By Matt Bee
How you receive parcels in the mail could revolutionise how you receive care in the community. And it all comes down to something that’s been in the news a lot of late – the gig economy.
The gig economy is the idea that workers seek employment on a day-to-day, job-to-job basis. In the digital age it’s simple. You sign up online, state what hours you want and the work you’ll do, and the website matches you to available roles. But it’s more than a simple jobs site. These aren’t even jobs as such; just tasks that need doing, one at a time, accumulating payment as you go.
Software developers, marketing consultants, accountants and even writers all find gainful employment this way. But where the idea has really taken off is in the world of couriers.
Rise of self-employment
Here, millions of parcels are pushed through letterboxes daily, each earning the courier a small fee. Effectively this is classed as self-employment, and, as such, you can see how the trend has really taken off. Since 2008 the numbers registering as self-employed has risen from 13% to 15% of the UK job market from 2008-15. At 4.6 million workers, soon their number could exceed those employed in the public sector. Part of this is down to the flourishing gig economy.
Supporters of this way of working point to the flexible hours, freedom and choice as a real boon for the worker. But, critics counter that the whole thing is actually just a sneaky way for large firms to circumvent employees’ rights, since, technically, there are no employees, just contractors. What that means in practice is something hotly debated, including in the courts, right now. Drivers for the private taxi hire firm Uber recently won their case to be considered employees, rather than self-employed, for the most basic of rights, such as holiday pay, sick pay and the minimum wage.
But it’s what this could mean for the care sector that’s most intriguing. With the launch of a few clever apps it could literally turn the industry on its head, transforming agency carers into freelance personal assistants at the tap of a smartphone screen.
Horror or hope
That might fill you with horror, the idea of a largely unregulated workforce descending on the homes of vulnerable people. Or, paradoxically, it might actually fill you with hope.
After all, with the way things stand at present, if a service user wants to recruit a personal assistant outside an agency they’ve little option but to employ directly – which means managing holiday pay, sick pay, pension plans, national insurance, tax payments, training needs, the whole caboodle. And if it doesn’t work out, they’ve got to handle disciplinary action, written warnings, or giving someone their notice.
Yes, there’s support out there to help with this. But wouldn’t it be easier, wouldn’t the prospect of having a personal assistant hold much more appeal, if you could dispense with this side of the arrangement altogether?
And with that, could we see a significant shift towards people receiving direct payments rather than council-managed personal budgets, transforming the care marketplace.
Glimpse of the future
A possible glimpse into the future comes from HomeTouch – one of the first online platforms in the UK for personal assistants to advertise as self-employed workers, and for service users to hire them.
Set up in 2015 by dementia physician Dr Jamie Wilson, it’s a quick and easy way of finding support. Or at least that’s what HomeTouch’s PR spokesperson says when I speak to her. She directs me to the independent review site, TrustPilot, where customers have rated the service 9.4 out of 10 and left an abundance of glowing comments.
How far this is a reflection on HomeTouch as an organisation, and how far a reflection of the working model that underpins it, is impossible to say. But what is clear is that this could signal big changes ahead.
So far, 350 carers have successfully registered with the site, with HomeTouch saying many more have applied but failed to get through their vetting process. Meanwhile, other similar platforms are springing up – enticing care staff away from the zero hour contracts and poor pay that many mainstream agencies have to offer.
Lack of regulation
That means the future could be bright if you’re a service user looking for a PA. Or it might be bleak for the staff concerned, if you consider what has already happened in the world of couriers, many of whom complain of being grossly exploited. And then there’s the thorny issue of regulation. As things stand, it’s unclear how the Care Quality Commission can oversee online platforms or the carers finding work through them. Neither has to register with the inspectorate.
What is clear, though, is that the gig economy could be on the cusp of transforming the care sector – for better or worse. Not for nothing has it been dubbed the ‘Wild West Workplace.’ But, at the same time, through the promise of hassle-free hiring, it may make the notion of direct payments a great deal more palatable. Hiring a PA instead of employing them could ultimately be what service users want. If it is, this idea looks set to take off.