Can the gig economy provide the 'decent' quality of work we want?

Posted: 27th Jan

In the past few years in the world of work, the gig economy has taken more than its share of the spotlight. But while pros and cons focus on the question of the employment status of gig workers, we lose track of the underlying debate, can the gig-economy provide decent work and, if so, how can we get there?

Concerns with labour regulation and conditions for gig workers have been the subject of much debate and contest. A core focus has been on the classification of gig work as either direct employment (albeit deliberately disguised) or genuine independent contracting. This is important because we know that status matters and offers protection of minimum standards.

The fight against sham contracting to expose dodgy practices should continue and will be played out in courts and tribunals. However, the intense focus on the classification of work has obscured another important aspect – the quality of jobs. This is a problem as it is not just the nature of employment status that makes work ‘decent’ but characteristics of the work/job/conditions as well.

Many areas of direct employment in the traditional economy have poor quality jobs. It has been suggested (with some supporting research) that some people are choosing to work in the gig economy to avoid low-quality employment elsewhere – for example in hospitality where issues such as wage theft have been writ large in the past year. Some also chose gig-work because of flexibility or because they can’t abide the sometimes-questionable approaches of their managers.

So, the real question is whether gig work – in particular in areas of the labour market characterised by low skills and low wages – can meet societal expectations about what constitutes decent work and whether such expectations are changing.

Decent work has been defined in a number of ways by a number of organisations. The ILO has a ‘Decent Work Agenda’, the UN sustainability agenda that includes decent work. But many of these aspects are macro-level and suffer the fate of standards set by international organisations – namely that they rely on the political support by national governments for implementation.

Macro-level pronouncements, while having some normative value, are unlikely to offer shorter-term options for promoting decent work in practice. The likelihood of national regulatory change to promote decent work at a macro-level is very low. In the absence of regulation that can definitively classify an organisation as either compliant with minimum labour standards or not, we wanted to construct criteria that would allow digital platforms to be judged on how they treat their workers.

Through workshops and discussions with gig platforms, workers, unions and government regulators we attempted to determine what decent work might look like in the context of platform enabled gig work. This multiple-stakeholder consultation led to seven criteria for job quality: earnings, health and safety, skill use and personal development, flexibility, decision-making and voice, autonomy and control and finally job security.

These criteria reflect that there is an attraction to work in the gig-economy beyond simple economic drivers revealing that the question of what constitutes decent work might be more complex than we thought and any answers need to have the scope to capture these different dimensions.

What is clear is that we need a renewed debate on what decent work looks like for the future and this debate has to allow for a reconsideration of workers expectations, ethical concerns of consumers and innovative business models. In the meantime, as individual consumers, we can investigate, enquire about and choose platform service providers that offer the best conditions to their workers.

Source: Brisbane Times -