BLOG: When the man with a van is his very own man
by Bernard Harbor
We used to joke that my younger brother Kevin was from the Dutch side of the family. We were Harbors and he was a Van Driver. Geddit?
Anyway, he drove a van for a living and one day, much to our surprise, Kevin announced that he was now self-employed.
In our late-1980s working class circle, this seemingly entrepreneurial break from the world of employment was as unusual as it was unexpected.
Except it wasn’t what it seemed.
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.
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