Opinion

How the gig economy brings responsibility to both sides

Shelley Frost, Executive director of policy, IOSH
Executive director - policy, IOSH

Matthew Taylor’s wide-ranging review of modern work practices for the UK government grabbed the headlines because the issues it raises resonate with many of us, particularly safety and health professionals. Among them was gig work, a product of so-called “disruptive businesses” that use technology and new ways of working to create new products and services.

As the Gig Guide feature (IOSH Magazine August 2017 issue) shows, in disrupting the markets in which they operate, companies such as Uber and Deliveroo are asking questions of the safety and health profession.

Their workers are choosing flexibility and short-term contracts and this creates a fluidity in workforces that tests traditional methods of risk management.

For the safety and health manager, the worker on a temporary or zero-hours contract is no less a responsibility than a salaried colleague employed permanently, but they are arguably a greater challenge to keep safe from harm.

For me, the gig economy should be seen as a positive development overall. It develops entrepreneurs and drives innovation, both of which are vital to successful economies and drivers for improvements.

It allows workers flexibility and greater autonomy and supports a work-life balance.

This is the ideal. As Taylor puts it, there is “genuine flexibility, whereby individuals and employers are able to agree terms and conditions that suit them both, above a statutory basic minimum”. But in unpaid internships and never-ending agency contracts the flexibility is distinctly one-sided.

We should be bolder in designing flexible jobs that permit people to remain and progress in the labour market 

However, as flexible working gains more traction, employees will have greater choice in whom they work for. They may exercise this choice based on value propositions, so organisations that manage employee safety and health well can garner a stronghold in the competitive world of attracting new talent.

I agree with Taylor that we should be bolder in designing flexible jobs that permit people to remain and progress in the labour market as their personal circumstances change. This is good for people’s health, as well as the economy.

And he has many sound recommendations, including increasing access to sick pay (a mitigating measure for presenteeism) and ensuring workers have their employment rights in writing on day one.

To me, however, the creation of a fair, new world of work through a new industrial strategy must feature a strong emphasis on education. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, with freedom comes responsibility, and this applies to the individual at work.

Some of the new generation of tech-savvy workers may opt for greater freedom, but that puts the onus more than ever on the individual to take care of their own safety and health.

Risk awareness has to start in schools, so individuals enter the workforce with a good understanding of the issues. The self-employed worker and temp are here to stay, and our profession should show leadership in ensuring they are afforded the same protections from injury and illness as their permanently-employed counterparts.

Shelley Frost, Executive director of policy, IOSH

Shelley Frost is executive director - policy at IOSH. She was formerly head of sustainability at Aggregate Industries UK and has held a number of senior positions in the health and safety and sustainability arenas, from regulatory, policy and strategy to operational management.

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