- Business Insider spoke to workers about the challenges of raising children in the “gig economy.”
- They described anxiety about taking time off, unpaid days off for hospital visits, and juggling multiple jobs. But they also liked the highly flexible and satisfying work.
- Some people in the industry work 80-hour weeks to make ends meet and support their families.
- Self-employed women get offered a maternity allowance from the government, but there’s no equivalent scheme for men.
- There’s now a growing labour rights movement in the gig economy — but not everyone wants the same thing.
LONDON — In early April, Alex Marshall was excited and anxious. The 32-year-old Londoner was preparing for not one but two consequential events — a major legal action against his place of work, and the birth of his first child.
I first spoke to Alex over the phone on the evening of April 6. It was the baby’s due date, and there was a risk that his partner could go into labour at any minute. “If suddenly there’s some screams in the background, you know what’s happening,” he joked.
Alex has been a pushbike courier for five and a half years. For the last two and a half of those, he has worked for The Doctor’s Laboratory, TDL, darting in and out of London’s hospitals and weaving through the city’s streets on his bicycle to deliver medical samples.
Although he works exclusively for TDL, 9-to-6, five days a week, he’s not an employee. He’s classified as an independent contractor, and is technically free to take time off whenever he likes (though he has to give notice). He doesn’t get the benefits most people take for granted like sick pay and holidays.
This job — which gives him flexibility at the expense of job security and traditional benefits — places him in the “gig economy.”
The gig economy is a nebulous, buzzword-y concept. It refers to growing number of people who work on a job-by-job basis, self-employed, without any formal boss. Depending on your definition, it can mean anyone from professional developers working on a freelance basis to the itinerant workforce of on-demand service firms like Deliveroo and Uber. But beyond the rhetoric of self-empowerment, these two extremes have little in common.
Business Insider spoke to workers in this on-demand industry at very different stages of parenthood, to understand what it can be like to raise a family in modern Britain’s gig economy — from flexibility and deeply satisfying work through to 70-hour weeks and terrified days spent beside hospital beds.
“I’ve still got this little thing at the back of my head saying, you know, it’d be nice if the baby came on this day because then it wouldn’t infringe on work days too much, which I just think is awful, you know, that I’ve been sort of institutionalised into thinking along those lines.”
These are the people who drive your cars and deliver your parcels. They satisfy modern Britain’s addiction to convenience. And these often anonymous workers are finally in the spotlight, with a series of legal battles against major gig economy firms and a growing labour rights movement. But first, back to Alex.
Technically, Alex is a self-employed, independent contractor. But he’s under no illusions.
“I work for TDL, you know, there’s no doubts about that,” the courier said. “If you talk to anyone, mates at the pub, and they say ‘who do you work for?’ As if any of you turn around and say ‘I’m actually a self-employed contractor who lends my services to TDL.'”
He and other couriers working for TDL are taking the organisation to a labour tribunal, arguing they should be reclassified as employees. “It’s like, I work for TDL, I bust my arse for TDL, from 9 til 6, five days a week, in the rain, in the snow, in the high winds, in all of those conditions we’re out there, you know, breaking our backs for this company … there’s no ifs and buts about who we work for.”
In the run up to the legal fight, Alex was also occupied with something else: Preparing for the arrival of his first child. He said was anxious about the optics of taking a full two weeks off to get to know the newest member of his family. One coworker told him their child was born on a Wednesday, and they were working again by the next Monday. Another took only two days off. “Having heard that, my sort of 10-day holiday, I felt a bit more like ‘errr, is that a bit, you know, am I taking the piss?’ But I think I’ll definitely take at least 10 days.”
His employment status means that every day he’s with his baby is a day that he’s also not on the roads, earning for his family. There’s no statutory paternity leave for men, no holiday time, and no sick days he could use.
“The baby comes when the baby comes, but for me I’ve still got this little thing at the back of my head saying, you know, it’d be nice if the baby came on this day because then it wouldn’t infringe on work days too much,” he said.
“Which I just think is awful, you know, that I’ve been sort of institutionalised into thinking along those lines even when it comes to the birth of your first child.”
‘I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and for us, it’s just the way it is’
Self-employed women in Britain are offered a safety net if they find themselves expecting a child: A maternity allowance, paid for by the state. It’s something that Hester (not her real name*) took advantage of when she became pregnant in 2014.
A 20-year veteran of the pushbike courier profession, impending motherhood came as a surprise: “My first reaction was ‘wow,’ because it wasn’t expected, because I’m on the older side.”
She kept working until she was eight months pregnant, at which point the physical aspects became inescapable. “You become very slow and short of breath,” she said, laughing. “You can’t really ride with anyone else because you’re just too slow. I mean, it’s fine at the beginning, you’ve got all the normal symptoms of being pregnant, so you’re tired and all that.”
“Towards the end you need to adjust your bike a little bit, and the bump is growing, but all in all it was fine. Obviously, I was a little bit scared about, you know, could I have an accident? But I went to the doctor, the doctor said ‘look, just carry on doing what you’re doing, be careful and you’ll be fine.'”
Her child, now two, was born in 2015. She slowly began to return to work after a year off, and she now does between three and four days a week of work.
While Marshall had serious grievances with his work, Hester was more positive, and hailed the freedom it afforded her. “Probably like every other mother who’s on maternity leave and needs to go back to work, I didn’t want to work straight away … because the job is quite flexible, obviously I’ve been able to finish at a time that allows me to collect my child [from nursery] and it hasn’t been much of a problem.”
She said she went into the work with her eyes wide open, and knew what she was getting from the offset. She isn’t chasing additional benefits or a change in employment status. “I’ve been doing this job for 20 years and for us, it’s just the way it is. We know that we’re not going to get benefits of any sorts.”
Hester acknowledged it might not be simple for everyone, particularly in families when the male worker is the sole breadwinner. But, she said, “everything’s been pretty smooth for me.”
Some are working ’70, 80, 90′ hour weeks
A few days after speaking with Marshall, I called up Frank, a 42-year-old courier for CitySprint, the major British delivery network. While the Alex was still preparing for parenthood, Frank has far more experience. He has three children. The oldest is 10; the youngest is still at nursery.
Over the years, Frank has worked extremely hard, extremely long hours, and is stoic about the experience. “I knew exactly how to make [parenthood] work … I’ve always had a strong work ethic, primarily because of the jobs that I have had: short-term contracts, casual work. I didn’t feel really secure being [on] one wage a lot of the time, and this has spurred me on at times to overwork, you know, up to 70, 80, 90 hours a week at times, just to provide enough.”
Frank currently works 60-to-65-hour weeks with just one day off — but is quick to point out that many other people (“on a global level”) still have it far worse than him. Nonetheless, he said, he’s supportive of efforts among couriers throughout the industry to unionise, and would have appreciated more benefits while he was younger.
Had a state-provided paternity allowance, like the one Hester was offered, been available to men too, he said he “would have taken advantage of it, that’s for sure.”
“As a younger man it was a bit challenging at times, so I did have to try a lot harder than I should have done as well. But I’m now at an age where, you know, things have worked out quite well, but mainly it’s been a lot of hard work it could’ve been a lot easier … the industry definitely does need change … without a doubt.”
The courier acknowledges that the flexibility that comes with being a self-employed contractor has its advantages — he can take time off at short notice to care for a sick child, for example. And he’s unsure that he would want full-time employee status, instead pointing to “worker” status as a possible halfway house he’d be happy with.
Like others I spoke to, he emphasised that he really enjoys his job — but that doesn’t he’d be opposed to change.
‘It’s really, really difficult, really, really tough’
Abdura Hadi loves driving for Uber because when he does, it means things can’t be too bad at home.
But when they are, he can spend his time cooped up in endless hospital rooms as he supports his seriously ill 10-year-old son. Sometimes, they can pop out for a milkshake. Other times, he is forced to grab snatches of sleep on hospital chairs.
“Even if the earning of it is difficult, it makes me happy, because it drags me away from this,” Abdura said. “It’s a relief. If I’m there, working hours, I know things are going smoothly with him.”
Mohamed Hadi, his son, has leukemia. First detected in January 2011, it has gone into remission twice, only to return. Hadi, as the child is known, is now on a last-ditch course of experimental drugs as his family waits to see he will be eligible for another trial treatment. They are raising money to fund treatment in the United States if it is not available in Britain.
“They said to me ‘if it was two years back, one year back, we would have said to you: Go back home, make the child comfortable,’ simple as that,” Abdura Hadi told me.
I met Abdura at Great Ormond Street children’s hospital in London on a still, overcast day in April. We sat beside painted walls outside a cafeteria, jungle noises playing through speakers in the background, as he told me about his struggles — at home and at work.
The North Londoner takes great pleasure in driving: “You pick up lots of things from people, it’s like an open library. Some people give you a tip of something, they give you knowledge of something, you have a discussion with them.” But he has grievances with Uber itself.
He argues the American transportation company uses “dirty tactics,” and he is one of more than a dozen drivers involved in a legal case against Uber in Britain in 2016, arguing that their legal status as self-employed contractors was wrong.
The drivers, backed by the union GMB and law firm Leigh Day, won. Uber is currently appealing, and in April this year it brought in new services for drivers like optional insurance if they’re sick or on jury duty.
“Almost all taxi and private hire drivers in the UK have been self-employed for decades and with Uber they have more control over what they do. Drivers who use Uber are totally free to choose if, when, and where they drive with no shifts, minimum hours or uniforms. Last year drivers using Uber made average fares of £15 per hour and were logged into our app for an average of 30 hours per week,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement.
“The vast majority of drivers who use Uber tell us they want to remain their own boss as that’s the main reason why they signed up to us in the first place. But we know drivers want more security too, which is why we are investing in a heavily discounted illness and injury cover offer.”
Abdura drives for Uber in the mornings so he can be with his family in the evening — but his hours depend on how Hadi is faring. If he’s not in hospital, “I do 40 to 50 [hours] … I can’t afford to do 90 hours like other people even if I didn’t have a sick child I’ve got a family to go back to,” he said. “I need to come back to [my] wife, I need to go back to the children, I need to be a father to them, not basically someone who comes in, eats, sleeps, leaves … I’ve seen drivers who are putting in 9o hours. I think, ‘how is this possible?'”
As such, the 39-year-old driver benefits from the freedom Uber offers drivers to choose their own shifts — but argues he does not have real freedom. “You’re not going to consider me still self-employed because of the freedom you’ve given me of signing on and signing off whenever I want. I need to earn the money, so I’m going to put in the hours. And at the end of the day, whether it’s going to be morning or it’s going to be evening, how can that be self-employed?”
When I first met Abdura in April as he took his son for a check-up, he was positive. Hadi was doing well, and walking without a wheelchair. But when we spoke again in late May, things were more difficult. Hadi had developed a lump on his jaw, and was in and out of hospital on a course of antibiotics as doctors tried to figure out the problem.
“Things are not really clear to be honest with you, we don’t even know what’s going on,” Abdura said.
His son is currently on a trial of one drug that suppresses the illness — but doesn’t cure it. His family are pinning their hopes on getting him onto a trial of CAR-T Cells, another experimental treatment, but there’s nothing set in stone yet.
Great Ormond Street Hospital might establish a trial in London in July, but Hadi would need to be well enough to receive it. Or the family might be forced to seek treatment in the United States — and are raising money for that eventuality. They have a public GoFundMe campaign, which has brought in over £17,000 in donations. It’s all sitting in a savings account — but it’s far less than the £540,000 (around $US700,000) that the treatment could cost.
“If the money is not used it will go back to the hospital. It’s going to Barnet, his local hospital,” Abdura said. “We felt people gave the money to treat a child with leukemia so if he doesn’t need it, for whatever reason, it has to treat some child with the same problem.”
How are he and his wife coping with Hadi’s illness? “It really, really difficult, really, really tough. My fierce worry is, ‘are we gonna lose him? What’s gonna happen? Is he gonna be going on? Are we going to be with him? How long are we going to with him?’ Those kind of things, I mean psychologically, it’s affecting us so badly.”
If Hadi can’t receive CAR-T Cell treatment, there’s no indication yet how long the child might have. But, Abdura added: “His consultant said to me, ‘I haven’t given up on him yet,’ which is very good.”
Change may be coming to the gig economy
Across the UK, an estimated 5 million people in the UK work in self-employed roles in some capacity, the BBC reported in October 2016. Defining the gig economy precisely is difficult. In March 2017, CIPD estimated that around 1.3 million people work within it.
In 2015, Citizens Advice, the legal aid charity, — which has been critical of companies like Uber — published research saying that as many as 460,000 Brits may be in what it calls “bogus self-employment.”
Not all firms in the on-demand gig economy are equivalent. Different companies have different pay structures, and exert different levels of control over their fleet of self-employed contracts. Deliveroo expects its couriers to sign up to shifts, while UberEats’ staff can work whenever they want. Gophr largely pays couriers on a per-drop basis, while Quiqup offers an hourly rate. And the workers themselves certainly don’t all want the same thing.
Alex Marshall has no doubt in his mind that he’s an employee in all but official classification, and is pushing for legal recognition. Frank thinks “worker” status would be more appropriate. And Hester said she’s happy to remain classified as a self-employed contractor.
“I’ve spoke to a lot of people who are not too happy about [the recent labour movement], because they feel like the flexibility will be gone,” she said. “I think that’s what they truly like about this job, is that ok, we’re forfeiting our benefits, but it’s really about flexibility and when we’re going to work.”
Uber also points towards a study conducted by ORB on its behalf as evidence of how many drivers appreciate the current model. 76% of the 1,000 UK Uber drivers surveyed said they prefer self-employment and flexible hours over full employment and traditional benefits like holiday pay.
Abdura Hadi told us that in an ideal world he’d be self-employed — but with certain freedoms, like the ability to set his own rates and choose which trips to accept, that Uber currently refuses to provide. As it currently stands, he says he sees worker status as most appropriate.
These issues have come to the fore amid a flurry of protests and legal battles that have targeted Uber, Deliveroo, and others. Workers have become increasingly organised, from the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) to United Private Hire Drivers (UPHD), which represents Uber drivers. And the industry has also come under fire from politicians, as increasing signs suggest change might be coming to Britain’s gig economy.
In a report published on May 1, the Parliamentary Work and Pensions Committee was critical, accusing companies of failing to protect workers from exploitation and causing the public to miss out on potential taxes. “Companies in the gig economy are free-riding on the welfare state, avoiding all their responsibilities to profit from this bogus ‘self-employed’ designation while ordinary taxpayers pick up the tab,” comittee chairman and Labour politician Frank Field said.
Both Labour and Conservatives have now said in their election manifestos they will take action. Labour promised a strong crackdown on what it refers to as “bogus self-employment.” The Conservative Party, the more likely winners in June 8’s general election, simply says it will make sure workers are “properly protected,” and is awaiting the results of the Taylor Review on the labour market.
Sometimes, the clichés are true: Children change everything
On Sunday, April 16, 2017 — Easter Sunday — Alex Marshall’s son Ralph was born.
“It was absolutely incredible. The actual whole kinda birth was quite traumatic,” Alex said, laughing. “Obviously moreso for the woman than myself … it all happened at night, with no sleep.”
I caught up with the courier in late May after he had returned to work following the birth of his son. He sounded positive, and was introspective about his situation.
“I had my two weeks off, which was nice, but by the end of it, I was actually looking forward to getting back on the road … it’s just weird when you’re off for paternity leave … It’s like Groundhog Day. You kinda get up, you venture out, maybe for a coffee, and it’s like ‘retreat!’ Like that’s the mission for the day, then the next day, next equally small mission before you retreat home, and it’s just this sort of weird haze of no sleep and all sorts, but it was lovely.”
But at the same time, he said, “even my 9-to-6 now feels like I’m missing out on a hell of a lot of the day … I don’t really want to be a dad who isn’t really there because he’s working so hard, you know, to be there with items and objects that the child needs … you’d much rather be one who’s there a few days of the week rather than in spirit.”
“Little Ralph” is just five weeks old, but has already changed how Alex approaches his work. “It has added a new dimension … you’re no longer just working for, you know, your own pocket money and your own rent and stuff like that. You really are working toward building a future for someone else … as cliché as it sounds, I know I have another mouth to feed.”
Meanwhile, the legal case is ongoing. TDL has filed a response to the tribunal claim, a company spokesperson said, and there is a preliminary hearing set for June 8. “TDL is mindful of doing the right thing but as the case is ongoing [is] unable to provide further comment,” they added.
“I am fortune enough that over my five days, the set amount I earn per day [means] I know that if I’m there for those five days, that money will be in my bank account,” Alex said. “But I know with some couriers, they don’t know from the day-to-day what the day’s work is going to be like, and they might have to work extra shifts.”
He has witnessed others working themselves to the bone, and is determined to take a different approach.
“There’s quite a few [couriers at TDL] who work as Deliveroo drivers once they finish their shifts. So you know, they finish, they have about half an hour, then they clock on for another job and they will then be there until half 11 at night. They have got kids they will be providing for.
“But you know their kids won’t be as close to them because they’re out providing the whole time.”
Some names have been changed in this story, and people have been identified with only one name, to give anonymity to our sources.
Do you work in the gig economy? Contact the author: [email protected]
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.