The Gig economy Limps on

2 11 2017
  • a version of this was delivered as a speech at the Battle Of Ideas October 28 2017

One thing we can all agree on is that the Gig economy has great branding. We all like gigs, cool and fun things. If your gigs are writing an article for the Times or speaking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival for 4 or 5 figure sums it probably does feel good to be a gig worker. But if your gig is unblocking somebody’s blocked toilet for £7.50 or working on a zero hours contract in the Sports Direct warehouse, probably not so cool.

There are now 13.5 million workers in the UK who are either self-employed, part-time or temporary – 43% of the total workforce according to Andrew Haldane. Most of these workers are in low paid, insecure employment or LIMP. Limp economy is a better description than gig economy. The British economy as a whole is limping along with insufficient levels of productivity and investment and where stable long-term work is in short supply.

The Gig economy is presented in some quarters as a new and positive way for work to be organised. But you do not have to use a very long historical lens to see my Grandfather lining up at Greenwich Docks at six  in the morning to see if there is any work that day. This system, known as the ‘Lump’ was not abolished until 1947. It was still the case that in the 1930s that 25% of the female workforce were maids, who were excluded from national insurance and many effectively self-employed.

The post WW11 period saw an end to practices like the ‘Lump’ and the creation of stable employment for the masses. This period was notable for the coming together of the state, employers and trade unions to create a full employment economy with the welfare state as a safety net. It was not the nature of work itself that changed in this period, but the relationship of workers to their employers and to the state. It is the breakdown of this corporatist approach over the past decades that has impacted most on working conditions, along with the overall exhaustion of the UK economy.

There is nothing inherent in the needs of a modern economy which should mean an end to stable long-term jobs. If you were working on a project to build the 300,000 new houses that are needed every year in the UK you would not be feeling insecure or having to work an Uber shift after work. If care homes were properly financed then care home workers could be properly paid and given secure jobs.

The job of a taxi driver has not changed because of the introduction of Uber platform technology. Taxi drivers still sit in cars and drive people around. What has changed is that it has become more insecure and exploitative, there is a loss of control of the job when compared with black cab drivers. The gig economy often reflects a change in the balance of power between employer and worker to the detriment of the latter, particularly in the private sector. The availability of cheap, flexible workers also discourages the kind of new investment that we need to increase productivity.

This is not to deny that some people enjoy the flexibility  of the gig economy and that is fine for them. But many more are forced into insecure employment because that is all that is available, or there are inadequate childcare facilities to allow them to work full-time. We should not be deluded into thinking that for many people who are trying to raise families, not knowing where the next pay is coming from is a good way to live. It is past time to turn the LIMP economy into a strong and growing one, with good jobs for all who want them.






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