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Boom in gig economy workers shows struggle to make ends meet

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Younger people most likely to be working for a gig economy 'platform'.
  • New research from the TUC and University of Hertfordshire finds that one in ten now work on gig economy platforms - twice as many as three years ago.
  • Younger workers are by far the most likely to work in the gig economy, with 60 per cent of those working regularly for platforms aged between 16 and 34.
  • The TUC wants the government to get wages rising and ensure everyone has a secure job that pays the bills.

Growing numbers of workers are turning to often insecure and badly paid platform work, such as food delivery and cleaning, to top-up lacklustre wages.

A report by the University of Hertfordshire and Ipsos MORI has found that one worker in ten is undertaking platform work at least once a week.

This is double the number found three years ago.

The UK survey is part of a larger Europe-wide research project by FEPS, UNI Europa and the University of Hertfordshire, directed by Ursula Huws.

Platform work encompasses jobs that are found via a website or app – like Uber, Handy, Deliveroo or Upwork – and accessed using a laptop or phone.

Some platform work is highly visible, such as Deliveroo riders on many city streets.

But much is largely invisible cleaning and household repair jobs, or even office work.

Growing trend

Much of this sort of labour has long happened in non-online form.

But what is worrying is the speed of its rise, which supports other evidence showing huge numbers of working people living in poverty.

Notably the research, which was co-sponsored by the TUC, found that the majority of those undertaking platform work do it as a top-up to other earnings.

In 2019, over a quarter (28.2 per cent) of the population said they had tried to find work via online platforms but not all of them succeeded.

Only one person out of every 2.4 looking for platform work found it on a monthly basis, and even fewer on a weekly basis.

Platform workers are found in all age groups but are more likely to be young with 31.5 per cent aged 16-24 and 28.7 per cent aged 25-34.

These are the very people who have been at the sharp end of a growing generational pay gap thanks to the impact of the financial crisis and the growing prevalence of insecure and low-paid work providing limited opportunities to progress.

Double hit

Gig economy workers often face the double hit of poverty wages and weaker employment rights.

Many gig economy workers miss out on basic rights like the national minimum wage, paid holidays or sick pay.

Often unpredictable hours and pay makes it impossible to manage your finances or plan childcare.

And many gig workers feel they can never switch off their devices for fear of missing out on work.

Workers are not only turning to gig work to make ends meet, they are also using platforms to raise funds in other means. Nearly one in five report seeking paying guests via Airbnb or similar and more than half have sold possessions on a website.

Union wins

This is not a story of unremitting gloom. Unions have had some legal success in proving that gig economy workers are entitled to basic employment rights. However, employers with deep pockets can stretch out the legal process and any worker win is not automatically applied to their colleagues.

Meanwhile, GMB union’s deal with Hermes shows that it is possible for unions to win a better deal for workers in the gig economy, if employers are willing to play ball.

But too many workers will continue to suffer the stress of insecure platform work until the government takes concerted action to boost the creation of decent jobs and guarantees rights for all those who work for an employer.

Note on research

The UK survey is part of a larger Europe-wide research project by FEPS, UNI Europa and the University of Hertfordshire, directed by Ursula Huws. It includes 15 surveys carried out online in 13 countries. Previous results and reports can be accessed here. The final report will be available next month.