Back in the halcyon days of the mid-2010s – a world before Brexit buses and a global pandemic – it was easy to find cheerleaders for the gig-ification of the capital’s employment scene.
Uber and others were redefining work. Londoners were whizzing around in cheap cabs. Politicians were falling over themselves to champion the free-market employment economy.
Things have changed since then. Concerns around workers’ rights have become front-page material; one could argue that Deliveroo’s IPO earlier this year was sunk by concerns around the benefits it dished out to its self-employed riders. Politicians are readying the blunt tools of regulation.
But Collective Benefits boss Anthony Beilen is still on board with the rise in independent work – which, by their calculations, takes in some 6.6m people.
“There’s loads of industries where the flexibility of independent work combines to create larger pools of workforce, a more dynamic, more flexible workforce,” he tells City A.M.
Collective is an insurance provider with a difference – designed specifically for independent, freelance workers, be they minicab drivers, construction workers or anything in between.
Launching a year ago, the firm already insures more than 200,000 people across 20 countries, partnering with on-demand platforms to fill the gap between the flexibility of gig work with the lack of protections independent work naturally comes with.
Beilin’s brainchild – developed when he was himself on sick leave with a host of generous benefits from a large corporate insurer – has come along at the right time.
Platforms are recognising that in order to maintain their licence to operate in the court of public opinion, they need to play the game on workers’ rights. Uber are one example – faced with criticism in the past, they’ve instituted everything from holiday pay to university access for their UK drivers.
Beilin thinks they should be congratulated – and that other platforms get it, too.
“I think that the bigger platforms are certainly recognising, whether it’s corporate social responsibility, health and safety, performance and engagement, that there’s lots of aspects of this that really drive the business model and economics for them and they’re adopting it,” he says.
There are, however, problems. Beilin cites the lack of consistency across Europe on rules and regulations in different markets. That’s no surprise – much of the legal framework around gig work has been created in individual, highly specific court cases – and many including Uber have called for more coherence on regulations. In the UK, for instance, a driver for Uber and a driver for Ola have different benefits, despite doing essentially the same job.
Beilin says firms are worried about being classified as different businesses if they go too far on benefits and insurance – essentially making them into employers, rather than platforms, for their independent workers.
“Platforms should be empowered,” he says, to put programmes like Collective’s insurance in place.
“One of the challenges is that across the myriad regulatory frameworks, a lot of these organisations (don’t know) if they have the leeway to do these things.
“It should be made explicitly clear at a European level, and a UK level, that you can do these things and you should do these things and it won’t be held against you in an arbitrary way when it comes to reclassification.”
Beilin is optimistic, though, about Collective’s future. At 200,000 customers now, the plan is to work with independent workers and platforms alike to raise that to a million in the near future.
A new branch in Amsterdam, though remaining headquartered in London, will also allow the firm to operate more comfortably across Europe.
If gig work isn’t going away, platforms will need to get wise to the expectations society puts on employers.
After all – if it looks like an employer and quacks like an employer, regulators will expect it to look after its people like one.