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Digital gig workers are suffering at the hands of tech, says Doteveryone

Responsible tech think tank recommends ways the government and digital platforms offering gig work can change to improve the lives of people using these technologies for work

People who work in the digital gig sector should be given a minimum “gig wage”, opportunities to progress, and a way to play a part in developing the platforms they work under, according to Doteveryone.

In a report focused on how to treat digital gig workers better, which cited a number of research papers, including work from the Department for Education, Nesta and the International Labour Organisation, Doteveryone claimed many people who work for gig platforms are stuck there because of a lack of flexibility and financial security.

It made a number of recommendations to improve standards for people in the digital gig sector, including offering a minimum gig wage and allowing them to play a bigger role in changes made to these platforms that might affect them.

Martha Lane Fox, executive chair and founder of Doteveryone, said in the report: “We have seen many gains as a society and as consumers from the fantastic pace of technological change and the flexible and independent nature of work today. But, as this research shows, there are many perils. We underestimate them at our very grave risk.”

Digital gig work refers to the industry in which people use platforms to accept work on a task-by-task basis, such as Uber drivers, cleaners or food delivery drivers. An algorithm is used to pull workers from a pool to match customer demand for a specific service at a specific time.

While some people use these platforms as a second job to support their existing income, Doteveryone’s report focused on gathering the experiences of gig workers who are “trapped” in gig work because of a lack of flexibility, skills and financial security.

It made recommendations concerning the financial security, dignity and career progression for people who are stuck in the gig economy without reaping benefit from it, and said everyone will benefit in the long run if its recommendations are taken up.

According to the report, one in 10 British people take a job via a digital platform at least once a week, and the “platform economy” has grown to be worth £2bn to the UK economy as a whole.

Doteveryone asked people who take jobs through platforms such as Uber, Deliveroo and TaskRabbit about their work, and found that many working in the industry don’t feel it gives them the flexibility or financial security they thought it would, that there is no career progression, and that they feel anonymised because they are managed through an app rather than by people.

The report also said many have no sick pay, no living wage, no holiday entitlement and no parental leave because they are technically self-employed.

Lane Fox said: “The gig economy can be fantastically empowering if you can work on the terms you wish for. But it can also be destabilising, dehumanising and dispiriting if you don’t. The convenience of a taxi ride or a takeaway must not be traded for the rights of people to work with financial security and dignity and to fulfil their dreams for the future.”

In some cases, platforms will tweak employee pay based on data collected to reduce costs and keep prices low for customers, but workers cannot access this information to find out why or how much they will be paid per job or their possible frequency of gigs.

The report also claimed gig workers are more likely than others to be constantly with an overdraft, or dealing with overheads as a result of taking part in the business, such as the cost of cars, tools or cleaning products, or time spent maintaining profiles and ratings.

One of the report’s interviewees said that in a 60-hour working week earning £750, they are likely to take home only £150-£200 after expenses such as fuel, insurance and VAT. And where platforms do provide workers with insurance or safety nets, they are often capped.

Read more about the gig economy

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  • As companies continue apace with digital transformation, the need for ad-hoc tech workers is growing. But traditional contracting is giving way to the looser idea of “gigging” – and not just for low-level roles.

Doteveryone called for a “minimum gig wage” to ensure that people working in the digital gig economy can be certain of at least a minimum salary, including an allowance to cover some costs, as well as the full cost of statutory employee benefits.

It also called for transparency of information for both gig workers and customers, allowing workers to access information such as an earnings and costs breakdown for workers to enable better financial planning, as well as making sure customers know how much of their payment goes to workers rather than the platform.

Dignity for gig workers featured heavily in the Doteveryone report – for example, when talking to those in the digital gig industry, Doteveryone found that many are managed through chatbots or an FAQ section on an app, rather than being able to connect with real people, which makes them feel undervalued.

Workers are often not consulted on changes to the service, are in constant fear of things such as “revenge ratings”, rejecting gigs or making complaints in case they are penalised by the algorithms that run the platform.

Doteveryone called for co-platform design between platforms and their workers if changes to the platform will affect the workers using them. This could be through a co-design council, worker representation on boards, or allowing workers to vote on designs and changes, it suggested.

The report said this would “redress the power imbalance between platforms and workers, and in the long term will benefit companies as they learn from their workers’ insights and improve retention of workers”.

It also said it would be helpful to build some human interaction into services for workers, to make them feel more valued and listened to.

With a focus on “dreams”, Doteveryone also said there should be potential for development for gig workers. For example, Deliveroo recently set up the Rider Academy so that workers can pitch business ideas to an investor panel, or access online qualifications.

Working in the gig economy makes it harder for people to set out progression plans, because they spend so much time working that they can’t plan or do anything else.

Doteveryone recommended adapting the government’s National Retraining Scheme, which aims to help workers adapt to changes to work ushered in by artificial intelligence (AI), to provide gig works with shorter courses to fit around their busier schedules, as well as include some financial and mental health support, and a focus on rewarding any transferable skills that gig workers might gain through their work.

The think tank warned: “Platforms’ desire for unchecked growth and a passive regulatory environment mean that while others benefit from the innovation of the gig economy, some workers are bearing the brunt – living on the breadline, being treated as a data point and with no options or time to move out of their situation. This is neither fair nor sustainable. It risks creating an underclass adrift from the opportunities that others enjoy.”

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