It is not normal to have a job. Historically, the idea of a unitary occupation is a fleeting, twentieth century one. Geographically, it is a developed world model – and these are economies with declining birth rates and low expectations for growth, according to an OECD survey. Generationally, more workers go without the stability of retirement benefits, health care or employment protection.
A Freelancers Union survey suggests some 53,000,000 Americans work "atypically", up 20% in a decade. Uber directly employs only 4,000 of the 160,000 individuals in the US who are engaged in it. One million people worldwide work to produce Apple products, but less than 10% are direct employees of the brand.
Technology and differing models of work radically disrupt many international marketplaces. They help break the social contract and fracture existing ways to ensure the integrity of business key components such as brand identity, consumer data and privacy.
In this edition of Download, we consider the increasingly fragmented modern workplace which is evolving so fast that in the US it is estimated 1 in 3 workers are freelance. We cover how a combination of hard technology and the soft technology of changing work models may play out, with topics including:
- how should business be organised to make the most of the opportunities of change, and deal with outmoded or incomplete regulatory and legal models which try to constrain those plans?
- what do we do when the academic who wrote "The Fissured Workplace – why work became so bad for so many and what can be done to improve it" is appointed a US government official?
- will having a job revert to a high status, high caste asset available to a few, with a corresponding "precariat" of unprotected atypical staff working part time, in agencies, as crowdworkers?
- the rise of Uber and what are the challenges of disruptive models that drive efficiency?
- will resistance by established interests in the old economy slow the growth of crowdsourcing and the collaborative economy?
- how UK outsourcing laws are more employee-friendly than elsewhere in the EU, and will they be debated in the forthcoming Brexit discussions?
- to what degree outsourcing, the use of temporary or other atypical workers and new work structures may contribute to cyber-crime and theft of customer data?
- does the State's need to collect income taxes hinder entrepreneurialism and the definition of self-employment?
- If the traditional division between employees and independent contractors no longer works in the new digital sharing economy, should there be a new legal category? In Europe, the concept of the "worker" already exists; in the US, there is talk of developing a "dependent contractor" model. Is this the answer?
Employment status is a symbol that carries so much meaning. No wonder it is difficult. Should it be for employers to take on the management of social obligations? The plain fact is that, in relation to guarding and growing their brand, they have to. Some suggest this may lead to a form of mutualisation or collaboration in the new economy, for 'employers' almost as much as for crowdworkers.
As the collaborative economy is born, expect more pressure on access to the same benefits and rights, but pro-rated to time spent. Expect more reliance on data gathering to validate and allocate such benefits, and on new technology for someone to sell in so doing.
Uber and other new technology platforms can be seen as creating or encouraging a more diverse working economy, and offering hard to access workers a place to grow. Uber faces a number of challenges in 2016: whilst the biggest traditional taxi company in San Francisco has blamed the company and its competitors for its bankruptcy, two Uber executives in Paris face criminal charges in February, changes to Transport for London's private hire vehicle rules are due in March, and black cab drivers threaten judicial review of TfL's decision to award Uber a licence, and the GMB trade union is supporting Uber drivers in the UK who claim they should be considered workers, not self-employed, in an employment tribunal case in July. However, the flexibility of the platform can undeniably give access to the labour market for workers who are otherwise disadvantaged: that includes single parents, atypical workers who do not want to take low paid agency work, people from ethnic minorities, older people and those who have left the military.
As it builds and evolves, the Uber environment requires others to change, adapt, but not necessarily to be defeated and killed off. Established businesses can adapt new offerings to support services to the sharing economy, including those which are asset-rich and capital intensive.
For politicians and legislators in the EU, the challenge compels particular thought. At the highest EU level, there is a need to assess competitiveness and the benefits to consumers and workers. EU legislators have woken up to the need to improve customer experience and provide a common standard of rights and benefits across Europe. On 28 October 2015 the European Commission promised an ambitious and pragmatic strategy for the fast-growing ecosystem of on-demand services. It plans to look at how existing legislation works for this environment, and will not necessarily create new laws . It will do well not to act quickly: human actions can stunt and inhibit the environment. It cannot act quickly, because the natural advantages of businesses like Uber – speed and scale – may even make anything other than minor adjustments difficult.
The impact of tech+modern work on employee representation, social partnerships and benefit provision is an area of amazing potential, and profound ambiguity in the organisation of work.