to what individual workers can do on their own. Regulations are important. The law makes our society work better. So how do we achieve the best working practices in the modern workplace?

A key factor in creating a high value and high skilled economy is to have a solid employment law framework. The Law Society believes this is achieved by:

  • everyone having a good understanding of employment rights,
  • a strong enforcement system, and
  • information on employment practices being freely available.

We have recently published a report - Better employment law for better work - which contains recommendations as to how to achieve these aims. We say that there is an urgent need to reform how employment status is defined, and attempt to create clearer definitions for the statuses of employee, worker and self-employed. We say that the Director of Labour Market Enforcement and the Gangmaster and Labour Abuse Authority should be given powers to ensure that the labour market remains fair - including the power to conduct inquires into sectors and investigations of individual organisations. We also encourage businesses to be transparent about their employment practices, to help improve best practice.

Working in the gig economy, whether it be navigating urban streets to deliver a package or waiting to find out what task will come your way next, is often a enjoyable thrill or a convenient choice. The Office for National Statistics estimates that only 30% of temporary employees are in insecure work because they can't find a permanent job. But at the same time many gig economy workers are also concerned about the rights they are given. The CIPD recently found that only 13% of gig economy workers said that having fewer rights and benefits is a fair deal in exchange for the independence they got.

The challenge for Matthew Taylor's review into employment practices in the modern economy, for the government, and for platforms themselves - is to harness gig economy workers desire for flexibility and for security and satisfaction. We at the Law Society believe that making employment law clearer & employment rights quicker and easier to uphold will help to achieve the best possible workplace in the modern economy.