Take a walk through High Street on any night of the week and you could be forgiven for thinking that cycling culture in Cardiff was well and truly alive and kicking.
Racks full of bicycles, bicycles parked in the doorways of restaurants and riders milling around. It’s the sign of a thriving culture no doubt, but the reality is not quite so simple.
The Gig Economy
There are many definitions of “the gig economy” floating about, but in essence it could be seen as the bastard child of the zero-hours contract –a contract that offers no guarantee of hours or income. Whether you are on a zero-hours contract or are working for one of the many app platforms popping up out of Silicon Valley you are treated as a contractor. However, where you may be paid for an hour of work with the former, you may well be paid for a task, or a delivery, or a ride with the latter.
The term “sharing economy” is often used when referring to these app platforms that have sprung up these past few years. In a true sharing economy individuals are able to borrow or rent assets owned by someone else, particularly things that are not needed all that often, like bread makers, power tools and books. The only thing being shared in this case is labour.
The second reason to reject the “sharing” and “collaborative” labels is that they give the wrong impression of what these companies do. They are not exploitative masters of “digital serfs” (as some would have it), but neither are they hands-off intermediaries between ordinary people who want to exchange goods and services.
With a zero hours contract you will have those that defend them for their flexibility and those that dismiss them for their lack of well…pretty much everything else. The same is true of the gig economy.
Of course, there are people out there who will do well in the gig economy, particularly people who value the flexibility of being able to work whenever they want to, especially if they are not depending on the money to pay the rent, mortgage or put food on the table. Sadly, many people working in the gig economy are relying on it.
When it comes to working in the gig economy, Huws is clear: young people aren’t usually in it by choice. While one in 40 say the gig economy provides the majority of their income, for most it is part of a piecemeal existence; they cannot find other work or they are subsidising other low-paid jobs. There’s a high drop-out rate.
The benefits of this style of employment is a big win for big business, as it absolves them of many of the trappings of traditional employment, such as a duty of care, pension contributions and that pesky sick pay.
Today we are mainly interested in two players in this game –Deliveroo and Uber Eats.
Restaurant food to your door
Both Deliveroo and Uber Eats allow people with bicycles, mopeds or cars to take delivery jobs through their smartphones. You sign up with either platform, pay around £150 for the branded gear and an insulated rucksack before joining the merry ranks of people milling around in certain locations in town waiting for their phone to ping.
When your phone beeps, you accept the job, ride to the restaurant and collect the order before heading off to the diner’s house. Each delivery you make earns you a fee according to the distance traveled and a few other factors. Occasionally they will provide incentives to work during certain periods, or find other ways to shape the way its casual workforce operates at that time.
As with any food delivery job, writing as someone who delivered pizza for 18 months, there is an incentive to do as many deliveries as you can during the time you are working to maximise your income. But unlike with Dominos or Pizza Hut, who may have a set number of workers on a given shift to cover all of the orders, with the apps you could be competing with countless others for jobs that night. If the restaurants who are signed up to these platforms are having a quiet night, as they often do from Monday to Thursday, it is likely that you will too.
But the sharing economy reverses progress in labour markets. Whatever the gains from increased efficiency, it recreates a Dickensian world for a part of the population. Formal employment to varying degrees protects labour from exploitation and deprivation. The sharing economy transfers the risk of economic uncertainty from the employer to the employee with potentially tragic consequences.
As with the bike messenger jobs we talked about before in our Murder of Couriers post, there are certainly some upsides to the job. For starters you get to ride your bike for a whole shift, keeping you fit, active and generally more cheerful than a sedentary role would. However, injuries and illness threaten to remove your ability to earn.
I must admit to feeling pretty scared for our younger generations right now. App platforms are increasingly occupying ground in the labour market normally reserved for minimum wage roles. As suggested above it’s an easy win for the “employers” because they can effectively wash their hands of their employees whilst still getting work out of them.
Yet employees still need to keep a roof over their heads at a time of extortionate rents and laughable house prices. Landlords don’t really care if you are working 60-hour weeks and still struggling to pay the bills and you had better hope you don’t get ill, because there’s no sick pay for you either. On the subject of rent, there’s another player in this app-based economy –Airbnb.
Airbnb makes it easy for people to rent a room or even a whole house. Of all the “gigs” Airbnb is without a doubt the most lucrative, but it relies upon you already having a property to rent out. Unfortunately in some cities these are properties that would often have been occupied by long-term residents.
The issues triggered by the global rise of Airbnb are a subject of ongoing debate in Amsterdam. It has become extremely popular, and lucrative, to rent out a flat or room here on one of the short-stay rental platforms, of which Airbnb is by far the biggest. An estimated 22,000 rooms and flats in the Dutch capital are now offered for rent this way at least once a year. In the most popular neighbourhoods, as many as one in six homeowners rent out a room or flat on Airbnb.
Whilst governments are keen to boast that unemployment is falling, in truth this may well be little more than a technicality. Rather than simply being unemployed, people are instead working as a contractor in the gig economy, or are on a contract that guarantees no hours.
Right now we can look at it almost half-heartedly and say something should be done about that, but further down the line these workers are likely to be unable to afford to put money away for retirement; or bring in enough money to keep a roof over their heads as they head into old age. By then it’ll be a few decades too late.