Pros and pitfalls of the ‘gig’ economy

The ‘gig’ economy has gradually gained traction in Irish society and thousands of people are taking the opportunity to choose their own working hours, and of course as a way to earn extra money. It’s an area that’s obviously particularly attractive to students, as they can balance study with flexible working hours.

According to Collins dictionary, the gig economy is “an economy in which there are few permanent employees and most jobs are assigned to temporary or freelance workers”.

Technology has allowed these people to have autonomy over their own work schedule. In theory, it sounds like an ideal way to achieve a good work/ life balance. However, this ‘ideal’ set up often isn’t quite as perfect as it sounds. Instead, the gig economy can, if you don’t read the small print or do your research, have a dark side.

Indeed, the gig economy could easily be interpreted as encouraging zero hour contracts, undervaluing employees and offering little job security.

Gráinne, 22, who didn’t want to give her second name for privacy reasons, is a student and a retail worker on a zero hour contract. When she applied for her job with a pet store, the employer did not state that the she would be on a zero hour contract but, like many, she was in need of the money and had little choice, and only became aware of the zero-hours contract after she had accepted the position.

“I signed it because I needed the work, but looking back, I should have seen the warning signs about how the company view their employees and treat them.”

“I think zero hour contracts are a disgrace to be honest,” Gráinne said, “I’m constantly worried if I’ll have enough to pay my bills. I’ve been left in the lurch so many times.”

Gráinne, who was awarded Employee of the Company for April 2018, said that even the best employee isn’t immune from the uncertain hours. “The company as a whole is not particularly concerned about its employees, we’re minimum wage workers; we’ve no guaranteed hours and we’re immediately replaceable.”

Many organisations involved in the gig economy pay rates that leave workers reliant on tips. A market leading food-delivery company , while leading the way in utilising technology in this area, have been criticised for not paying a dependable hourly rate to workers, in addition to extremely demanding working conditions.

Cathal, 21, who also withheld his second name, thought the flexibility of working as a delivery rider for this company sounded like the “ideal college job” but soon realised it wasn’t for him.

“I signed up in first year. I had no job and, like every other student, I really needed some cash,” Cathal said.

“It was on my first day that I realised how grim it could be. You would start at your base and had a radius of about 1.5km and you would never leave that radius. What I didn’t realise, is that you might deliver something to the outer edges of the radius and then get assigned a delivery further out. I’m not 100% on distances but I always seemed to be getting further and further away from my base.”

Cathal also found that the hours were not as they seemed.

“It was two hours after my shift was supposed to end and I was still out doing deliveries. In order to clock out, you need to be within your base’s proximity and have no job assigned. Every time I started to cycle back and just about reach the proximity of the base, I would get a job that you have to do. It got to a stage, where it was so late and I was so tired, that I just rang customer service, told them to log me out and that I was going home”.

“I can honestly say that was the worst job I ever had and I’ve had some bad jobs, never before have I quit something essentially before it began, so I think that says it all about my experience with them”, Cathal said. His experience suggests that anyone considering such a job should read the terms and conditions (aka the ‘small print’) before they take it on.

However, when contacted for comment, a spokesperson for this company said that they believe the flexibility they offer their riders has been central to their success.

Speaking to gradireland, a spokesperson said; “Unlike conventional companies, we are not a traditional employer, allowing our riders to be their own bosses. Our fully flexible fee per delivery payment model means that riders choose when they ride, can work with other companies – including competitors – at the same time as they are riding with us, and can decide how often they work with us.”

However, the flexibility found in the gig economy is a huge selling point for many, with some making a real success of it.

Aaron,21, is a student and independent cyber security researcher who has been utilising the gig economy to make money on his own schedule.

“The money had drawn my initial interest and undoubtedly the flexibility is accredited to having kept my interest. The flexibility grants me freedom as I can manipulate my own work schedule,” Aaron said. “What I do is find methods to circumvent the security of company software, systems, and on occasion products. I’m paid by companies either directly or through what is known as a ‘bug bounty platform’ on a per-vulnerability basis, one payment per one threat to their security is standard.”

While job security is an issue for many in this economy, Aaron hasn’t had the same experience. With the ever growing focus on tech in the workplace, companies will always need to monitor their security, something, Aaron says, has come to the public forefront of late. “Fortunately, I have never worried about job security. The increased attention and focus by the media has kicked an increased level of spending by companies in securing their products and systems.”

Aaron believes, when it comes to making money in the gig economy, “you get what you put in”.

For many, the gig economy offers more risk than reward; however, if you can find an area in which you can truly work for yourself and enjoy the flexibility it offers, that elusive good work/life balance may be in reach. But make sure you know your rights, and read that small print.

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