In a previous post, we highlighted how many people are, often for the first time, experiencing the benefits of flexible working due to the pandemic. There has also been wider adoption of part-time working and job sharing, although given the current uncertainty and possible reintroduction of stricter measures by the government aimed at curbing the current rise in cases, there is a risk that employers might attempt to pressure employees to agree to a reduction in hours or pay to mitigate against a real or anticipated drop in revenue. While some employers may have a real and legitimate aim of saving their business from ruin, this effectively passes some of the financial risks on to staff who may be facing their own financial difficulties.
Increasing flexibility in employment practices has been the trend for a long time as work patterns adapt to modern living. Nowhere is this more evident than the development of the so-called ‘gig economy’, a phrase used to describe a category of companies that contract individuals to work on a task-by-task basis rather than for predefined periods of the person’s time.
Online platforms and businesses offer individuals a wide range of flexible working arrangements up to and including complete flexibility to work the hours they want and take on work they want, with a spectrum of contractual obligations between the platform and the person providing their labour. In recent years the courts have looked at the question of whether these individuals are employees, workers or self-employed. In some cases the courts have found there to be an employment relationship between the platform / business and their gig economy staff, declaring them employees or workers.
Numerous gig economy companies straddle the line between engaging individuals on a self-employed basis or as workers, the latter benefiting from greater protections and rights with accompanying duties on the part of the platform.
There are many criticisms of the gig economy, one among them being that its usually low barrier to entry results in it often attracting a vulnerable demographic of people with more precarious finances, leaving them open to exploitation. However, the inherent flexibility can mean less commitment to each platform giving an individual greater control of their time, which is the primary limitation on how much a gig economy worker can earn. Recently the outlet Vice published an article about a company in the US called Civvl, which occupies the latest extreme of the ‘gigification’ of traditionally regulated work, positioning itself as the ‘Uber of evictions’. It has been advertising for ‘eviction crews’ and ‘process servers’ to assist “frustrated property owners and banks to secure foreclosed residential properties”. For those who care about labour protections, the sad irony of using people in precarious employment to remove others who cannot afford their rent is not lost. Although this is not a domestic example, the mentality is trans-Atlantic. It again highlights the need for broad protections at a time when many may find themselves with limited choices to find an income.