Sunday, July 25, 2021
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Evening Standard Comment: Now it’s time for all the gig economy firms to deliver

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The digital revolution, like the first industrial revolution, has thrown up important questions around the rights and responsibilities gig economy companies have towards their workforces.

That revolution has been accelerated by Covid-19, which has driven more businesses online and changed our patterns of consumption to favour home delivery.

While we need to create jobs (to repair the damage done by the pandemic) and make the UK a great place to innovate and set up digital businesses, we must also get the right balance and ensure workers are treated fairly.

Thanks to our “get it now” mentality, nowhere is that imbalance clearer than in our gig economy, responsible for five million jobs in the UK, with half of those being in the South-East and the highest proportion of those in London.

To its supporters (and the tech firms peddling these loose work contracts) the gig economy provides vital flexibility and jobs. To detractors they are a form of insecure labour.

As a society, we need to look at what we want our increasingly digitised economy to look like. Now the gig economy has matured, it must take responsible action for the men and women who have driven its growth and helped deliver its IPOs.

So we welcome Uber’s announcement last night that — following the Supreme Court ruling in February that its drivers should be recognised as workers, not contractors — it has awarded workers’ rights to all its 60,000 drivers.

Issues remain — the minimum wage appears to be only guaranteed while they are transporting a passenger. And it should not have taken a court ruling for them to finally change their tactics.

But this move should spur others to follow suit. For too long, some businesses have skirted around UK employment law, offering complex contracts and not paying pensions, sick pay or maternity pay, while their drivers and riders continue to pay the same tax on their earnings.

Particularly when gig economy firms such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats have benefited during the pandemic. Uber Eats controversially is not changing its contractors’ status.

Just Eat is offering rights to only some of its workers. Deliveroo also says “worker” status would stop their riders working for other delivery companies, including their competitors, which their riders want. But the fact remains that most of their workforce remain entirely unprotected.

Uber’s announcement will place pressure on other gig economy firms, most of all Deliveroo, which is floating on the stock market with a value of up to £7 billion, raising £1 billion.

Deliveroo has this morning called for a change in the law, but they too can take action. It is doing itself no favours dragging its feet. Ultimately, workers’ rights should not be left to the courts to legislate, and the Government must respond.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to protect those in low paid work and the gig economy but the Treasury appears to have done little to persuade companies to act.

They need to follow their own report on the gig economy and spell out how our analogue employment law and tax system should be updated for the digital age. Equally, investors — often some of our biggest pension funds — should use their power to not only ensure big corporations make pledges to go green but also protect workers’ rights.

Uber revolutionised and democratised transport and offered many Londoners the chance to work flexible hours around their families. But these workers deserve the benefits that other employees and workers get. Not just a one-off bonus as Deliveroo CEO Will Shu announced in a flurry of positive PR a week ago.

We can be pro a flexible workforce and pro protection for that workforce. The time has finally come for the gig economy to grow up.

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