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Gig economy workers do so out of necessity

A new study found that people are desperate for work and would rather have a different form of employment

Many engaged in crowd or gig working are desperate for any work rather than actively choose this form of employment, according to research seen exclusively by HR magazine.

The Crowd Work in Europe report, from the University of Hertfordshire, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, and UNI Europa, surveyed 2,238 British workers and 8,421 from other European countries. It defined crowd work as paid work organised through an online platform.

The report found that 93% of those doing crowd work at least weekly are using a job board to search for another position, along with 88% of those who crowd work occasionally. This compares with just 39% of those who do not do gig work.

The research found that crowd workers tend to offer their services indiscriminately. When asked to name which of three broad types of crowd work they were looking for (driving work, work that could be done from home, or work that had to be carried out on customers’ premises) the majority named more than one.

Co-author of the report Ursula Huws, professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, told HR magazine that crowd workers are often scrabbling together an income from any jobs they can find, as opposed to pursuing an active career choice. “These people are often desperate for work – to the extent they will do tasks they know to be risky because they need that money,” she said.

Dangerous working conditions might include people hired to assemble furniture, remove garden waste, repair household items, or perform heavy lifting, said Huws. If these activities were conducted within a legally-constituted employment relationship, the employer would have duties of care in relation to risk assessments, the provision and use of work equipment or personal protective equipment.

“We heard of a case where a woman was working as a courier,” said Huws. “And found that the people who had hired her wanted her to transport drugs.

“In other cases we heard of workers who need to stay within a certain area to receive job notifications. They have to sit outside in the cold, sometimes without the money to buy a cup of coffee to keep warm.”

Gemma Dale, co-founder of The Work Consultancy and former HR director of Tunstall Healthcare, told HR magazine that these poor working conditions are not confined to work found through online platforms. “This is in part down to a labour market in which people are desperate for work, and have little power in the employment relationship,” she said. “This is the dark side of the gig economy.”

Huws presented her report at the government’s review into employment practices in the modern economy, due for publication June 2017.

The review is expected to explore the current legal categories of worker, employee or self-employed. Huws found that 57% of people who work for online platforms at least once a week view themselves as employees, despite being classified as self-employed.

Jules Quinn, partner at law firm King & Spalding International predicted that new legislation will eventually provide more protections: “What is expected is a shift in the burden of proof: an assumption of worker status for all gig economy staff.”

But Huws warned that further regulation could be futile. “A lot of people think the answer it to regulate [the gig industry], but it could be that there are already perfectly good regulations out there, and it’s just a case of deciding which ones should apply,” she said. “This is a very dynamic situation. There are still a lot of unknowns.”