Gig economy article illustration by Jennifer Tapias Derch

Andrew is a 60-year-old father from Victoria State, Australia. For decades, he enjoyed a lucrative career in construction that was cut short by an injury in his 50s. Unable to find a permanent contract since his accident, Andrew has exclusively taken work in the so-called gig economy. For Andrew, the transition was profound. Suddenly, he had no guaranteed hours, he could be fired at any time and he received no mandated breaks or overtime pay.

“Uncertainty was the biggest change,” he says. “There was no guarantee of work, and you have fewer rights.” When I met him, Andrew had recently signed onto a new casual contract. His reason for changing workplace? Poor treatment.

Zero-hours, casual, platform. Different terms describe the same phenomenon: employment without benefits. The development of the economy since the 2008 financial crisis has ushered in an upsurge of insecure work across the globe. In March 2019, former Liberal Party of Australia MP Craig Laundy dismissed criticism of Australian job insecurity, claiming that it is a “lie that the rate of insecure work in this country is lifting. It’s not. It’s completely where it was 20 years ago.”

This claim is misleading. Looking back 30 years, a clear picture emerges — the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) reports that the total share of casual jobs in Australia’s workforce jumped from an eighth to a fifth between 1982 and 1992. After this, it plateaued at 25%.

My contract has a one-hour notice period. Every shift, security search us to see if we have stolen anything from the venue. If they found some change in my pocket and accused me of stealing it, I would be out of work that day.

The UK’s labour market has experienced a surge in casual work more recently than Australia. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates that the UK’s insecure job market has almost quadrupled since 2008. There is another troubling trend: the number of UK households in working poverty has been rising steadily since the mid 1990s.

Jenny is an artist living in south London. She also works full-time hours for a hospitality agency. “My contract has a one-hour notice period,” she says. “Every shift, security search us to see if we have stolen anything from the venue. If they found some change in my pocket and accused me of stealing it, I would be out of work that day. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent.”

A poll commissioned by the Trade Union Congress in 2017 revealed that the majority of zero-hours workers are denied basic employment rights
Graph showing percentage of zero-hour workers offered a range of basic employment rights

Jenny paints a bleak picture of working Britain. In some ways, it has never been easier to find a job. Employers offering casual work often take on those with no industry experience, and unemployment is at record lows. But what Britain, Australia and other countries with a gig economy have gained in quantity of opportunities has been lost in quality and stability. Since the economic downturn, the UK has been locked into an economy of “low wages, low productivity [and] low investment”, observes The Guardian’s economics editor, Larry Elliott. Even so, the UK government characterises the current economic climate as one of its great domestic successes. “Employers,” counters Elliott, “have the confidence to hire workers because they know they can get rid of them without too much trouble.”

Large shares of the world’s labour markets are now precarious. Inevitably, low-wage workers are the most vulnerable to exploitation. Hard-working people are left without options or political protection — which can result in working poverty and eventually even homelessness. Unless changes are made, this could be the lasting legacy of the fourth industrial revolution.

Parallel to the emergence of the gig economy, our digital infrastructure and capabilities are rapidly advancing. There is a plethora of apps devoted to convenience — services such as taxis, beauty treatments and food delivery are instantly available. Current projections indicate that our digital landscape will continue to transform at an exponential rate, although precisely how our lives will change remains uncertain.

The dangerous machines of today’s industrialisation are more elegant than the mechanical beasts of the Victorian era, but no less ruthless.

Just like the first industrial revolution, the comforts brought by the fourth have come in tandem with a mushrooming of precarious employment.

The social history of industrialisation is well known across the world’s classrooms: the arrival of mass production and steam power forced artisan and agricultural workers to move their skills, and their lives, to urban factories.

Conditions in these new jobs were grim. There are accounts of children losing fingers to machines, 20-hour shifts executed without breaks and devastating long-term health conditions — stories that shock adults as well as school children.

Evidently, those employed under the current gig economy are not in quite so dire a situation as those trapped by early mass production — though delivery drivers and warehouse staff may recognise the 20-hour shifts.There are nevertheless some pertinent equivalences.

Zero-hours contracts preclude the right to notice before being dismissed. In other words, labour is disposable. In the textile factories of the industrial revolution, sky-high unemployment meant that workers could easily be fired because employers could count on someone homeless or otherwise desperate to take their place. Unsafe conditions were tolerated because the alternative was intolerable.

The dangerous machines of today’s industrialisation are more elegant than the mechanical beasts of the Victorian era, but no less ruthless. In his book, Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, James Bloodworth describes a “hand-held device” that Amazon warehouse pickers were made to carry around “that tracked our every move as if we were convicts on house arrest”. He reports a scolding for too much “idle time” — inclusive of bathroom breaks — and was never, despite several requests, permitted to view his contract.

Based on his experiences, Bloodworth concludes that there is “now [a] permanent class of people who live a fearful and tumultuous existence characterised by an almost total subservience to the whims of their employers.”

It took a full century for trade unions and workers’ rights legislation to offset the damage done to society by the first industrial revolution. What we slowly learned then is still applicable today: the individual worker has no chance against industrial giants.

Thus, worker empowerment ought to form the cornerstone of how we tackle today’s insecure work problem. The development of trade unions during the industrial revolution meant that urban workers could deploy their collective resources and demand better working conditions. British Deliveroo riders — cyclists that deliver food orders door to door — attempted to unionise in 2017. Organised as the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), their application for union recognition was rejected. A year later, the IWGB lost its high court challenge.

In another high-profile case, Uber drivers Yaseen Aslam and James Farrar brought their experiences to the British court. In this case, in October 2016, the industry giant lost. The court ruled that Aslam and Farrar were entitled to compensation in line with the UK’s minimum wage and paid holiday entitlements. Farrar had this to say: “I am delighted today’s ruling brings us closer to the ending [of] Uber’s abuse of precarious workers made possible by tactics of contract trickery, psychological manipulation and old-fashioned bullying.”

Uber has not taken this ruling lightly and has already attempted to overturn it twice — without success. Uber has also clarified its intention to take the case to the UK’s supreme court.

Should we fail to address these ongoing injustices, the income inequality gap of numerous developed economies risks widening. We can look to Europe and the Nordic nations for examples of good practice. In Germany, strict regulation on temporary work agencies through a dedicated body of laws — the Arbeitnehmerüberlassungsgesetz — protects low-wage, casual workers by mandating essentials such as health insurance and paid leave. In 2017, Norway ruled that zero-hours contracts breached section 14 of the country’s Working Environment Act, and were illegal. Like the decades after the industrial revolution, reformed workers’ rights legislation and labour union empowerment could help solve today’s insecure work problem. The potential benefits of the fourth industrial revolution could be huge. The challenge lies in making sure these benefits are felt throughout society, instead of allowing a minority to enjoy them at the expense of everyone else.

Illustration showing a match with flames at both ends by Jennifer Tapias Derch