Making the gig economy 100% human

Photo by Arnaud Mesureur on Unsplash
Benjamin Hay head shot in black and white
by Benjamin Hay
3 December 2019

The exponential rise of the gig workforce is a much-discussed trend all across the globe, but is enough being done to protect the growing number of gig workers?

At the last count there were over five million self-employed people in the United Kingdom, 33 million in Europe and 55 million in the USA. Growing numbers of people are choosing to take advantage of the freedom and flexibility of self-employment, especially now that technology has enabled greater opportunity to find work, wherever you may be in the world. 

It is perhaps the rise of the gig platforms that are most responsible for this new workforce – whether that’s marketplaces like Fiverr, ride-hailing platforms like Uber or grocery delivery services like Instacart. Their rapid growth and adoption has created an unstoppable march towards a relationship between platforms and workers that looks less and less like employment.

This new relationship is creating an important debate in our society – as platforms accrue greater power and influence, there is a risk of exploitation of individuals who lack the legal protection and financial safety net afforded to their employed peers. 

Since leaving the Virgin Family just under a year ago, it is a debate I have increasingly focused on as the co-founder of Collective. Our mission at Collective is to provide the financial safety net that is absent for gig workers, giving them access to the same protections as big company employment. 

As part of the journey with Collective, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with and gain insight not only from gig workers but also employees of gig platforms, founders of gig platforms and those who invest in them. This has made me increasingly hopeful and persuaded that business is best placed to ensure a 100% human future for gig workers. 

Whilst many are advocates for regulatory or policy changes that impose greater responsibility upon platforms, I have previously shared my disagreement to this approach. I fear that such changes will irreparably damage the business models upon which the gig economy is founded and fail to result in a solution which enables both the platforms and those who work on them to thrive.

From my time at Virgin, I know that business can be a force for good. That people, planet and profit do not need to be mutually exclusive. With the speed of change we are encountering, I believe that business is best placed to provide the necessary protections and technologically enabled solutions at a pace and rate that government cannot compete with. 

Here are five steps that I believe business can take to help provide a better future for gig workers: 

1. Venture investment matters: Venture capitalists have the influence to drive real change. The behemoth platforms have significant revenue and seemingly bottomless bottom lines. However if investors want to see revenues translate to profit, requiring the gig economy giants to take better care of those who ‘earn on platform’ would be an important step in the right direction. The economics of attracting, retaining and engaging gig workers is no different to traditional employment where business has always invested in providing a range of protections, benefits and perks to keep talented employees. The same now needs to be done for gig workers with platforms investing in their financial, physical and mental wellbeing. 

2. Social investment matters: Alongside traditional venture capital, we need a greater amount of social investment deployed to co-operative gig platforms. The platform co-operative movement combines the platform model with established principles of worker ownership. There are notable examples of proven successful co-operative platforms like Up and Go (a home cleaning platform in New York) and Green Taxi Cooperative (a ride hailing platform in Denver) but we need more social investment into these models to enable them to scale and compete. 

3. Employee influence matters: We need to do more to lift and champion the voices of those who are employed by gig platforms in operational roles. Through my conversations with many of these employees, who often lead on workforce engagement, they care deeply about the wellbeing of their gig workers and want to support them. The voice of these employees matter as they are the human link between the platform and the gig workers. This places them in a distinct role to influence and advocate for change within their companies.

4. Innovation matters: The rise of gig platforms requires innovative solutions tailored for a world where the relationship between work and income is no longer employer centric. At Collective we are reimagining and reinventing financial products to create a portable benefits solution that gig workers can take with them wherever they work. In doing so, we are fortunate to work with forward thinking insurance partners and leading gig platforms who are committed to new ideas and new approaches because they understand that existing solutions are no longer fit for purpose. We need more organisations to be brave and take this leap. 

5. Consumer behaviour matters: Many of us rely upon gig workers every day – whether that it to get from A to B, to deliver our online shopping or our takeaway. The speed at which we can now access goods and services is at near instant gratification. Yet perhaps at times each of us is guilty of that gratitude being absent. We each have the power, through acts of kindness, to give gig workers dignity and ensure they feel valued and respected. It’s a small step but an important one.

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