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Gig economy: student opportunity or exploitative trap?

In today’s gig economy new types of employment have emerged, answering the need for quick services and high job demand.

Most of these are commission based job opportunities that allow for flexible hours, but short-term contracts and freelance work are also part of the wide spectrum of emerging opportunities. Many of these jobs appeal to the student community because they do not require constant commitment and are a quick way to earn money. However, because of this necessity for immediate yet not binding jobs, students are also willing to take on work that leaves them, to some degree, underpaid and unprotected.

With around 1.1 million people in the UK working in gig economy, the issues that it raises need to be examined closely. According to an article by BBC News, the gig economy is ‘either a working environment that offers flexibility with regard to employment hours, or… it is a form of exploitation with very little workplace protection’. This double-edged sword has attracted the media and has also alerted governmental organisations that are starting to take action against gig economy companies.

The problem does not necessarily lie in the gig economy itself, which provides work for flexible schedules, but with the lack of information surrounding the risks it implies for its workers. As the main source of income for many students and people struggling to juggle a contract-based job, commission-based or short-term job opportunities are a way around the binding hours and long application processes of the regular job market. ‘The promise of being able to choose when to work is a powerful one, particularly for lower-paid workers whose other job options can be inflexible and disempowering,’ writes Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times. Companies such as Deliveroo, Uber and TaskRabbit offer this flexibility that attracts so many who feel trapped by the ‘conservative’ economy.

But the advantages of a flexible timetable inevitably imply some risks along the line. In exchange for commission-based contracts, gig economy companies treat their workers not as employees, but as self-employed individuals. This means that the usual protection that comes with contract-based jobs, such as sick pay and insurance, are not included in the deal. An article in the Guardian reported that these practises were a ‘scam’. Although ‘scam’ might be a bit of a strong word here, an awareness of the risks of the gig economy is necessary, especially for students.

Being a delivery person for Deliveroo means you might wait a long time before your next job in harsh weather conditions. It also means that you might have to cycle at night, in the rain, during rush hour, and will not be compensated if you have an accident. Commission based jobs are appealing because you receive payment for how much work you put in, but they also force workers to take risks that the companies will not protect them for. They can also be a hidden cause of stress and anxiety, in putting too much pressure on the workers.

Students also need to be aware of less dangerous, but equally exploitative, products of the gig economy. Websites in need of content writers often pay you according to the number of views you generate, which, if the site is newly launched, is close to nothing. In recent news, attention has been brought to the unpaid internship, which although offers experience, can be considered as blatant exploitation of the desperate student.

Most of the answers lie in the small print and in making sure that you realise what you are getting into. It’s also important to be able to compromise, and to know when you have reached your limit. There are a lot of opportunities for students out there, and instead of driving yourself to the ground, it is possible to look for an alternative.

Although it implies some risk taking, the gig economy has provided students and lower paid workers with the opportunity to define how and when they want to work- it has given them the power of choice and a long needed agency on a ruthless job market. So to those who blindly accuse the gig economy of exploitation, they might consider the fact that it has evolved as a consequence of the current economy’s inability to satisfy the needs of an increasingly unemployed population- and is the mild exploitation of the worker not the base for capitalism after all?

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