Elle Coates - working artist

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

My name is Elle Coates* and I’m a working artist, in the sense that I’m an artist and I also work part-time or full-time hours to support my creative practice.

I graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2015 after completing a 4D Fine Art Course, which was like a film course. After that, I was offered an internship at a company that is like a women’s film archive, so I worked there and I was balancing three or four jobs.

When the internship ended, I was panicking about work, and after the Brexit vote, this added to my panic. Then this job in Switzerland came up which I did for around six months, working at a boarding school. I thought I was going to be an art technician, but when I got there, I was really disappointed that they wanted to push me into more pastoral stuff. I was working over 55 hours a week. I started actively looking for full-time jobs in London; I was so keen to come back. I had some interviews on Skype, but I had no luck.

I had planned not to leave the job in Switzerland until I had a job in London, but by February this year, I had to hand in my notice without another job lined up.

Discovering 'gig' work

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

The first thing I did when I came back was to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance, but the application was rejected within two weeks because I hadn’t been living in the country long enough. I started to look into more full-time jobs, and signed back up to various online platforms: TaskRabbit (which I’d used a couple of times before), Register of Artist Models, Cat in a Flat and RentAFriend. I was just exploring as many avenues as I could to generate income because I had no money. So I was exploring these new work economies until I was able to find a full-time job.

I first came across TaskRabbit after graduating; I saw an article about them in the newspaper. I was already interested in these alternative economies; I was part of something called Bizzby, an on-demand service for cleaning. I’d joined the year before but only did one job, realising that I couldn’t clean within a certain time frame, which makes me not suited to it.

When I saw TaskRabbit, I thought it looked great. Since joining I’ve done flat pack furniture building, DIY, personal shopping, organising people’s spaces and storage, graphic and web design, painting and decorating, sewing and gardening.

When I first joined, we had this initial orientation near Brick Lane. There were about 25 or 30 people there; a huge mixture of people from builders to handymen, young women and men; a whole variety of people. They went through the ‘dos and don’ts’, the history of the company, and how to deal with a difficult client.

I think since then, the terms have kind of changed. I definitely feel like it’s becoming more like Uber. A friend joined recently, and he told me the orientation was done on your own – you watch a few videos and tick some boxes.

Pay and tax

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

I guess TaskRabbit is gig economy work, and sometimes people contact me privately to avoid the 30% charges which are charged to the client on the platform. So the customer might be paying £14 an hour, and I only receive £9 – just over the London Living Wage. I felt like April was a good month because by the end of that month, I’d actually saved quite a lot of money; I was surprised. I must have made £1,500 just from TaskRabbit, doing lots of little things.

To make it worthwhile, I’d want to be pocketing £100 a day, or maybe £300 in one week would be okay. I don’t know how many jobs that would be; it varies. If I’m earning £10 an hour, that means I’d want to be working 30 hours to make it worthwhile.

I’m at a point where I definitely won’t work for less than a London Living Wage. I figure that way it keeps the work coming in quite regularly. For RentAFriend, I can charge £10, or sometimes I charge £20; it depends.

When you book and complete a job through TaskRabbit, the money is charged automatically. The client has no real choice, unless there was a serious dispute over hours or expenses. If you’re working privately, you’re waiting on money a bit more, and you have to chase it up. I only really have one person who hires me privately, and ultimately, I’ve felt safe when doing this private work. I was a little bit disappointed when the private client asked me to do something recently, and I spent hours doing it, but he didn’t pay me because he felt I didn’t do the job properly. I felt like his instructions weren’t clear.

For my taxes I’m classed as self-employed. I’m not very good at keeping track of receipts. In my experience, none of the services I use have a way to get data out for accounting easily. TaskRabbit is paid via an umbrella company called Stripe. On my last tax return, I leave out any jobs that are PAYE, and anything else gets added to the tax return. I’ve mostly looked things up online and taught myself how to do this. When I first signed up as self-employed, I was really worried about all of this stuff because I’m not very good with numbers. Generally, I’m not great with money. But my first tax return was really easy to do – it was a relief.

Securing work

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

If someone requests a job for me, I will read their brief. I have all my own tools. Regarding DIY, I already did some of that through my art practice, so I’m quite good with a hammer and drill; constructing basic things. Sometimes I get requests for gardening jobs.

It’s important to read the brief carefully and talk through with the client what kind of job it is, how long it’s going to take, and whether they have tools or not. Once you’ve agreed on this, you agree on when the work will start. I’ve had people book me straight away, but most of the time I have some notice.

I think I’ve only been rated unfairly twice. There was the one occasion where a lady gave me a bad rating and then hired me back. There was another occasion where I hadn’t even worked for a person but they decided that because I didn’t have my own gardening tools, I wasn’t a good gardener, and they gave me a bad rating.

There are days when I browse available tasks, and some will be there for days, and no one will touch them; and sometimes you’re like, 'I’m available to do this', and it’s gone. If you really want to work, you have to be on it all the time. It could be stressful – I have to be really selective about the kind of jobs I want to do. What can be quite annoying is when I’m asked to work miles away in places like Brighton or Croydon, and the job just looks like it’s an hour. By the time I’ve paid my train, the money doesn’t even cover it. You can set a geographical limit for the ‘Available now’ job. For the offline jobs, I can pick based on the location of the job, which I can see on the job details.

You have an option to put your availability for the day. You can put between 8am and midnight. So if you toggle yourself on, you have the option to get jobs that day. You also have the option to put a whole month’s worth of availability, and you can choose mornings, afternoons and evenings. If you forget to turn the availability toggle on or off, or you don’t respond within 30 minutes, they really don’t like it. At the moment, because of what happened recently where I was banned for seven days because of a toggle issue, I’m afraid to put my toggle on, just in case I forget. If I had that ban at an inconvenient time, where I didn’t have any other work through the other services, I would have been like, ‘What the hell, you’ve taken away my livelihood.’ I think the company was trying to teach me a lesson about the effects it has on their reputation. They did give me warnings. I think there are ways to appeal a ban, but I’m not sure. At the time, it didn’t feel like I could argue my way out of it.

At the moment, I’ve taken myself off the ‘Available now’, and people can only hire me offline. The offline thing gives me the option to browse available tasks, so if something available comes up, you can pick and choose what you are doing. It’s been better for me to browse what’s available, picking the leftover tasks, rather than putting myself as always available.

Skills and travel expenses

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

You have to be so careful with what availability you say you have; you can’t flip and change. It’s the same for the tasks that you say you want to do. I initially put myself as available to do everything, including cleaning. I kept getting cleaning job requests and saying no, and then TaskRabbit wrote to me and said I was affecting their reputation, and that I needed to be more available. TaskRabbit offer training videos on how to do Ikea flat packing, or mount a TV, or clean. I think they offer tutorials to help, but your skillset is never accessed, so you just say verbally, 'I can do this'.

TaskRabbit give you the platform and the clients, but it’s really down to you to be honest with what you can and can’t do. There have been times where I’ve thought, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and then it’s been, ‘No, I can’t.’ Recently I did a sewing task, which I thought would take me two or three hours, but in the end I was there for five hours to finish the job. I’m a fairly good sewer, but it was such a complicated job.

Another time I did some ironing, expecting to iron some shirts, then I turned up and it was like haute couture garments, which I’ve never really done. I managed to pick it up, but the client actually had to show me how to do it.

There was a time when I ended up on a job with another Tasker; we ended up having quite an in-depth chat about his experience. That’s the thing about TaskRabbit: you don’t end up meeting others who work for the company. I think they do try to organise social events, but I never go to them, really. I don’t know if any of the Taskers do. It was quite good to sit down with another Tasker and talk through his experience. I asked him about the travel expense stuff, and he said he was upfront and always asked for travel expenses. You have to deal with the fact that the client might not be happy to do that.

Dealing with difficult clients

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

It’s a bit like Uber in a way: people want a service that’s much cheaper than a black cab. I think it’s the same on TaskRabbit: people just want to keep the cost as low as they can. If you’re going to ask for expenses, its best brought up in the chats before the job starts. Recently I did a job in Sidcup, which is over an hour away. The job took two and half hours, and he wanted me to charge him for two. Because of travel expenses, I couldn’t do that. When you do stuff like that, you’re worried the person is going to give you a bad rating. Is he going to make up that I did the work slowly? And I don’t feel like I can dispute a bad rating. You are silenced with that; you have no voice.

I had a problem with a client that I’m currently working with on TaskRabbit, and I really wasn’t sure if I should continue working with her because I sometimes found her to be a little abusive, verbally. There was one time when she gave me a bad rating, then hired me back again. I couldn’t understand the logic unless it was a slip of the thumb.

I talked to TaskRabbit on live chat about her sabotaging my rating; they said that I should just cancel the job. But cancelling jobs also affects my rating, and I didn’t know if there was a way to ban or block her when in ‘Available now’ mode. I think that should be a facility if you feel a client isn’t quite right.

I can give a client feedback – a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If you give a thumbs down, you can give more feedback. I generally don’t give people bad feedback; I don’t think I ever have, really. It’s tricky; I think all this work is based on pure trust, even the people they’re employing is based on pure trust. I would say that safety or vetting should be improved, maybe training could be improved to avoid disappointment.

They say we are insured, and that’s what that 30% fee is. I don’t know if people signing up have to give their details. It’s the Tinder for work in many ways – people are on a system, their details are on the system, but are they giving the right details? I guess if you’re on a job, your location would be tracked, I think – if there was ever a matter for the police; if somebody had to get involved. You can turn up for a job, and there is really no guarantee of what that person could do within their home. I guess they could take their own risks if they wanted to harm you in any way. There have been a couple of times where a client has had the wrong door number or road on their profile. This happened to me recently, where for some reason the client said the job is actually two doors down.

Comparing jobs

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

TaskRabbit is great, but the work I prefer the most is RentAFriend (RAF). A lot of people mistake RAF for escorting, but it’s actually a service where you meet people who feel alone, or they maybe have social anxiety issues. They pay you to have lunch or coffee, or maybe go to a gallery with them. Your services do operate as a therapist, in a way. I get paid £20 per hour, and I could be with someone for seven hours, and I get fed. There isn’t a rating system on RAF. If you have a really bad experience with a person, you’d go to the website and report it. I’ve never had to do that.

Even when I’ve got my full-time job, I’m definitely interested in RAF, as long as it stays the way it is. I might stay on TaskRabbit, but I might put my rate up, just to make it a little more worthwhile.

I’m going to be starting a full-time job in July. It is a slight relief, but it brings a bittersweet feeling.

There was a point recently where I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m actually making so much money working off TaskRabbit.’ But then I was saying that, and then work dried up on TaskRabbit. That gave me a false sense of security. I’ve been pushed back into the thing of needing to work full-time. I was really excited when I got the job, but I’m almost reminiscing or mourning this kind of work I’ve been doing. It’s been really fun, but at some points it’s been challenging. I have no provisions for sick pay or anything like that. If you’re sick, there is nothing you can do. It’s the same for maternity leave. It’s all very precarious, really.

A lot of my friends have always been fascinated to hear about my stories about the bits of work I’ve been doing. I feel like they romanticise this lifestyle I have. But there are moments where I have to put up with really difficult situations. It can be great, but you need to have a strong head, and you have to look after your money and be firm.

Well-being and representation

Elle Coates - gig economy photostory

With RentAFriend and TaskRabbit, you can get compassion fatigue when you spend so much of your time trying to be caring. When it comes to looking after myself, I have to give myself a day or two a week where it’s just me. I do my own thing – that’s been my way of dealing with it: I just shut off. There are days where I could make a lot of money, but you have to prioritise. You can easily get to the point where you’ve worked 14 days in a row, and if you’re not giving yourself a clear break, it’s not good. On a day off I generally enjoy cycling or swimming. I might get my shopping in, keep on top of my own cleaning, or my own admin.

While I’ve been doing this gig work, I’ve been able to put quite a lot of time into my artwork. I’ve been able to give myself whole days in the week where I go into the studio, whereas now my rota is going to change to Monday to Friday, and artwork will have to happen on weekends or evenings.

I haven’t come across anything like a union; I’d definitely be interested in something that covers TaskRabbit or even RAF, for example. I’d want to join a union to have someone who could legally chase up a person for payment, and if anyone was trying to sabotage my ratings, someone to support me with that. And for ill treatment, if someone isn’t treating me very well, some kind of legal action for that, and compensation maybe.

*An alias has been used.

Photography and research conducted by Curtis James, Fieldwork, on behalf of the CIPD