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Employment

A National Food Service? TfL for taxis? What nationalising the gig economy could look like

Gig economy platforms should be taken into public ownership if they repeatedly fail workers, say the majority of under 45s in new research.

Uber drivers protest outside Uber HQ over 'racist' facial recognition software. Image: IWGB

Turning a delivery app into a National Food Service sounds pie in the sky – but research suggests there is growing support for bringing gig economy firms into public ownership if they abuse workers’ rights.

The majority of under 45s agree that any platforms like Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon Flex should be taken over if they repeatedly deny workers basic levels of pay and conditions, a new report has found.

The poll of more than 2,000 adults found a “remarkable level of support” across Labour and Conservative voters for changes to employment law aimed at reducing the number of workers inaccurately defined as self-employed in the gig economy, a designation that does not afford them holiday or sick pay.

“I found it really striking that among under 45s you do have a clear majority of people who are willing to support nationalisation as an emergency option if companies continue to fail to pay workers fairly and give workers decent conditions,” researcher Callum Cant, who worked on the poll conducted by Fairwork, told The Big Issue. 

Just 22 per cent people polled thought that the gig economy platforms pay workers a fair wage.

The results of the poll came as little surprise to Dalia Gebrial, a PhD candidate researching the platform economy, who told The Big Issue “so many people in that age category are having to turn to the gig economy, so there is an awareness of how broken these platforms are.”

The size of the gig economy workforce has tripled over the past five years, according to recent research conducted by union TUC, finding that three in 20 adults in England and Wales now work via gig economy platforms at least once a week, compared to around one in 20 in 2016. 

“There is a long history of urban infrastructures being taken into public ownership when they reach crisis point… it was only in the 1980s that that’s became such a taboo question,” Gebrial added. 

So what could a publicly-run gig economy look like? 

When it comes to transport platforms such as Uber, Ola and Bolt, Cant pointed to the potential for a “public Uber, a public, cooperative version of Uber.” Think TfL, but for individual or shared journeys, run by a cooperative or local government initiative. 

This looks like it could be more complicated when it comes to platforms that are based around food, however a National Food Service isn’t impossible to imagine. 

“The idea is basically that instead of attempting to alleviate poverty through specific measures, you just start rolling out greater and greater services along the lines of the NHS, a National Food Service would mean that no one ever goes hungry,” Cant explained. 

The concept fits under the broader suggestion of universal basic services, which argue that basic services must go beyond just the pure necessities of health, education and emergency relief. It is also suggested as an alternative to a universal basic income

By putting the services under public democratic control, “you would be able to make the changes you wanted to see immediately.”

So, building on the example of a TfL version of Uber, a minimum wage could be rolled out across the platform without “having to get that through investors or owners.”

“Let’s not forget”, explains Gebrial, “a lot of workers in the gig economy can’t make ends meet on their gig economy salary, working nine, 10 hours a day, and so also have to be on universal credit.”

“So the public is topping up the wages of people working on these platforms, with the benefits and profits of that being taken by private actors.”

Previous research by Fairwork found that only two of the 11 UK gig economy platforms the project approached demonstrated that staff were guaranteed to be paid the minimum wage after costs.

Gig economy workers have traditionally been classified as self-employed for employment law purposes, meaning they are ‘their own boss’ and do not receive benefits such as holiday or sick pay. The approach is touted as offering flexibility to workers, however critics point out that it makes it almost impossible for workers to rely on a regular income. 

In February 2021 the Supreme Court ruled that Uber drivers are indeed workers rather than self-employed, ending a four-year dispute and granting them holiday pay, a guaranteed minimum wage and other basic workers’ rights. 

In contrast, Deliveroo drivers were classified as self-employed by the UK Court of Appeal in June, confirming that the Uber case did not set a precedent for the future of the gig economy.

Labour has pledged to create a single definition of “worker” that would ban “bogus” self-employment and therefore guarantee workers rights for all. 

The Green Paper proposals would end “the absurd situation in which you could wear a uniform, work regular hours solely for one business and yet be considered by the law to be self-employed,” said Angela Raynor, Labour deputy leader. 

Landmark employment reforms in areas including the gig economy and zero-hour contracts were set to be brought in by the government as part of a flagship Employment Bill, announced in late 2019.

However these are unlikely to be launched until late 2021 or even early 2022, according to Whitehall’s ex-employment tsar, Matthew Taylor, who accused ministers of “deafening silence” on the issue.

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