Living Below the Line: New Research Reveals Alarming Pay Gaps in Gig Economy

Broke No Money

Gig workers, also known as independent contractors or freelancers, form a significant part of the modern workforce. They engage in temporary or project-based work, often facilitated through online platforms. While gig work offers flexibility and autonomy, it also comes with inherent uncertainties such as inconsistent income and limited access to benefits and protections typically provided by traditional employment arrangements.

As the expense of daily life keeps escalating, a groundbreaking report reveals that over 50% of gig economy employees in the UK are paid below the minimum wage.

The pioneering research, conducted by the University of Bristol, discovered that 52% of gig workers, engaged in tasks from data entry to food delivery, were making less than the minimum wage. On average, participants earned £8.97 per hour, approximately 15% lower than the present UK minimum wage, which increased to £10.42 this month.

More than three-quarters (76%) of survey respondents also experienced work-related insecurity and anxiety.

Lead author Dr. Alex Wood, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and Future of Work at the University of Bristol Business School, said: “The findings highlight that working in the UK gig economy often entails low pay, anxiety, and stress. As food, fuel, and housing costs keep rising, this group of workers are especially vulnerable and need to be more adequately remunerated and better protected.”

Equally concerning, more than a quarter (28%) felt they were risking their health or safety in doing gig work and a quarter (25%) experienced pain on the job.

When asked what would improve their situation, basic rights such as minimum wage rates, holiday and sick pay, and protection against unfair dismissal were most wanted.

Unions and platform councils (similar to works councils that exist in some European countries) to represent their needs and help influence how gig economy platforms operate and affect their working conditions also featured on their wish list. More than three-quarters of respondents believed the introduction of such bodies would bring immediate benefits.

Dr. Wood said: “A major factor contributing to low pay rates is that this work involves spending significant amounts of time waiting or looking for work while logged on to a platform. Not only is the work low paid, but it is also extremely insecure and risky.

“The self-employed who are dependent on platforms to make a living are urgently in need of labor protections to shield them against the huge power asymmetries that exist in the sector. This clearly warrants the expansion of the current ‘worker’ status to protect them.”

The study involved 510 UK gig economy workers who were surveyed last year. There was representation from across the sector, with around half being remote freelancers using platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr to pick up jobs ranging from data entry to website design. The other half comprised local drivers providing food delivery and taxi services via platforms including Deliveroo and Uber.

More than just side hustles to earn extra cash, respondents spent on average 28 hours a week undertaking gig work, comprising 60% of their total earnings.

Respondents overwhelmingly considered their work to be best described as self-employment and thought an extension of labor rights to include the self-employed would significantly improve their working lives.

This was the first research to investigate what forms of voice gig workers want. The findings suggest strong support for European style co-determination whereby worker representatives are consulted on and approve changes that impact working conditions and employment. Works councils that exist in countries like Germany could therefore provide a model for platform councils and assemblies in the gig economy to facilitate workers having a say over the decisions which affect their ability to make a living.

Brendan Burchell, Professor in Social Sciences at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the report added: “Respondents strongly felt the creation of co-determination mechanisms would allow workers, and their representatives, to influence platform provider decisions which could instantly improve their working lives.

“These policies include elected bodies of worker representatives approving all major platform changes that impact jobs and working conditions. Our findings emphasize the potential for trade union growth in this sector, with majorities being willing to join and even organize such bodies.”

Reference: “Gig Rights & Gig Wrongs – Initial Findings from the Gig Rights Project: Labour Rights, Co-Determination, Collectivism and Job Quality in the UK Gig Economy” by Alex J. Wood, Nick Martindale and Brendan Burchell, 2023.

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