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Gig economy workforce has tripled in five years

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Written by: Emma Lunn
05/11/2021
Research from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) suggests the gig economy is ‘spiralling’ with 4.4 million people working for gig economy platforms at least once a week in England and Wales.

The union says gig economy jobs are spreading further into the world of work, with the number of people working in the gig economy nearly tripling in England and Wales over the past five years.

TUC research, carried out in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire and BritainThinks, found that three in 20 (14.7%) working adults surveyed now work via gig economy platforms at least once a week, compared to about one in 20 (5.8%) in 2016, and just over two in 20 (11.8%) in 2019.

This equates to 4.4 million people in England and Wales working for gig economy platforms at least once a week. In addition, almost a quarter (22.6%) of workers have done platform work at some point, up from one in 10 (11.5%) in 2016.

The term “platform work” covers a wide range of gig economy jobs that are found via a “platform” (a website or app) – such as Uber, Handy, Deliveroo, Gorillas or Upwork – and accessed using a laptop, smartphone or other internet-connected device. Tasks typically include taxi driving, deliveries, office work, design, software development, cleaning and household repairs.

The TUC says the overwhelming majority of workers use platform work to supplement other forms of income, reflecting that gig workers are increasingly likely to patch together a living from multiple different sources. It warns that this can lead to long working days.

The TUC says gig workers face a two-fold challenge. Often their bosses falsely claim they are self-employed with no rights, including no right to trade union recognition. But those who can prove they are workers still usually end up with far fewer rights than conventional employees, with many missing out on basic rights like the national minimum wage, paid holidays or sick pay.

Oxford University’s Fairwork recently published research which showed that household names in the gig economy, such as Amazon’s delivery arm Amazon Flex, are failing to meet the most basic requirements on workers’ pay and rights.

Other research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that black and minority ethnic workers are overrepresented compared to white workers in the gig economy. The TUC says that boosting gig workers’ rights is therefore vital to tackling the structural racism that holds back BME workers in the labour market.

Despite its rapid expansion, the power of the gig economy has taken a hit thanks to union organising, according to the TUC. The union body points to the Supreme Court ruling from February this year that said Uber drivers are workers – not self-employed – and are therefore entitled to basic rights they had previously been denied.

The TUC says the government must stop letting gig economy platforms off the hook – and is calling for workers to have greater trade union and individual rights.

Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said: “Everyone deserves to be treated fairly at work. But millions of working people are having to rely on casual and insecure gig economy work to make ends meet – often on top of other jobs.

“Gig economy platforms are using new technologies to carry out the age-old practice of worker exploitation. Too often gig workers are denied their rights and are treated like disposable labour. The Supreme Court Uber judgment earlier this year was just the beginning. Unions won’t rest until pay and conditions have improved for gig workers.

“It’s time for change. Ministers must stop letting gig economy platforms off the hook. That means giving all gig workers trade union access, banning zero hours contracts and boosting workers’ rights across the board.”

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