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The Gig Economy Needs to Change – And the Public Knows It

New polling shows massive public opposition to low pay, bogus self-employment and anti-union practices in the gig economy – it's time to change the laws that allow corporate giants to cheat workers.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, the British economy stagnated. What growth there was primarily resulted from an increase in the raw number of hours worked, rather than productivity gains. On average we now work longer, harder, for flatlining real wages, with more precarious contractual arrangements and less trade union protection.

This general trend has been at its most acute in the gig economy. Platforms have operated as a sink for the huge amounts of surplus capital generated by low interest rates and flatlining productivity. Massive investments have been made by those sections of the ruling class, from Saudi-backed SoftBank to Silicon valley venture funds, which are willing and able to bet big on novel business models in the hope of super-profits down the line.

But as well as hoovering up surplus capital, they’ve also absorbed the surplus labour force in major cities. Workers who have been excluded from more secure parts of the labour market due to age, qualifications, racial discrimination, caring responsibilities, immigration status and other factors have been reorganised into a huge algorithmically-managed workforce.

Whether they are rushing from cleaning job to cleaning job, driving in circles for hour after hour, or waiting for orders outside McDonalds, this section of the working class has been subject to new experiments in immiseration conducted by pioneering platform bosses.

The resulting working conditions have produced significant collective action, as workers have organised and fought back through a spate of wildcat strikes that have often felt like the industrial equivalent of guerrilla warfare. And now, there is concrete evidence that this self-defence has resulted in the creation of a significant popular coalition in support of platform workers.

New polling conducted by Survation for Fairwork has revealed a widespread understanding of the exploitation entailed by the sector and strong majorities in support of policies aimed at strengthening the hand of platform workers.

The majority of the public (52%) believe that gig economy platforms prioritise making profits over having a beneficial impact on society. Just 22% think that gig economy platforms pay workers a fair wage.

Nearly two thirds (64%) of the public support changes to employment law aimed at reducing the number of workers inaccurately defined as self-employed. Over half (57%) think platforms should be forced to negotiate with the trade unions that represent their workers.

Six out of ten people (60%) believe that platforms should be required to have worker representatives on their boards.  Two thirds (66%) agree that gig economy platforms should be required to tell their workers about changes in the technology used to manage their jobs.

Significantly, this support is evident across political lines, with the majorities holding among Labour, Tory, Leave and Remain voters. Some policies, such as the requirement to inform workers about changes in management technology, even buck the wider trend in voting intention and find their strongest support amongst voters aged over 65.

Perhaps the most interesting result of all, however, is the finding that just fractionally under a majority (49%) support taking gig economy platforms into public ownership if they repeatedly fail to offer their workers fair pay and conditions. On this issue, support is concentrated among the young, with 56% in favour amongst those aged 18-34 and 53% amongst 35-44s.

Overall, the public supports transformative policy that would massively strengthen the bargaining power of platform workers and their unions.

Earlier in the year, Labour seemed to be making progress towards expressing this sentiment in parliament. Andy McDonald was, alongside Angela Rayner, co-leading on the development of a raft of progressive policies in his role as Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections.

Right now, only 33% of voters think Labour is the party that best represents the interests of gig workers. Developing an alternative vision of the future of work might have changed that, and the policy they generated was a lone bright spot in a party otherwise defined by a glaring lack of ideas.

But now the tide could be turning. Shadow Minister for Business and Consumers Seema Malhotra was openly courting Deliveroo lobbyists at Labour conference, just hours before McDonald was forced to resign after being instructed by the leadership to lobby against £15 an hour in a compositing meeting. McDonald has yet to be replaced.

Sometimes it seems like Keir Starmer will always end up adopting a position to the right of the British public, no matter what the issue. In the coming months, you wouldn’t bet against the same thing happening again on the question of the gig economy. Any such retreat would be indefensible on either electoral or principled grounds.

Attitudinal polling over the last decade has shown us time and time again that there is a mass base of support for a political approach which articulates how our whole system – from the housing market to the tax system and the workplace – has been rigged in favour of the super-rich.

This latest polling only expands the evidence base backing up that conclusion. From a standing start, without any campaign being conducted in support of the demand, a near majority agree with platforms being taken into public ownership unless they sort out their act.

As a result of the workers and unions who are organising on the front lines of the gig economy, a window of opportunity has opened for the socialist left to articulate transformative ideas about the future of work. From reforming employment law to a new horizon of public ownership, the Overton window is shifting.