Gig work is thought to have been coined in the 1920s by jazz club musicians. Now, gig working and other forms of insecure work have less carefree associations. Anxiety, exploitation and denial of basic rights such as holiday and sickness pay are far from the freedoms of its linguistic origins.
Insecure work is also a big concern because it’s on the rise. Today, one in 10 working people are defined as insecure workers, an increase of 25% since a decade ago according to the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Its December 2016 report, Living on the Edge, identified three groups of precarious or insecure workers; those in low paid self-employment, ‘gig workers’ (often defined as independent contractors doing temporary, flexible jobs) and zero hour-contract workers.
Yet, despite the serious concerns, it cannot be said that all 3.2 million insecure workers in the UK are unhappy, unhealthy or feel worse off than their employee cohorts. As will be seen in these testimonies from individuals who fall into the category of insecure worker, many relish the freedoms of their unstructured working life. Indeed, an-ex teacher describes how as an employee he experienced far more stress in that role than he does today as a self-employed person.
Equally, there is dissatisfaction. An Uber driver explains how at first he loved his job, but feels disillusioned by issues over his self-employed status, showing how question marks over status and rights can eat into identity and wellbeing.
The TUC and Matthew Taylor are separately gathering testimonies to better understand the issues in order to make proposals for changes in laws over workers’ rights to government. These interviews aim to add to that insight.
Mick*, Uber driver
I’ve been a driver with Uber for two years; before that I was self-employed as a painter and decorator.
I feel totally deflated and demoralised. I feel alienated. It didn’t start that way. I’ve had lovely feedback from clients over the years, many have rated me five stars [on the Uber app] and added comments like ‘brilliant driver’, good luck Mick’, ‘really nice guy and great conversation’, which has felt good.
But slowly my experience of working has left me feeling drained of energy. I’ve been told that I’m on a platform that says I’m self-employed. But there’s none of the decision making or self-respect that comes with being self-employed.
We are controlled by Uber in all aspects. If we don’t pick up clients, we get punished for it, if we pick up clients who are rude to us and we don’t want to drive them and we say no, we get disciplined. For example, if you cancel jobs, you get points – if you accrue a certain number of these, they switch you off for up to 20 minutes and you can’t get a job in that time.
Every aspect of my day is controlled. Fares are decided for us, so we don’t have any say. When you are self-employed, you submit invoices for the work you have done, you are in control.
As drivers we are at a constant lose, lose, lose. If I pick up a client going to the local station and in that short time they spill something in the car. Okay, so I’ve only done four miles. But I’ve earned my wage minus Uber’s fee, then I have got to find £9 to clean the car as we’re responsible for maintaining the vehicle. In the time of cleaning I can’t work. What have I made from the job? I’ve lost.
I used to work up to 90 hours a week as a decorator. It was my choice. But a driver hasn’t got the option to work long hours or not, because he can’t see how long a job will be for until it’s too late. A while back I picked up somebody from Dover Street in W1 thinking it was a local job, and then when they got to the car with their suitcases I realised they were going to Southampton.
I drive 100 miles into work every day and 100 miles back. If I’m working and driving to Southampton on top of that, that’s not right and it’s not safe.
I think clients should know when a driver has driven over a certain number of hours because of their safety in the vehicle. There should be safeguards in place to prevent such a driver taking on any long jobs.
The recent ruling over the status of certain Uber drivers (an Employment Tribunal ruling in October 2016 found a group of Uber drivers were not self-employed but workers, entitled to workers’ rights) has encouraged me to put my own case forward. I’m waiting to find out when it’s going to the next stage in court.
In the meantime, I feel like I’m in limbo. When I go online in to complete my tax self-assessment, I don’t know what to put myself down for. I have never had an argument with the tax office, and if it goes wrong, I am the one with my back against the wall.
I think Uber have actually designed the whole platform to suit its needs. The loser in this is not the client, it’s not Uber, it’s actually the driver. And it’s sad because we are the petrol in Uber’s tank, we keep the company going.
I enjoy working and I’ve enjoyed driving for Uber but I have been totally destroyed and battered. I have lost interest in getting up and going to work, although I still work because I have to. I think that if they keep alienating us, then good drivers won’t want be willing to work with them.
Mark Lotsu, 38, self-employed in fitness and teaching
I went straight into teaching after university – climbing up the ladder in education over 15 years, eventually becoming head of my department at the relatively young age of 36.
I was a fantastic teacher, I loved working in schools, and enjoyed the atmosphere of learning and working with colleagues, but things changed. With strict targets, I felt under pressure to ensure kids performed and to cut a long story short, as a result of the intense stress of this, I decided to leave teaching in April last year.
I spent months in a pit of despair and depression, trying to figure out what I was going to do. All I’d ever known was how to work for someone else – I was in a tailspin.
With help of family and friends, I picked myself up. That’s when I found the world of self-employment – being my own boss, and running my own businesses. I do private tutoring, I’m a massage therapist and I’ve got a health and wellness business in the network marketing industry.
Having the relief that I am solely in charge of my level of success makes me feel much happier. I’m able to divide up my time more effectively. When I was teaching, I was working from 6 am to sometimes 11 o’clock at night depending on extra lessons with kids, marking, preparation – and that was stressful. I didn’t have any personal time. At the time, it didn’t faze me because I loved what I did, but looking back I realised my life was slowly passing me by.
I think when you are working, there are people who care but at the end of the day you are there to do a job. While there is concern about your mental health and stress levels, I don’t think that is given enough kudos in terms of the results expected from you. When people want certain results, it can be at the cost of your own mental health.
Right now I’m not able to pay into a pension. If I don’t work I don’t get paid – if I’m sick and can’t tutor for that hour I don’t get paid. But I’m still so much happier and calmer knowing I don’t have to answer to anyone but me. I think having a plan and a strategy will help ensure my financial security.
Once my businesses have built up, I’ll be able to spend more time with friends and family, and travel, which I haven’t been able to do. I’d like to give back a lot too – volunteering. Long term that’s what working for myself will allow me to do.
Lara*, agency worker, education
I’m 28 and I work with an agency to get teacher supply work in schools. My ambition is to get a full time job as a school counsellor. I love working with children and the energy and positivity they exude – I learn something new every time I’m given the chance of a full day’s work. But although I love the field I’m in, I’m struggling to secure full time hours.
Since moving from London to Norfolk, my agency has found me work at a primary school and a special needs school, which cover all school ages.
I speak to the agency every few days. On the very odd occasion I will get a call in the morning and I will be needed right there and then. It’s not been easy but it has allowed me to gain full working days and some good experience.
My main worry is getting enough hours to cover the rent and contribute towards living costs. Otherwise it’s a real struggle and puts a strain on my relationship.
I have no family or friends where I live now, so I rely on work to give me that social life. Despite having a great partner I feel rather lonely most days. I miss the interaction of meeting new people.
The agency is great and keep me posted often, but working in two schools a week can make it difficult to feel part of a community. If I’m lucky, I’ll work with great teachers and we learn from each other. But, you are treated differently from full time workers. When you come into the workplace you are automatically eyed up because we wear different ID cards with different coloured straps. You are not always expected to go to certain meetings.
When I was younger and starting out in education as a nursery assistant, I was paid way below what I should have been earning. Right now, even though I’m older, I’m still struggling – wondering when I’ll ever be able to afford a mortgage or be able to start a family makes it even harder. It feels like I’m nowhere near being able to do that.
I think employers should nurture young people in their work more. So many young people suffer from insecurities, and that first job affects your confidence in progressing upwards. Managers want to squeeze every bit of work out of a young person and not actually want to know what motivates them or what their skills are, and slowly the young person will fade while confidence and anything that person once stood for is near extinct. We start to close off.
I’m getting support though the Young Women’s Trust, which represents women like me struggling to live on low or no pay. I’ve met similar women like myself and been able to talk about everything from how I feel to what I’ve been through. Having people who want to genuinely help is great and it has opened my eyes to feeling positive.
*Indicates where names have been changed
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