Why the ‘gig economy’ isn’t as much fun as it sounds…

THE Deliveroo riders in this city often gather within sight of the restored Great East Window of York Minster. Most are young and ride bicycles, usually those fixed-wheels sprinters.

At a low point last year, I watched them as I locked up my own bicycle and thought: well, things are bad but hopefully not that bad. Life has picked up since then and now I have a mixture of jobs (one permanent part-time, one come-and-go temporary and one freelance).

Most Deliveroo riders appear to be young, and you’d probably need young knees to whizz around the city on a bike all day, carrying a box of food on your back.

Deliveroo like the taxi firm Uber operates under what is called the ‘gig economy’, something which sounds vaguely exciting and daring, and fun, too – like going to a gig. This is a typical modern deception: a lively word or phrase used to disguise the reality of a situation.

One definition of the gig economy lies in the old idea of being a freelance, which is working for yourself and selling what you do to others; the freelance bit of me writes feature and sells them to newspapers (usually one newspaper; I do need to try more on that score).

But the darker side of the gig economy comes when firms such as Deliveroo or Uber use thousands of self-employed contractors instead of employees. These non-employees are expected to behave like loyal employees, but without the associated benefits, such as holiday pay and sick pay. It also saves the companies millions in taxes.

It is – and pardon me for this – one of the shit deals of the modern world. When you hear a politician, usually a Conservative one, burbling on about how many jobs they have created, many of these new jobs will be attached to the gig economy. It’s work, Jim – but not as we used to know it.

Deliveroo was founded four years ago by an American investment banker who moved to London and found that he couldn’t order in late-night takeaways as he had on Wall Street. Will Shu and his friend Greg Orlowski started with deliveries from three restaurants and they are now hoping to go worldwide (while paying not a lot to their insecure riders)

In this morning’s Guardian, there is a report about the ways in which it is said Deliveroo avoids giving the impression that its riders are employees. Managers are reported to have a six-page booklet containing rules about what they should and shouldn’t say. The couriers whizzing takeaway meals around our cities should always be referred to as “independent suppliers” and never as employees, workers, staff or team members.

The first of these, as quoted in the Guardian, is as follows:

Do say: Independent supplier, eg: “We offer riders hours of work and they choose how many to accept based on their availability and the areas they want to work in.”<
Don’t say: “Employee/worker/staff member/team member. eg “Drivers are employed by Deliveroo to complete deliveries.”

I don’t use Deliveroo. This isn’t for moral reasons or anything, but because we don’t eat takeaways, preferring our own food. Perhaps this is unusual nowadays, but after learning how Deliveroo and others apparently dodge having any responsibility for their staff who aren’t staff, I am sticking to that principle.

Such companies are all part of a shifting modern world that is reshaping itself before our eyes. Some of what this new world brings we generally like – such as Google and Amazon or Facebook and Twitter, say – yet this same modern marvel is also removing responsible notions such as work coming with social and personal benefits, rather than being something you do for an unprotected pittance, and for which you should still be grateful. Who knows where this will all end – probably no one up to and including Mark Zuckerberg.

Oh, and why do these trendy firms always have such silly names – cleverly coined to conjure a sense of fun, while in truth being nothing of the sort? As for Deliveroo, it’s a Deliver-noo from me.

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