Thursday, February 23, 2017

Gig economy: not enough room on the stage?

The gig economy, beloved of 'flexible' employers - especially those with cost-cutting finance chiefs and aggressive or overly compliant HR directors - has spawned a host of media articles and academic studies; not to mention court and tribunal challenges. However, one area that is generally overlooked is the issue of over-supply. Say, for example, a media or publishing company decides to get rid of its in-house editorial team and 'encourage' its members to work on a freelance basis (even though they have only their former employer as a client), the company saves on its wage bill and the newly 'flexible' freelances take responsibility for their tax and national insurance liabilities. But what it also does is increase the pool of freelance labour. In reality, organisations working in this field will already use freelances as they can be commissioned to work on long or one-off projects, or to add extra capability during busy periods. Now, however, the existing freelance pool has been increased - but the amount of work has not; neither has the requirement to improve rates of pay. In certain respects, pay rates for editorial and other media-related areas have not increased appreciably since before the financial crash in 2007, in some instances they have rather been reduced. For established and newly-minted freelances, this state of affairs can represent a perfect storm, with an ever larger pool of labour chasing the same amount of work for fee levels for which there is no prospect of an increase any time soon. While freelances represent - in conservative or neo-liberal minds at least - go-getting entrepreneurs at the cutting edge of labour market reform, the reality is often very different, and, it would seem, largely built on the illusion of flexibility and economic progress. In hearings conducted by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the three most often reviled unholy trinity of Amazon, Deliveroo and Uber admitted that taking responsiblity for tax and NI back in-house and conferring employment protection rights on their gig contractors would not adversely affect their businesses. This admission led committee-member and South Cambridgeshire Tory MP Heidi Allen to ask almost plaintively "when are you going to start paying people properly?": a cry freelances, both new and long-in-the-tooth can only echo. Could the day of the bucanneering finance and HR freelance creators be drawing to a close? Here's hoping.