The future of work is happening now and not on some far-off horizon. One in ten Brits takes a job via a digital platform at least once a week. And the services they provide – the almost instantaneous taxi rides, cleaning, manicures or babysitting – are now taken for granted by consumers.
The data-driven innovation that matches customers’ wishes to workers’ capabilities has opened new opportunities for those who already had them. For those with existing skills and financial means, gig work offers flexibility and freedom.
But for those who don’t, the app has become a trap. They have no option but to work gigs, and no way out once they’ve begun.
In this research we listened to those who are in the trap. They told us how gig work strips them of financial security, dignity and any dreams for the future.
We heard from them how gig work is ‘like quicksand’ – low pay becomes unlivable pay after costs are accounted for – and the promise of flexibility is an illusion when, in reality, workers must be available 24/7 and scrabble for every gig available.
We heard how workers wished they’d be treated ‘like people not robots’ and how management by algorithm strips people of their dignity.
And we heard how people ‘don’t know what comes next’ as the always-on, piecemeal work they do makes it impossible to think or plan for a different future.
The gig economy does not have to be this way. Doteveryone fights for better tech for everyone. We’re working to change how tech is made and used so it supports a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society.
Collaborating with gig workers we formulated ideas about how to create better work in the gig economy for those that digital disruption has left on the fringes. We propose policy change for the long term and have prototyped best practice for platforms to implement immediately. The recommendations meet the needs of those most disadvantaged, and in doing so they serve everyone.
We ask now that policymakers and platforms take the opportunity, as we have done, to listen to the people on the other side of the app – and to act.
The Government should develop and enforce a Minimum Gig Wage that accounts for the unavoidable costs of doing gig work.
Platform modification: Platforms should provide greater data transparency to show workers how their earnings and costs fluctuate, and inform customers about how much of the price they pay is split between the worker and the platform.
Companies should create governance structures that give gig workers a voice in the design of the platforms they work for.
Platform modification: In a world where interactions are mediated through an app and often automated or ignored, we propose that workers can have access to human interaction to solve their questions or seek redress.
The Government should adapt the National Retraining Scheme to provide the holistic support that gig workers need.
Platform modification: Help Hotspots would provide a broad range of drop-in support for people in locations and times that fit into gig workers’ daily lives.
Gig workers – like everyone – should be paid fairly. Their work should be compensated so they and their families can live and thrive. But for some, financial insecurity is a major problem. This makes the promised flexibility of gig work an illusion as workers need to put in long hours to make ends meet.
Gig workers – like everyone – should be paid fairly. Their work should be compensated so they and their families can live and thrive. But for some in the gig economy, financial insecurity is a major problem. This makes the promised flexibility of gig work an illusion as workers need to put in long hours to make ends meet.
I thought it was going to be easier and give me the flexibility to organise and be more financially independent… actually the biggest problem is pay. [There’s] not enough to pay bills. – Delivery rider, London
Fundamentally, this is a problem of low pay. The rates on offer to these gig workers leave many struggling to make a decent living. As one worker said, “you can’t support yourself with [gig work] because there’s so little. Technically you can but you’re doing so many hours in rain, snow and you get sick so it’s not practical to survive on it.”
Work that is supposed to be flexible becomes never ending.
If you want to get the money you’ve got to be available seven days a week… you’ve got to accept. – Handyman, London
And there are additional financial burdens. Gig workers are more likely than others to ‘live in their overdraft’. They have unavoidable overheads: paying off car loans or upfront sign-on costs, maintaining bikes, buying cleaning products and tools, time spent waiting for gigs, time spent creating profiles, managing ratings or navigating the platform – all of which eat into an already low wage.
I do 60 hours, I make £750. But then you have to deduct expenses, around £150 on fuel. I can take out £600 but then you pay insurance, VAT for cars. It’s been four weeks where I’ve made no more than £400. You’re just managing your expenses and taking £150 – £200 home – Driver, London
Some larger gig platforms are taking on a share of these financial risks. Uber and Deliveroo both offer workers free accident and injury insurance. But these protections are capped and contingent on meeting eligibility criteria (Uber drivers must have completed a minimum of 150 trips in the 8 weeks preceding an accident or illness, for example), and on many other gig platforms these benefits are non-existent.
Without social safety nets from an employer, gig workers must bear these costs too. But when money is so tight, personal insurance or pension contributions become unaffordable luxuries, making workers extremely vulnerable. One cycle courier said she thinks “about [nearly] crashing every day, there is definitely a chance of it happening in the long term. It’s not clear what you can do to financially survive if you do have an accident.”
The gig economy exacerbates these challenges through the way platforms use the data they hold to constantly change the terms for workers. For example, some platforms give short term incentives to lure workers onboard, but these evaporate once the company has established control in a market.
In the beginning Uber paid £10 to get all the Deliveroo riders to quit their jobs. So everyone was moving. Then they get you hooked on, and they dropped it right down to £3.50 a delivery. – Delivery rider, London
Platforms use their data to constantly tweak the rates of pay workers receive, driving costs to the minimum and creating hypercompetitive markets. This keeps prices low for customers and enables them to grow their market share.
But it isn’t a level playing field between platform and worker. Workers are often not able to access all the information that determines how their pay and demand for gigs change in the short and long term. Instead they live in permanent uncertainty and have to guess what their real wage is, how best to use their time, and how to plan their financial futures.
Some workers described a cat and mouse game where they would try to find ways to beat the system, only to have those opportunities closed off.
They made loads of changes to make it more difficult… they stopped telling you where you’re delivering to which makes it very difficult to plan for more than one [delivery]. I think the reason they did that is to stop you from working on other platforms. Their excuse was “people are declining deliveries” but I don’t believe that. Every time we found hacks, they’d react to stop it. You’re trying to make as much money as you can and they’re trying to restrict you – Rider, London
These tactics condemn gig workers to a cycle of piecemeal labour – living precariously from one gig to another with no transparency about their expected income and no ability to plan their finances.
Achieving a Minimum Gig Wage
For gig workers to have financial security, first and foremost they need to be paid more. The National Minimum Wage (NMW) has improved the situation of the UK’s lowest paid workers, but does not protect self-employed gig workers.
We are calling for a legal obligation on gig platforms to pay a Minimum Gig Wage.
As recommended in the 2017 Taylor Review, a regulated floor will create a base level across all platforms, protecting workers from unfettered competition. But a minimum wage alone does not account for the additional costs of gig work. The Minimum Gig Wage would include an allowance to cover a fair amount of the extra costs gig workers face, including the full cost of statutory employee benefits and protections that employees enjoy. This would mean gig worker’s ‘take home’ pay (after costs) would achieve parity with employees and make purchasing employee benefits and protections viable.
Giving workers and customers the information they need
With a Minimum Gig Wage, gig workers will have certainty about their baseline rate. But financial planning is still difficult when gig availability fluctuates and costs vary.
With our imagined platform, the on-demand avocado delivery service AvocaGo, we explored how to help workers overcome this. Our prototype platform dashboards show workers a breakdown of how their earnings and costs vary over time (fig 2).
This information allows current and prospective workers to make better decisions about whether and when to work, reducing downtime between gigs and providing a more accurate reflection of the ‘take home’ pay workers get.
Emerging fintech services such as Trezeo, the income-smoothing app, aim to help selfemployed and gig economy workers manage uncertainty around their income. A number of gig platforms, such as TaskRabbit, show breakdown of costs, including the service fee and VAT, to workers and consumers. But there are not, to our knowledge, any services that integrate these insights together to give workers a clear and holistic picture of their overall financial situation.
This kind of data can even be used to support collective action: workers’ unions in Scandinavia have analysed market and worker data using artificial intelligence to inform and develop their negotiating strategies.
The AvocaGo dashboard also shares information with customers.
As demand for ethical consumption grows, customers can help ensure the people providing the services they use are getting paid fairly. So while AvocaGo customers can buy all the avocados their hearts desire, they are also informed about how much of the price they pay is split between the worker and the platform. We also included an alternative tipping page were customers can add an amount to a savings fund for something of the workers choice (fig 3).
This could incentivise AvocaGo to pay its workers a higher and more ‘ethical’ price to distinguish it from its competitors.
Work is part of people’s identity. It can be a source of pride, build communities and define individuals. But that does not happen if people cannot work with dignity. Management by algorithm – where a faceless app mediates all their interactions – leaves gig workers voiceless and disrespected.
Work is part of people’s identity. It can be a source of pride, build communities and define individuals. But that does not happen if people cannot work with dignity. The people we spoke to who were reliant on gig work described how management by algorithm – where a faceless app mediates all their interactions – leaves them voiceless and disrespected.
When I went to sign-up, I was loyal to the company, but then you realise that they really don’t care about you. You’re just a number. – Delivery rider, London
The gig economy is founded on the concept that work can be parcelled out into tasks that any available worker can undertake. But for workers, that leaves them feeling anonymous and unrecognised.
The general consensus is that everyone is pissed off, nobody really wants to be doing it, but a lot of my colleagues are quite miserable. Mental health is a big issue in the industry. – Delivery rider, London
These experiences are compounded by a distance between many platforms and those that work on them. Many digital gigs come with no more than generic automated support, facilitated by chatbots and boilerplate FAQ webpages. These services can often lack the nuance and context needed to adequately address workers’ needs.
The workers we spoke to described the dehumanising effect of this robotic support, that implies their concerns are not worthy of a conversation:
If you have an issue and you call them they’ll do their best not to do anything about it – It got to a point where they had call centres in the Philippines where the people just had scripts – Delivery rider, London
Describing the frustration of not being able to explain or contextualise his actions, one driver spoke of how this strips him of agency and makes the knowledge he’s built up through hundreds of hours of gig work redundant.
Some platforms do make efforts to build relationships with their workers – Uber hosts driver dinners in certain areas, for example, and Deliveroo holds rider focus groups, awards ceremonies and ‘digital easter egg hunts’. But these initiatives typically reach only a fraction of the overall workforce, and are held on platforms’ terms.
Changes to the design of apps or algorithmic decisions made by platforms are often imposed unilaterally, or at best after consultation with a relatively small group of workers.
Workers’ financial insecurity makes them powerless to rebel: “Ultimately they [apps] don’t care, they’re like ‘regardless we know you’re going to work for us whether we put these plans in action now or ten years from now.”
Academic research by Meijerink & Keegan confirms this first hand experience:
As the term implies, the centrality of the “app” in appworking relationships is absolute. That the algorithm underpinning the app is designed, developed, and implemented heavily or entirely by marketing specialists and system designers within organisations, with little, if any, worker contribution, challenges established thought on the HR function’s role in effectively managing working relationships.
This one-sided communication between worker and platform can have insidious effects, with workers put off from rejecting jobs, raising complaints or acting to collectively assert their rights for fear of backlash from customers and the algorithms that rule over their working lives.
A driver from Stoke-on-Trent described their fear of “revenge ratings” because the platform design dictates that the gig worker must rate customers first, which then disincentives drivers from leaving bad reviews of problem passengers in case their own ratings suffer in return. And the disrespect workers encounter from the platform is mirrored in their interactions with their customers.
They see the number, they don’t see me, they don’t talk to me directly… that’s the difference between what I’m doing now and what I want to do – Rider, London
Although they do receive tips and gratitude in some places, they’re also on the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse in others: “if anything goes wrong customers take it out on you and they don’t care that it’s not your fault.”
This abuse, understandably, takes it toll on these people. Many of the workers we spoke to called for greater mental health support from both platforms and government.
Strengthening worker representation through platform co-design
Gig platforms are in a state of constant evolution. User and worker interfaces, matching and pricing algorithms, economic models and other design features are iterated on a daily basis to keep up with technological progress and the needs and wants of the markets in which they operate.
But our research shows workers are typically excluded from these development cycles: changes are imposed on them, not made with them. To give workers the respect they deserve and capitalise on the valuable knowledge they hold, companies must give them a stronger voice by changing how platforms are designed and developed.
We recommend companies establish governance structures that give gig workers a greater voice in the design of platforms, that enable them to co-design features that directly affect workers and provide commitments for how organisations will engage with them.
These structures could take the form of a worker co-design council, representation on boards or workers voting on key decisions, for example. Workers must have the formal power to approve and shape major design changes, and must be represented as platforms’ apps, algorithms and commercial strategies evolve. This will help to redress the power imbalance between platforms and workers, and in the long term will benefit companies as they learn from their workers’ insights and improve retention of workers.
These co-design collaborations could, for example, redefine ratings metrics, design features of the worker interface to improve performance and support task discretion, or mandate levels of access to human representatives of platforms if workers need support.
Redesigning worker support to include human interaction
We wanted our imagined avocado delivery platform, AvocaGo, to respect workers’ desire for meaningful and timely human responses to any issues they encounter.
Our prototype idea is simple. In a world where interactions are mediated through an app and often automated or ignored, we propose that workers can have access to human interaction to solve their questions or seek redress.
This could happen through the app which triages workers to get immediate assistance from a fellow worker, or book a video call meeting with a platform representative (fig 4).Hide
Everyone has dreams for their futures. But for workers who are stuck in a trap of precarious gigs, it’s hard to make these a reality. When tasks are reduced to their simplest form, there’s no incentive for workers to grow and develop.
Everyone has dreams for their futures. But for workers who are stuck in a trap of precarious gigs, it’s hard to make these a reality. When tasks are reduced to their simplest form, there’s no incentive for workers to grow and develop. Long hours and financial insecurity make it hard to make plans. The career progression that’s available to people in employment becomes unattainable.
Some larger players in the digital gig economy are investing in the development of their workers – Deliveroo’s recently-established Rider Academy offers workers opportunities to pitch business ideas to an investor panel and access to online qualifications and a limited number of degree scholarships.
Obviously I don’t want to do it for the rest of my life – Rider, London
But the workers we met have diverse aspirations that extend beyond pitching ideas on Dragon’s Den or pursuing formal qualifications. We heard a cycle courier describe their dreams of becoming a stuntwoman. We met a micro-tasker looking to start up a family-run removals business with his son. One driver simply wished to be as rich as Floyd Mayweather. But none had a clear roadmap for achieving their goals.
There are no ideas I have right now. I’m thinking about my own business but I need to have money to invest… I really don’t know what I’m going to do after two years – Driver, Stoke on Trent.
The work conditions of the gig economy – the low pay, long and volatile hours, and poor sense of self worth – create barriers to making plans:
I do not have the time to improve my skills, because my number one priority is to be earning enough to survive, be comfortable – Microtasker, Birmingham
Careers fragment into unpredictable micro-chunks, framing workers’ worldviews in units of minutes and hours and narrowing their horizons. Some gig platforms are inherently hypershort-term – nearly two-thirds of jobs on MechanicalTurk, where businesses can “crowdsource remotely located workers to complete discrete and repetitive tasks,” take no more than a few minutes at a time.
I could be closer to [my goal] if this gig work was a bit more reliable… if I wasn’t stretched and tired so much I could focus slightly more on studies. – Cleaner, London
Other platform features – algorithm-driven surge pricing for example – also lend themselves to living in the moment. Workers spoke of a false flexibility, where people who chose to turn down shifts or not engage during peak hours are penalised.
Their advertising was work whenever you want, and I was so happy… but if you miss a Wednesday next week that Wednesday’s not there, so they basically force you to work the hours that they want. – Rider, London
And rigid ratings systems often focus on short-term metrics such as delivery speed, which can decay quickly if workers don’t maintain them or take time off:
Going on holiday could affect your statistics, you’re only as good as your last month. If you took more than a few weeks off you’d find it hard to then book on good shifts – Courier, Milton Keynes
Some workers described an alternative future where they could define the feedback that’s most helpful to them, focusing on transferable skills that they could use to take the next step up their career ladder or progress within digital gig work itself.
I would like some constructive criticism, some training, that could get me to the next level of gig work. I feel like there’s a hierarchy within [gig work] and if there is training to be had to get pay higher well – please tell me what I need to do! – Cleaner, London
Those at the bottom end of the gig economy are trapped. Their dreams do not vanish but the lack of financial security and dignity of their work often means they remain a fantasy.
Achieving aspirations with the National Retraining Scheme
One-size-fits-all approaches to training and development don’t work for all gig workers. Those who are working gigs through necessity and not choice have little time, money and headspace. They need tailored advice and guidance to meet their goals.
The National Retraining Scheme has been set up to address the expected impacts of automation on the economy. But gig economy workers are already bearing the brunt of technological disruption and need help now. We recommend adapting the government’s National Retraining Scheme to provide the holistic support that gig workers need.
Services could include micro-learning and mentoring courses, that can be used flexibly around the variable working schedules of gig workers. The scheme should also incorporate financial and mental health support and offer ways for workers to be able to demonstrate and get recognised for the many transferable skills they develop through their gigs.
Meeting workers where they are: Imagining a Help Hotspot
Not all tech problems need tech solutions. The workers on our fictional avocado delivery platform, AvocaGo, should be able to use their gig work as a stepping stone to their future.
We designed a Help Hotspot (fig 5), providing a broad range of drop-in support for people in locations and times that fit into gig workers’ daily lives – when demand is high, where products are picked up, or where workers congregate between gigs.
Meeting workers within the context of their routines, the Help Hotspot offers support that’s both specific to workers’ gigs – troubleshooting for navigating apps or equipment repairs, for example – as well as providing help to create a pathway to the longer-term career opportunities the workers we spoke to are keen to develop. Workers will also be able to arrange a time to continue their conversations at a later date, if they can’t afford to devote too much time during the drop-in session.Hide