On the heels of Uber’s IPO saga, accompanying drivers’ strike and the latest news that Amazon is investing in Deliveroo, there’s never been a better time for giving the gig economy a reboot.

The big and overriding issue driving the case for reform is low and falling pay. A government report into the gig economy revealed that one in four of the workers it surveyed were earning less than £7.50 an hour. The national living wage is £7.83 an hour. At the same time, a string of well-publicised cases about employment rights have done much to highlight the precarity that comes with this way of working. It’s increasingly clear that algorithms aren’t built to have much empathy; not understanding if a worker needs a few days off or needs to earn a bit more cash to fund something important.

Yet, it will be another year before the UK government’s planned labour market reforms, which include giving workers holiday and sick pay entitlements, come into effect. At EU level too, important rules about compensation for cancelled jobs and the right to regular hours will take another three years to bring in.

Improving rights for flexible workers

It is easy to feel frustrated, that we are slave to the algorithm, but there are some green shoots.

For one, alternative sharing economy apps, with improved rights for flexible workers at their core, are entering the market. For example, there’s the union-backed ‘Labour Xchange’ app. Launched in Southend and now active in Lambeth and Croydon, the app links people with employers who need temporary workers and contains multiple safeguards, such as preventing employers from hiring the same person more than three times for a job without offering them a contract.

There’s also ‘xooox’ – a ride-hailing platform that puts drivers back in control by enabling them to search for the jobs they want and set the fare that suits them (full disclosure: my company Perfect Data pioneered the search technology involved).

It’s clear too that there’s a growing market for responsible businesses like this. When it comes to taxis, a 2018 research poll from BMG, commissioned by the New Economics Foundation, found that 82% of Uber customers would likely use an alternative service with better rights for drivers. Given London is currently home to around 23,000 black cabs, 40,000 Uber drivers and 117,000 private hire drivers, there is incredible potential for ride-hailing apps to not only achieve scale but to do so ethically and fairly.

Hackney drivers (black cabs) have, up until now, experienced some valid frustrations with the introduction of new taxi apps. They’ve never really had a great way of finding passengers other than waiting at a rank or cruising around on the lookout for a customer. Instead, by opening up ride-hailing apps to include all-types of cab drivers and putting the driver in control, the market becomes more competitive. It also gives the customer more choice – they can choose the type of vehicle that suits their individual needs and wants.

Benefiting from an improved gig economy

What’s potentially more interesting, though, is that by reducing the amount of time a driver spends driving around to find passengers – known as “the dead mile” – you also help reduce congestion and air pollution.

In a similar vein, this shift to a more inclusive and mindful approach to the “future of work” also has some knock effects for city and town innovation. Imagine what could be done if proper engagement with local councils was achieved. In the UK, there are approximately 350 bodies responsible for taxi regulation and they are typically city and county councils. Unfortunately, up until now, gig economy platforms have typically taken an ‘us versus them’ approach to engagement, where app data is held back from regulators for business reasons.

Broadly speaking, this is understandable but just imagine how (GDPR compliant) intelligence sharing could not only improve safety efforts — checking the status driver licenses, for example — but could also inspire and better inform environmental strategies. What better data to show you patterns of where cars are becoming stuck in traffic and their proximity to schools and hospitals?

Ultimately, there are many advantages that flexible working brings – both for the worker and for the rest of us. However, until we reboot the gig economy, the ancillary benefits will not be realised or felt fairly. The RSA estimates that there are 1.1 million people in Britain working in this way — 9% of whom are in delivery and courier services. Given this is expected to grow, it’s simply high-time to break free of the algorithm and look again at how the sector could work.


Read more: Flexible working the “new normal” as technology redefines the office