If you’ve heard of Uber and Airbnb, you’ve probably heard of the ‘gig economy’ – a paradigm shift taking place as the modern workplace transforms to accommodate the preferences of consumers and those who provide services to them.
‘Gig’ is just one label – you may have heard of the Sharing Economy, Freelance Economy, On-Demand Economy, Networked Economy, Collaborative Economy, Platform Economy or Peer Economy. However it’s named, it describes people earning a living without being tied to a specific employer. It also reflects a need by consumers to get what they want, when they want it, often using their mobile phone.
Armed with apps and smart algorithms, these new companies rely on self-employed people doing ‘gigs’ – like a band moving from one pub to another. In this sense, a ‘gig’ is a short-term, casual piece of work, often on an ‘on demand’ basis communicated through a mobile phone. Uber is the obvious example but, from takeaway delivers to removals, the list is expanding.
In December, the New Economics Foundation think-tank said the number of people employed in this sector in London had risen from 38,000 in 2010 to 65,300 in 2016 – a 72% increase.
Jersey is yet to see a fully-fledged gig economy – although the controversial Jersey Lifts Facebook page is an example of technology and consumer demand pushing the boundaries of existing legislation.
In the UK, self-employment is at a record level of 15% of the workforce. To many of these individuals, the traditional concepts of permanent employment and career progression are completely alien. Instead, these ‘solopreneurs’ are moving towards working from anywhere and rejecting a traditional ‘career’.
Jersey – with its near full employment and ability to legislate relatively speedily – is never likely to fully embrace gig working but it still worth looking at its implications for employment law and protections.
One key question raised by these new atypical working arrangements is whether the way in which a person’s entitlement to employment rights is determined by their status (employee, worker or self-employed) is fit for purpose in the gig economy. Or is it, as some argue, a technicality being exploited to deprive a large group of low-paid individuals of basic statutory rights?
Recently, UK employment tribunals have been grappling with such issues. In January, one found that Maggie Dewhurst, a courier with logistics firm City Sprint, should be classed as a worker rather than self-employed. As a worker, she would therefore be entitled to basic rights including holiday and sick pay and the national living wage. This wasn’t the only tribunal to dismiss the claim by employers that individuals are self-employed independent contractors so didn’t fall under employment law.
In the legal morass, many argue that these cases show that the law needs overhauling if it is to remain relevant and workable in the new reality of the gig economy. In response, the UK Government has recently launched several inquiries to consider how employment practices need to change to keep pace with modern business models. The implications for employee rights and responsibilities and employer freedoms will form a large part of these reviews.
Jersey doesn’t face the same pressure as the UK but, considering that smartphone ownership in the Island is one of the highest in the world, we should probably keep a close eye on developments to the north.