Staying safe in the gig economy

New forms of work create big challenges for companies looking after their workers' wellbeing.

by MT Staff
Last Updated: 21 Sep 2017

In June, a cyclist approaching a set of traffic lights in central London spotted that the moped rider next to him seemed to be streaming a TV show on the phone perched on his handlebars. When the cyclist challenged him as to whether he should be watching telly while in control of a vehicle, the driver used an expletive to convey how little he cared.

The cyclist had, of course, filmed the incident, which was soon splashed all over major news websites. Significantly, the rider was apparently at work at the time, carrying the distinctive pannier box of Deliveroo, the fast-food courier. This prompted an obvious question: what happened to employees caring about people’s safety, or for the reputation of their employer?

Deliveroo is one of the more visible representatives of the gig economy, the increasingly common business model in which tech-driven companies use mobile apps to dish out work to a dispersed workforce, on a job-by-job basis. With employees coming and going, and having no regular direct contact with a central head office, it’s easy to see how essential standards in safety and reputation management can start to slip (although all companies can put in place simple information and training measures to keep their people safe, and Deliveroo responded by saying that it takes road safety ‘extremely seriously’ and that it would take ‘immediate and appropriate action’ once it had identified the individual).

But the gig economy has exposed other dangers too. In the week that the traffic light clip went viral, delivery drivers again found themselves in the news – this time as victims of the spate of acid attacks around East London. Jabed Hussain, a rider for UberEats, was doused with acid by attackers who made off with his moped, as he was left screaming with pain.

In the days that followed the incident, Hussain led other gig workers in protest outside Parliament, expressing their frustration over what they saw as a lack of protection, rights and representation. 'We pay tax, we serve food. We’re not terrorists, we’re not criminals … we’re normal, hard-working people. Why are we not safe?' Hussain asked.

It’s a pertinent question. According to research by the CIPD, a quarter of gig workers say they don’t know who to complain to if they have concerns.

That same week, Matthew Taylor launched his Review of Modern Working Practices, a report that gave a particular focus to the gig economy and zero-hours contracts. It highlighted many positives in these flexible models – record levels of employment, low levels of unemployment, high levels of voluntary flexibility, and wages now growing fastest among those lowest paid – but also acknowledged that many of these benefits were one-sided, and that much of the work being offered is not high-quality. The report also emphasised the potential for power imbalances and exploitation of the workers, who can wind up shouldering all the risk.

With the gig model becoming increasingly prevalent – the CIPD estimates that 1.3 million people in the UK are already picking up work via apps, and that 12% of UK working age adults who haven’t done gig work this year have said they may do next year – we’re going to hear a lot more about this in the coming months, as those in the gig economy wait to hear the government’s response to Taylor’s findings.

Yet there’s no reason why employees of the new flexible working models shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of flexible working and the same employment rights that other workers do, as well as having scope to stay in work, develop fulfilling careers and decent career development and fulfilment. Not only is that good for the employees, it’s good for businesses too: a happy and healthy workforce can have a positive impact on everything from productivity and engagement to improving your knowledge and skills base and your corporate reputation.

Any company keen to harness the flexibility of the gig economy can still ensure their people, and the public they encounter, remain safe. Here’s how:

• Offer quality work. Taylor’s report highlights the benefits to health and wellbeing of workers having greater autonomy over the pace they work at, more security and more opportunities to progress, as well as a voice in the organisation. Show a clear commitment to offering secure fulfilling work with opportunities to develop – it’s not just good for your workers, it benefits the business too.

• Be clear about roles and responsibilities. This should include giving information on how wages are calculated and paid.

• Know the risks. Changes should start at the top, and corporate reporting should include meaningful and comparable health and safety data from across the organisation and supply chain.

• Equip people properly. This is a problem for any employers that have distributed workers working away from the business. But the basic principles still apply – you have to identify the risks they face, and ensure they have the training or equipment to do the job properly.

• Protect your vulnerable workers. Taylor’s report recommends baseline protections and certain new rights. Zero-hours workers should, for example, be able to request contracts that reflect the hours they actually work. Agency workers should be able to request a proper contract after certain amount of time. And sick pay should be a right for all workers, regardless of their level of income.

For more insight into looking after distributed workers, visit www.IOSH.co.uk/outofsight

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), will be leading an expert panel discussion on health and safety and the gig economy at IOSH 2017, the international conference on safety and health in the workplace. To book a place, visit the conference website.

Image source: ShopBlocks/Flickr

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