How gig economy compromises health and wellbeing of workers

Matthew Taylor: “The [IOSH] survey demonstrates there should not be any barriers to flexible workers enjoying the same standards of safety and health as their permanent colleagues”
Richard Gardner/REX/Shutterstock

How you’re employed or hired can have a bearing on the way you’re looked after by your employer, writes Tim Walsh.

Permanent, full-time employees often receive a greater level of care in terms of workplace precautions to protect their health and wellbeing than their co-workers on zero-hours or temporary contracts.

This was the finding of a survey commissioned by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which interviewed 500 non-permanent workers and 100 business leaders in a range of industry sectors across the UK. And it has prompted a call for a “day one” statement from employers that sets out how they will look after the health and wellbeing of new workers.

Most working people in the UK economy (64%) are still in permanent, full-time employment, with a salary and legal cover for employment rights and protections. The UK economy’s reputation for flexibility, however, has been earned in part by the growing “gig economy”.

The IOSH survey was commissioned following the publication last July of Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, which examined the experiences of workers employed or hired in the UK economy.

The review paints a picture of a complex labour market. An increasing proportion of the working-age population are self-employed or on zero-hour contracts. Technological advances have seen a growing number of people employed by companies online or through apps. Such choice in models of employment gives the UK labour market the flexibility many economists believe underpins a robust economy that is able to adapt to global trends and weather difficult economic conditions.

Downside of flexibility

However, such flexibility has a downside. As the Taylor report highlights, it can be one-sided with some employers using this flexibility “to transfer risk to, and exert control over, workers”. It raises the issue of employers using flexible, atypical working models simply to reduce costs.

In November 2017, MPs had their say on the review. The Work and Pensions Committee and the Business Select Committee published a draft bill that would assume “worker by default”, to make firms pay holiday and sick pay. Frank Field MP, the chair of the committee, said the draft bill would “end the mass exploitation of ordinary, hard-working people in the gig economy”.

He added: “It is time to close the loopholes that allow irresponsible companies to underpay workers, avoid taxes and free ride on our welfare system.”

IOSH’s response to the Taylor Report was to investigate further the levels of consistency in safety, health and wellbeing provision for people in various types of employment.

Many people choose to work on zero hours, for themselves or on a temporary basis, and enjoy the control and personal flexibility these types of work provide. For others, however, non-permanent work is not a lifestyle choice but their only means to earn a living in a competitive jobs market.

Whether by choice or necessity, non-permanent work must be safe and healthy – an employer’s duty of care does not vary according to the way they employ or hire their people. If they are directing the working activity, then the employer has liability for the control of the risks faced and the safety and wellbeing of the worker.

However, the IOSH-Opinium survey found gig economy workers, temps and workers on zero-hours contracts reported receiving fewer protections for their health and wellbeing at work than their permanent, full-time colleagues.

Many are working when sick, working unpaid overtime and going throughout the year without a paid holiday. From health advice and counselling to fire safety inductions and the issue of personal protective equipment, non-permanent workers say they come out second best.

“Workplace health risks don’t discriminate according to your employment status,” says IOSH director of strategic development Shelley Frost. “When you think of work-related stress, fire risk – these are all posing the same threat to permanent and non-permanent workers.”

Same level of care must apply

Taylor agrees with IOSH that his proposal for an up-front, day one statement on non-permanent workers’ rights and conditions should include setting out the same level of care for their health and wellbeing as permanent employees.

Taylor says: “The [IOSH] survey demonstrates there should not be any barriers to flexible workers enjoying the same standards of safety and health as their permanent colleagues. Often it is as much down to the carelessness or thoughtlessness of the employer. Of course, there are cowboys, there’s bad practice. What’s happening is that people don’t think enough or care enough that flexible workers are covered.”

Interviewed for the IOSH survey, MA student and gig worker Steph Hartland, 21, has experienced the good and the bad of working in the gig economy. “My current company provides excellent training and really ensures you are able to do your job well before you start,” she said. “By contrast, my previous employer really just didn’t care, they were totally disconnected from their staff. After I was forced to work with the norovirus, and had to go home, for a long time they didn’t give me any more work.”

According to media reports, the Government’s response to the Taylor Report and draft bill has been delayed. Quoted on 6 December 2017, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said its response would be published “shortly.”

Frost says IOSH would “welcome up-front agreements between employers and non-permanent workers that set out the same level of care for their health and wellbeing as permanent employees, and linked to their role.”

Key findings from the IOSH-Opinium online survey

  • Two-thirds are working without sick pay (64%), with half of these working when sick to ensure they are paid – one respondent reported being requested to work by her employer while suffering with the norovirus
  • 43% are working without holiday pay – with many relinquishing holiday to ensure they are paid
  • A quarter of respondents are working unpaid overtime
  • A third of non-permanent workers have access to occupational health support compared with more than half (54%) of their permanent colleagues
  • One half (53%) receive a full induction process, including fire exit and other health and safety information, compared with two-thirds of their full-time, permanent co-workers
  • Two-thirds of non-permanent workers and three-quarters of business leaders interviewed believe that more needs to be done in the education system to prepare young people for the new world of work
  • Respondents showed strong support for an up-front agreement between employer and non-permanent worker, with parity on workplace precautions for health and wellbeing as the most important feature (89%).
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