What had happened was this. One morning, Kevin’s boss told him he was now self-employed. He could rent the van and would do his deliveries as before. Only now he was a contractor, not an employee. And he’d have to sort out his own tax and insurance.
They privatised the buses around the same time. That’s another story but, like Kevin’s newfound small businessman status, back then it seemed as inexplicable as it was unsettling.
Sure enough, a short while later the ‘contracts’ from (though not the van repayments to) Kevin’s former boss thinned out. Then they disappeared. No redeployment. No holiday pay. No redundancy. No responsibilities.
Almost three decades later, as the Ubers, Deliveroos, Amazons and others rushed to explain that they were ‘platforms’ not employers, I started to hear the term ‘gig economy.’ I came to realise that my unwitting little brother was among its pioneers but, no matter how cool it might sound now, I was right about that unsettling feeling.
Countless workers who would simply have been employees in previous eras now work as ‘contractors’ without the protections against sub-minimum wage and unfair dismissal – or benefits like paid holidays and sick leave – that the rest of us take for granted.
Cue teams of legal, trade union and academic experts wrestling with the distinction between employed and contractor status, and the thorny challenge of maintaining employees’ rights in situations where – how to put it? – they just ain’t employees.
One of those experts, Jeremias Prassl of Magdalen College Oxford, spoke at the prestigious Industrial Relations News conference in Dublin earlier this year. He reckons substantive aspects of laws governing rights at work need to be reviewed to protect workers in the new dispensation.
Confronted with zero-hour arrangements, bogus self-employment, and other new forms of work organisation, Professor Prassl said unions must address the limits of laws on unfair dismissal, minimum wages, and qualifying periods for job protection.
But he says reform of social welfare and taxation policy is as, if not more, important. That’s because the so-called gig economy is luring people away from standard employment relationships by offering them a “no income tax” proposition.
Stephen Holst of legal firm McCann Fitzgerald agrees that tax and PRSI reforms “could be the biggest driver of change” in this area. He says at least €60 million a year is lost to the Irish exchequer through the false classification of work as self-employment, which allows companies to avoid paying employers’ PRSI.
Holst said these arrangements – including the prospect of lower income tax bills – can look attractive to workers at first. But they are less appealing when you need to fall back on PRSI-related benefits like maternity leave, pensions and social security.
Prassi said there was evidence that the gig economy was causing huge tax losses in other jurisdictions too. And he added that moving workers out of the PAYE system meant they carried all the burden of tax compliance.
Yet this issue could be relatively easy to address because all the data about who works, who for, and for how much, exists on the platforms – like Uber and Deliveroo – that typify the gig economy.
Should those of us in steady employment be concerned? A recent report from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) found that precarious ‘gig economy’ working arrangements were now spreading, including into the seemingly safe neighbourhoods of public administration, health and education.
Insecure and Uncertain: Precarious Work in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, revealed that 8% of the Republic’s workforce – or over 158,000 people – see significant variations in their weekly or monthly working hours. Another 7% are in temporary employment, often simply because they can’t find permanent work.
The union study found that female and young workers are most likely to be stuck in precarious or insecure jobs. And, while uncertain work is most common in distribution, hotels, catering, retail and construction, it’s spreading to other areas including the public service.
The alarming growth in precarious work since 2008 has prompted ICTU to urge the Government to legislate to address the problem. It wants new laws to guarantee the right to a minimum number of working hours, and to provide workers with a written statement of their terms and conditions from day one of their employment.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Ged Nash is to speak at Fórsa’s Services and Enterprises Divisional conference about his proposed legislation aimed at strengthening protections for precarious workers. His proposals go further than new laws envisaged by the Government, which would ban zero hour contracts in all situations except emergency cover, short-term relief work, or genuine casual work.
The Congress report says the coalition’s approach is insufficient against the background of a dramatic 34% rise in part-time work and self-employment, which it says is “indicative of significant growth in bogus or false self-employment.”
Meanwhile, Professor Prassl says unions must avoid “falling into a crazy Luddite trap,” and should instead take on the negative aspects of the changing economy while embracing technology and innovation. “Over the centuries, technology has never destroyed the net amount of work, but it has made it better, safer, and more fun,” he says.
Unions also face the practical challenge of developing services that gig workers actually want. Things like advice on contracts and intelligence about good and bad ‘gig’ employers are not standard trade union fare, but they would be a real boost to the Kevins of today.
On the plus side, Prassl makes the rather obvious point that reaching and communicating with gig workers shouldn’t be that difficult, After all, they are – they have to be – among the most IT and social media literate people on the planet.
In any case, unions will have to up their game to stay relevant if, as seems likely, the sector keeps growing at its current rate.
This article was first published in Issue No.2 of Fórsa magazine which is available in your workplace now. You can download the magazine here.