The explosive growth of the ‘platform economy’ has taken many by surprise. In a matter of a few months, organisations such as Uber, Handy, Deliveroo and Taskrabbit have sprung from obscurity to become household names, while employers seeking freelancers have stopped using specialist directories or searching in the Yellow Pages turning to sources such as Upwork or PeoplePerHour, which are only a mouse-click away.
In some respects, the gig economy is just the most extreme and visible example of a much broader trend of just-in-time work. A survey by the University of Hertfordshire, Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and UNI Europa, published in February 2016, found that 3% of the adult population are working for online platforms at least weekly with a further 8% doing so more occasionally.
An estimated 2.5% of employees are on zero-hours contracts, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Labour force survey for October to December 2015, and 6% are on temporary contracts, according to the ONS Business survey for November 2015.
Even people on regular contracts are increasingly using their smartphones, tablets, and laptops to check their email round the clock. We seem to be morphing into a nation of screen-watchers, always logged in, waiting for an app to spring into action to remind us to turn up for an appointment, report for a new job or log the hours we have worked so far.
While some may thrive on it, for others this insecurity causes psycho-social stress. How can you manage childcare when you do not know when you will next be working? How can you plan your budget when you do not know what your income will be? At what point do you give up on the hope of getting another assignment and seek welfare assistance? The constant worry can tip some workers into physical or mental illness.
The gig economy also raises big questions about liability. What if there is an accident? What if a customer complains the work is sub-standard? Whose responsibility should it be to ensure that working practices are safe?
Ursula Huws is professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire