By Marina Skovgaard Dokken

It is no secret that the gig economy is on the rise. Defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as “a way of working that is based on people having temporary jobs or doing separate pieces of work, each paid separately, rather than working for an employer”, it includes vagabonds picking up work on the road, freelance journalists writing for several media outlets, artists making a living through commissions and so on. Looking at it on a surface level it seems nothing but positive; who wouldn’t want labourers to have more freedom to plan their workday and pace, with a simultaneous boost to their bottom line? Is it estimated that approximately 36 percent of US workers participate in the gig economy, and 33 percent of companies use it exclusively. This number is also expected to rise in the coming years, and flexibility and adaptability are increasingly mentioned in job descriptions. It is therefore no surprise that even the Nordic countries, known for their protection of workers’ rights and their welfare, have seen an increase in gig economy labour. But is this development solely beneficial, and if not, how can we maintain our values, laws and principles within it? 

The gig economy is a deceptively simple-sounding concept with many complex and multifaceted layers. There are several good things to be said about it; in theory, and to some extent in practice, it gives young workers at the beginning of their career a chance to get a wide range of experience by moving rapidly between different jobs, it facilitates independence by allowing workers control of their own working schedule and hours, and technological development has made it easy to gain access to gig economy jobs. However, there are some obvious downsides; gigs not having any guaranteed hours or duration, it is difficult to plan ahead financially, and it is not possible to climb in ranks the way one might in steady jobs, removing the chance of climbing in wage. All in all, the gig economy might shift some aspects of power towards the employee. But there are also significant aspects, such as reduced responsibility for one’s workers and their financial and physical welfare, shifting towards the employer. The work is flexible, but in that also vulnerable.

Additionally, another growing category of labourers is participating in the gig economy. These are workers who don’t necessarily work for several companies, but are employed as freelancers nonetheless. There are several juicy treats to be found in this loophole for employers. Firstly, several rights such as vacation pay, health insurance, pension, parental leave and so on don’t necessarily apply in freelance contracts. Secondly, you don’t necessarily need to pay by the hour. A profession where this kind of contract has been especially and notoriously popular is the food delivery business. 

This business imploded in 2019, when workers for big companies such as Deliveroo and Foodora started to strike, and the world learnt about the dark underbelly of the gig economy. In February 2019, food delivery workers in five big cities in China went on strike, protesting an arbitrary reduction in pay, as well as the lack of pension and overpay despite working up to 10 hours daily. This followed a similar strike in 2018, which included issues like pay levels, delivery times, fuel costs, insurance and high accident rates. Also in 2018, workers for the Indian food delivery app Zomato protested against similar issues. In 2019, the strikes hit Europe; both in the UK and France Deliveroo workers went on strike; the former for a change from minimum pay (£7 an hour plus £1 per delivery) to a pay per delivery (£3,75) which they argued would make it impossible to earn a living wage, the latter for no longer guaranteeing a certain pay per delivery (€4,70 in Paris). In Norway, workers for the food delivery service Foodora went on strike shortly after, demanding a collective agreement. In the US, workers from multiple food delivery services joined together in filing a class action suit against their employers, some of which accused their company of pocketing their tips under a complex compensation scheme. These stories ended differently; the Norwegian Foodora workers got a seemingly satisfactory collective agreement, the US firm (DoorDash) admitted to using tips to subsidise their workers’ basic pay, the policies of Deliveroo, Zomato and the Chinese food delivery services are seemingly per now still in effect. 

It is one thing for the workers who have such gig jobs as a secondary job bolstering their other wages. However, according to Edison Research, 44 percent of gig employees have these jobs as their primary income. The low threshold of gig economy jobs does facilitate work opportunities for underprivileged workers, but it is important to note that it also increases the risk of working poverty. This is especially true where there are not proper collective agreements and organisation among the workers, which are things these companies unfortunately often discourage or even subtly disallow. These companies’ unethical practices are a slippery slope, and the gig economy may, if unsupervised, increase the gap between rich and poor, as well as aiding in the decline of the middle class. 

In the end, I would like to return to the point I made in the beginning: the gig economy, whether good or bad or both, is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, rather the opposite. It is therefore vital that we do not ignore its challenges, especially as they are showcased by those living within it. Workers’ rights are always important, but have been well regulated in the Nordic countries till now. It is vital that, in the rise of this new kind of employment, we stand by these values and in our adaptation to the new economy do not compromise them. Secondly, something of a benefit with the globalized economy is the possibility to learn from and support each other over country boundaries. When it comes to workers’ rights, our best allies are each other.

Illustration: Erik Torefeldt

Marina Skovgaard Dokken is a student at the Psychology Programme, and quite bad at sticking to a single field of study. She loves books, cold weather, tattoos and disappearing into the wilderness. Matters close to her heart are LGBT+ rights, indigenous rights and nature conservation. She thinks that intersectionality and human rights are the bee’s knees.

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