Scotland the Blog: Gig Economy or Skivvy Society?

I went to a gig last week in Glasgow. The band are are an obscure punk outfit and they won't get a huge amount from the combination of devoted fans admission price and downloads from Spotify. That said they are “gigging”, and the nature of gigging is that it's a creative engagement which delivers unpredictable income in return for creative and irregular output, (and if you are U2 that's some income and it's quite regular). That income is generated from a disparate group of people with a preference for your creative product. Same goes for comedians. When I pay to be offended by Frankie Boyle and buy his latest DVD there’s an assumption that he is being paid by a collection of me's who like his astringent brand of humour.

Now the last time I thought about getting a taxi or ordering takeaway to be delivered on a bike it didn’t look very creative or irregular. It met a need and it was delivered by someone who continually delivers that need to others. I didn't think that downloading the music came into it. Where am I going with this?

In Scotland 11% of the workforce are self-employed in the UK overall its 15% which is an increase of around 16% since 2008. So it’s a growing proportion of the workforce. There is a gender divide with men doing more manual roles and women doing more creative and knowledge based work. Still, predictably one fifth of women who are self- employed are in care work. A 20% growth in the number of women employed in Scotland overall is accounted for by self-employment.

So more and more people are self-employed but those gigging for a living are not doing very well. Recent research on the rise of self- employment by the Resolution Foundation explains that the level of earnings for the self-employed on a UK basis has fallen over twenty years. That compares unfavourably to a 14% rise for other types of employment. In 2001 you earned more in real terms setting up on your own than you do now. The research shows that the median weekly earnings for the self-employed was £240 today. At the turn of the decade it was £300. To compound things, these earnings have fallen by more than a quarter since the financial crisis. As the Resolution Foundation points out: the characteristics of the self-employed workforce has also changed in that time.

So setting up on your own as an independent coaching guru or trying to raise your own dough by becoming a self-employed muffin crafter is being eclipsed by the rise of the Uber driver and the takeaway-delivery cyclist. Even more precarious employment can be had inputting data for the likes of Mechanical Turk or filling in surveys. You could also find a job doing what the guy in the photo is doing by becoming a cheap as chips channel for cheeky marketing.

The firms who profit from this precarious work use apps to employ "contractors" and deliberately and somewhat creatively use technology and remoteness to put distance between themselves and their "contractors" who are effectively their workforce.

We must strike a balance between flexibility and dynamism in the labour market and exploitation. In reality many who are gigging for a living are gagging for a real job just ask your next uber driver. The reality for our economy and society is that real "hire and reward" work needs to be classified as such. If not the incentive to sharp practice and chance contracts will grow. The definition of a workforce needs to redefined for our network age. It's the delivery of regular outputs for pay on a regular basis. That is exactly what all of these people delivering services do. Its not a gig if it has low pay and zero benefits.

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