In a tribunal in the heart of London Uber discovered its workforce was rather larger than at the start of the day. A landmark judgment handed down by an Employment Tribunal has determined Uber drivers are not self-employed but rather employees of the ubiquitous virtual taxi company.
Needless to say many of those engaged in employee rights are hailing this as a great victory and a warning to those taking advantage of the “gig economy”.
Which is to be applauded, but let’s not write the gig economy off yet. For a start my livelihood relies on it.
When people think of the “gig economy” I know a fair proportion will think of the likes of me. I provide my services to companies as a freelancer and contractor. Sometimes I work on the client’s premises, embedded into their teams shaping and delivering projects. Other times I work at home, delivering discreet pieces of work that are part of a bigger whole. We’re seen as glamorous, in control business people providing useful skills that companies might not otherwise have.
But there is this darker underside, which I guess Uber is a part of, where people aren’t as in control as I am. Although they might be flagged as “self employed” on a government database somewhere they’re waiting on one company to send work their way. They’re waiting for a call to come in on their zero-hour contract, or not certain of whether their next week’s shift in the call centre will happen.
I’ve seen these situations since as long as I’ve been in work. My (nearly) first job was building sheds as a self-employed worker paid a fee for each one I built. This was back in the late 1980s. Wind forward and I’ve come across them time and time again, from care workers entrusted to look after vulnerable people in their own homes to call centre employees administering complex financial products to shop workers. And yes, I’ve met more than my fair share of IT contractors too.
My fear is the moves against Uber will create a war on the gig economy that will undermine the incredible flexibility I and my fellow freelancers enjoy. I can see HR departments starting to run scared about whether the contractors they have on their books are possible employees, leading to a cooling in the gig economy that isn’t justified. Whatever rules, regulations and laws come out of the back of the “gig economy” and its “zero hour” brethren could, inadvertently at least, create a hostile environment for freelancers, driving our clients away whether justified or not.
This is not to suggest that the decision against Uber is a bad thing – it isn’t and I welcome the clear message it sends. But as our politicians consider their response, and our clients review their working practices, my hope is we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and create a business environment hostile to the freelancer seeking ad hoc gigs and using online market places to meet their working needs.