Economics / Politics

Isn’t the gig economy brilliant? (Or not)

Well. Which workers have you spoken with recently? And for how long?
Trevor Griffiths, The Party (Faber and Faber, 1974)

You may call it the Fallacy of the State Capital of Florida, the notion that if you are in the middle (however defined) of some sort of dispute then you must be just about right.

Thus one bunch of ‘extremists’ insists that Miami, in the south-east of the state, is the seat of government. Another points to St Petersburg (that’s St Petersburg Fla, not the city formerly known as Leningrad) in the west as the correct answer.

Triangulating our way round these various crackpot notions we find that Gainesville, more or less in the middle of the state, is, in fact, Florida’s capital city. It stands to reason.

It’s the sensible, centre-ground answer. The sort of answer you may get from a leader writer on a well-regarded broadsheet newspaper. Or from someone senior in the BBC’s political staff.

And it’s, in fact, quite wrong. Those who recall the ‘hanging chad’ affair during the 2000 presidential election will remember that Florida’s capital is Tallahassee, in the far north-west of the state.

Matthew Taylor, head of the government’s inquiry into the ‘gig economy’, has found himself in Gainesville in recent days. That some people attacked his review for going too far while others said it did not go far enough has been taken in some quarters as proof that he pitched his recommendations in more or less the right place.

Did he?

Well, the report did suggest simultaneously that the flexible labour market is (a) brilliant and (b) a problem, which is always a good start for anyone seeking ‘just about right’ status. Its main recommendation, as far as I could see, was that people who are not really self-employed ought to be counted as employees.

This didn’t strike me as terribly new. During the early 1980s, I was told that the tax treatment of an individual, whether or not self-employed, would be decided on three criteria: did they mainly use an employer’s tools, mainly on the employer’s premises and mainly under the employer’s direction? If the answer was (mainly) yes, then they weren’t really self-employed.

Beyond that, we have, courtesy of the BBC website, the following thoughts from Mr Taylor:

We as a country have a great record on creating jobs and creating flexible jobs and flexible work is a good thing and most people who work flexibly – whether they are gig workers, zero hours workers, part-time workers – enjoy working in a flexible way.

There’s always a ‘but’:

But we have an issue with the quality of work in our economy. That issue is particularly problematic at the bottom end of the labour market for lower skilled workers.

All very high minded and what one would expect from the head of the Royal Society of Arts. Rather as Ivy League economics professors have tended to imagine the ideal of ‘work’ in the image of their own jobs (leafy campus, agreeable grace-and-favour home, fetching undergraduates) so Mr Taylor presumably sees a Georgian house off the Strand as the sort of workplace to which we should all aspire.

There is, of course, a rather less elevated motive behind the Taylor review: the Treasury is convinced that the gig economy (what we used to call casual labour if it was blue collar, and freelance work if it was white collar) is denying it the tax revenues it needs to keep the State machine in business. Thus Mr Taylor told the BBC:

We have a big issue about the fact there is a gap between the amount of tax we pay on self-employed labour and employed labour… So we are creating a fiscal headache for ourselves, and one of the things we say is over time we need to move to a situation where we pay a more similar amount.

Mr Taylor, an amiable-looking chap who used to advise Tony Blair and who pops up on The Moral Maze on Radio 4 as very much the voice of Gainesville, was an ideal choice for the gig-economy review. But that is precisely the point.

The gig economy is either a problem or it isn’t. It can’t really be a triumph and a source of worry at one and the same time. Furthermore, ‘good work’ (the title of the review) just reeks of a condescending tastefulness, a feeling that the wage slaves of the gig economy need to have their sights raised by their social betters.

I would like to return to the workplace of my late teens, when junior reporters (in my case) were supplied with a desk, an ashtray and a trade-union membership form. I suspect that what we need is as much work as possible for a swollen labour force, whether ‘good work’ or any other sort.

My guess is that ministers will pick up the tax recommendations and kick all the ‘good work’ stuff into the long grass.

Just a hunch.

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