Perspectives on the Gig Economy

This reading contains two articles concerning the gig economy and its impact on workers. The first article explores the problems associated with the gig economy, whilst the second article explores the benefits that it can bring. 

Article One: Opposition to the Gig Economy

‘“You give Don a voice”: courier’s widow praises Ken Loach film’ (published in The Guardian, 23 September 2019) by Robert Booth

Gig economy film Sorry We Missed You is partly inspired by the death of Ruth Lane’s husband.

There is a scene in Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach’s new film about a parcel courier driven to the brink by his brutal gig economy job, when his wife finally loses patience with his ruthless depot controller and screams at him to give her disintegrating husband a break.

“Isn’t that funny,” whispered Ruth Lane as she watched the first UK public screening on Sunday night in Brighton. “I went into the depot office and shouted at Don’s manager, complaining that he didn’t have time to eat. I said you are bloody killing him. You are working him so hard.”

Don Lane, a courier for DPD, which delivers for retailers including Next and Asos, was Ruth’s husband who collapsed and died aged 53 in January 2018 after working through illness in the Christmas delivery rush. His story has partly inspired Loach’s [new film].

. . .

Don Lane had skipped several hospital appointments to treat his type 1 diabetes because he had been charged £150 by DPD when he missed deliveries to attend an appointment and feared further charges. He collapsed twice while working, including once at the wheel, and was ill and vomiting blood before he died but did not take time off. Ruth Lane is now mounting a legal challenge against the company, which made a £121m profit in 2017 and paid its top executive a salary close to £1m. It is contesting her claims that he should have been treated as a worker with holiday pay and a guaranteed minimum wage, and that its decision to charge him for missing work to attend hospital was disability discrimination.

The parallels between fact and fiction came thick and fast for [Ruth] Lane in a film that tackles the emotional and social impact of the shift of financial risk on to workers in the rapidly growing gig economy, which involves 4.7 million people in Britain doing jobs including delivering parcels, caring for sick and elderly people, or driving minicabs.

As Loach’s hero Ricky, a father of two in Newcastle, nodded off at the wheel or raced to deliver parcels in strict one-hour windows for the fictional company PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast), Lane sighed. “Don got breached for being three minutes late on one of those,” she said, as Ricky was rebuked again for missing a “precise”.

. . . 

Lane found her husband collapsed in the living room of their cottage and she and their 23-year-old son, Jordon, went with him in an ambulance to hospital, but to no avail. 1

Article Two: In Favour of the Gig Economy

‘The gig economy is not intrinsically a bad thing. In fact, it’s given many of us a great opportunity’ (published in The Independent, 30 June 2019) by Katie Bishop 

. . .Characterised by short-term contracts, often facilitated by technology, the gig economy has more than doubled in the last three years. For many this is a sign of the increasingly insecure nature of work and irresponsible employees. But for me, and many gig economy workers like me, this hasn’t been the full story.

. . .

My own experience has involved taking on extra work in my spare time—a so-called “side-hustle”. As a full-time book editor and freelance writer I’m often up early to squeeze in an hour of work before I head into the office. Instead of relaxing in the evening after a busy day, I’ll work on pitches and polish up drafts. … Working two jobs comes with a host of challenges but for me, and many like me, it has simply become a necessity. One wage just doesn’t cut it anymore.

But although many might not envy my set-up, the gig economy has also enabled a career move that I might never have taken otherwise. In a career like journalism (dominated by privately-educated individuals with Oxbridge or postgraduate education who often undertake lengthy unpaid work placements to get a foot in the door) the ad hoc and opportunistic nature of the gig economy gives people like me a chance without having to give up on the stability of a regular paycheck. And it’s not just me and other writers either—in fact a startling one in 10 UK workers now take part in the gig economy, many of them alongside a full-time job.

. . .

Of course, I acknowledge that I am fortunate to have found work that I enjoy doing in a way that suits me. There are many workers doing much more challenging roles for far less pay. But in an age where almost half of workers are dissatisfied with their primary career, the gig economy can also be a positive thing. It can be a chance to boost your income in a flexible way whilst pursuing a dream, albeit low-paid, job. It might be a way to juggle childcare with a career when a structured nine-to-five day doesn’t meet your work-life balance needs. Or it might allow you to take back control of your career path at a time when burnout is endemic and over a third of workers feel that their skills are underused.

For me the gig economy has been an opportunity to straddle two careers that I am genuinely passionate about but that don’t pay enough alone for me to get by. Given that many people consider personal values and social impact important priorities in their career, the ability to fund a low-paying but personally fulfilling career is a seductive aspect of the gig economy’s flexible nature. 2


Connection Questions

  1. Write down four pieces of information that you learnt from the first article about Don Lane, the man who partly inspired Ken Loach’s film, Sorry We Missed You.
  2. Write down four pieces of information that you learnt from the second article about Katie Bishop, the journalist who wrote the article. 
  3. What are three differences between Don Lane and Katie Bishop’s experiences of the gig economy?
  4. Max Dewhurst, a cycle courier and trade-union activist in London, states that he ‘know[s] families being torn apart’ due to the gig economy. What evidence can you find in the Guardian article that highlights this is the case? Find three pieces of evidence to support his claim and explain how each does so.
  5. In her article, Katie Bishop states that ‘the gig economy can also be a positive thing’. What evidence can you find in the Independent article that highlights this is the case? Find three pieces of evidence to support her claim and explain how each does so. 
  6. To what extent is participation in the gig economy a choice for both Max and Kate? How might that help shape their experiences?
  7. What are the different roles that work plays in peoples’ lives (i.e. paying bills, deeper fulfilment)?  Which of these roles is the gig economy better suited to help fulfil? Explain your answer.
  8. Both articles depict very different perspectives of the gig economy. How are these different? Why do you think this might be the case? 
  9. Having read both articles, how do you view the gig economy? 
  10. What, if anything, do you think could be done to improve the gig economy?

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