There is a peculiar feeling around the gig economy insomuch as it feels like a new thing. There is the idea that prominent gig-economy employers, brands that are part of our daily lives – Uber and Deliveroo, for example – are a somehow small phenomenon, borne out of a nascent technological revolution. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In July, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) advised there are some 4.7 million people working in the gig economy, accounting for around one in ten workers – a sizable proportion of the national workforce. But many of the things we associate with the gig economy aren’t new. Insecure work has always been part of our economy.
Before entering parliament in 2016, I worked in the creative industries as an actor. In many a bar, after yet another short-term job, we’d gather and moan that we were the original gig economy – the cockroaches of the employment market. We said that even after Armageddon, actors would still be out there hustling to get another gig, doing anything to keep the wolf from the door. From hawking plays around villages on the back of a truck in rural England, to being booked for a day on a commercial followed by weeks and weeks of nothing, actors are the masters of just getting by.
Of course, this isn’t unique to actors and applies to others in the creative industries as well. It can also apply to the chiropodist, the hairdresser and the engineer. In 35 years as a freelancer, with a feast and famine cash flow, childcare complications and lack of security, my desire to campaign for freelancers and gig economy workers has increased.
I was elected in an October by-election, and remember remarking to colleagues in late December my amazement that I was going to be paid over the Christmas period. Unless you’re in panto, Christmas can be bleak for actors and we’d often end up putting Christmas costs on a credit card. This year I was being paid to be with my family.
My reaction was met with blank faces in parliament but as I caught up with friends over the festive period, they got it. They understood how it is for the self-employed; if you don’t work, you don’t earn. But, as with everything, there are two sides to the argument. Some believe the gig economy is freeing, allowing people to work and earn when they want. Others say the power is in employers’ hands, making financial management almost impossible, putting freelancers at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to being paid in a timely fashion. There’s nothing more demoralising than billing for work you’ve done in good faith, only to hear nothing for weeks or perhaps ever. And the facts back this up. Earlier this year it was estimated that freelancers in the UK each lose on average £5,400 a year through unpaid work and spend 20 days chasing invoices. This is an economic epidemic.
The campaign group Freelance Club is asking for a culture change from one where freelancers aren’t considered “real workers”, to one where they’re treated with the same respect and dignity as any other staff member. Of course, we must go further. Legislation exists to name and shame companies that don’t pay the minimum wage. If companies fail to pay invoices on time, shouldn’t they face similar penalties rather than workers suffering the consequences?
And it’s not just about payments. It’s also about rights. Shifting the status of a worker to an employee has been pivotal and the TUC and other unions such as the GMB have been at the forefront, taking on the likes of Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon, campaigning hard to ensure workers are treated as employees, entitled to basic rights such as the minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay. But where the courts lead, the House of Commons must follow, and I believe that at the centre of any new legislation must be shared parental leave and pay. In recent years we’ve witnessed the welcome introduction of shared parental leave and pay for families in conventional employment. A positive step that allows parents to take leave in a way that works for them without assumptions that it will always be the mother who cares for the children. But with the world of work changing rapidly, we must also extend that to freelancers and the self-employed.
I tried to tackle this through my Ten Minute Rule Bill, “#SelfieLeave,” which called for shared parental leave to be extended to the self-employed. It suggested that freelance families could share parental leave at no cost to the taxpayer by allowing maternity pay – which is already paid – to be shared. This would ensure that both partners have the opportunity to bond with their child, and would mean that mothers could choose to keep their business going if they wished, rather than having to stay at home for 39 weeks, potentially losing contracts. This tweak could change the lives of the 44,000 parents currently eligible, help close the gender pay gap, assist parents to share childcare and help businesses to retain staff.
Whilst #SelfieLeave received warm words from Labour, Lib Dem, Conservative backbenchers and ministers alike, those words dry up at the mention of legislation. We know workers’ rights are rarely handed down and must be fought for, which is why I was happy to co-sponsor Conservative MP Helen Whately’s Flexible Working Bill. It called for flexible working to be the default position for all employees rather than being up to individuals to request. With no sign of the gig economy shrinking any time soon, it’s more important than ever for legislators to be ahead of the curve.
It’s also vital we keep the pressure on the government to implement Matthew Taylor’s recommendations around the rights of workers in the gig economy. Because the Conservatives have had nine years to help the self-employed and if they’re not up to it, then it’s time they moved aside for a Labour government that will.