Gig economy: the problematic future of work?

| Michaela Nesvarova

Uber, Deliveroo and Amazon Mechanical Turk. They are all examples of the ‘gig’ economy, in which people don’t get contracts and salaries, but are paid for their short ‘gigs’. Although it could revolutionize industries, it also has many troubling aspects. Three UT scientists have started a new research initiative to explore this possibly problematic future of work.

Victoria Daskalova, Giedo Jansen and Jeroen Meijerink are researchers from the UT’s BMS faculty who have come together to conduct multidisciplinary research on the gig economy. The gig economy could be defined as an economy in which permanent contracts are no longer the norm. It is instead characterized by short-term piece work, by tasks that can last hours or even just minutes. In other words, it’s a working environment where employees are replaced by independent contractors – without labour rights that traditional workers are entitled to.

Grey zone

‘In this working environment we see people who act like employees, look like employees, but are actually self-employed and therefore treated very differently than a traditional worker. It’s a grey zone,’ Daskalova starts explaining the issues of this labour market. 

New multidisciplinary research initiative

  • Victoria Daskalova, Assistant Professor in Law, Governance & Technology, has written on the legal aspects of regulating self-employment and the gig economy.
  • Giedo Jansen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Administration. He has acquired the VENI grant in 2014 for research into interest representation of the self-employed, and is currently preparing a VIDI application for research on the platform economy.
  • Jeroen Meijerink, Assistant Professor of Human Resource Management (HRM), investigates the topic from a business management perspective with focus on HRM.

‘The problematic aspects of the gig economy include employment insecurity, irregular income and unstable working hours,’ continues Jansen. ‘There is also no on-job training, which isn’t good for the workers or the customers. Although being self-employed is often connected with flexibility, in this economy there is actually a lack of autonomy, because in many cases this work is technologically mediated, based on an algorithm.’

The gig economy is often associated with very little workplace protection, according to Daskalova. ‘One has to fear an erosion of labour rights because these are currently linked to the status of a worker, but not to the category of self-employed. But there is an even bigger concern: that this trend could threaten even the rights of people who do have the legal status of an employee. There are fundamental rights that we need to protect.’

‘Not all evil’

‘It’s not all evil, of course,’ adds Meijerink. ‘This work organization opens the job market to people who might have troubles finding a standard job, such as people with disabilities or women who need to take care of their children or elderly parents.  Also, the gig economy might benefit those who want flexibility in terms of when and where to work.’ For such people, having ‘gigs’ might provide a valuable opportunity.

Moreover, there are benefits for customers. At least for now. ‘Consumers generally agree “it just works”. These platforms are usually very efficient because they reduce transaction costs. Just take Uber and compare it to traditional taxis,’ says Daskalova, but her colleague Giedo Jansen warns: ‘How long will these benefits last, though? We still have the more traditional companies to compete with the platforms but there is a danger that one company will form a monopoly in the field. One platform to rule them all.’ 

'One platform to rule them all.' 

‘Just think about it. There is only one YouTube, there is only one Facebook, one LinkedIn, only one Google…,’ agrees Meijerink. ‘The winner takes almost all. In the long run, this is bad for customers, for the workers, and for the suppliers such as restaurants.’  

Three departments coming together

To sum up, there are quite a few issues that need exploring if it comes to the gig economy and the three UT scientists are aiming to tackle them from different research perspectives. As Jeroen Meijerink says: ‘The gig economy has so many aspects to it that it’s too big for one research discipline to understand. That is why we seek to study it from multiple academic disciplines to move the conversation on the topic further.’