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Laetitia Sfez: Socio-cultural considerations for the gig economy in France & the UK

My nationality is French, although I have lived and worked in London since moving to the UK when I was a student. As I’m familiar with the working culture in both France and the UK, I’ve been fascinated to watch the gig-economy trend land-and-expand in these two different markets. Particularly when businesses are localising from the USA. 

Defining the gig economy

The gig economy is generally defined as a free market in which individuals earn income from short-term, on-demand assignments. Typically, gig economy workers find jobs via the service’s owned platform or app, and they are not employees. Rather, they are self-employed contract workers and can usually choose the hours they make themselves available for work. Uber and Uber Eats (services owned by the American company, Uber Technologies, Inc) drivers are an example of gig economy workers. 

Who benefits?

Consumers benefit greatly from the gig economy; businesses operating within it tend to focus on providing transactional services that are better, faster and cheaper than the ‘established’ alternative. They reset the bar for price and convenience and usually innovate (with service design and the use of technology and apps) in a way that beats the quality of the experience that the consumer is used to. 

So, consumers benefit from the gig economy. But what about the workers who fuel it? The communicated benefits for workers focus on flexibility and efficiency and may tap into the desire to ‘be one’s own boss’ (A strapline on the Uber website reads, ‘You’ve got drive, we’ve got jobs’). There is a low barrier to entry and the time between someone needing to earn money and getting paid work is incredibly short.   

However, around the world – and particularly in Europe – gig economy businesses have been criticised about the conditions they provide for their workers. The British economist, Guy Standing, believes that the gig economy is creating a new social class, which he calls the ‘precariat’. The lives of the precariat, Standing believes, are made uncertain and precarious by open employment risks. Safety nets, which workers have traditionally enjoyed from conventional long-term employment contracts, are removed. Non-wage benefits – such as paid holiday, sick leave, skills training, pension contributions and health insurance don’t exist. Workers are often only paid for the job they complete (the gig) but are expected to pay for expenses required to do the job, such as maintaining and insuring equipment (for example, a bike, moped or car). 

Worker classification can differ by country

Over 40 court cases around the world have been launched against Uber with respect to how it classifies its workers, This article, published by the Guardian, gives an overview of how these cases and rulings have been approached in some different markets. In 2020, France’s top course recognised the right of an Uber driver to be considered an employee. Recently, in the UK, ‘Uber announced it will guarantee its 70,000 UK drivers a minimum hourly wage, holiday pay and pensions, in a dramatic U-turn which could put pressure on other gig economy firms to change tack.’ 

Social-cultural considerations: France & the UK versus the US

Legal and reputational pressures for gig economy businesses, as outlined above, appear and evolve differently in different markets. So much of this is down to the cultural context. Taking just two countries as an example – France and the UK – and comparing them to the US, where many of the large, international gig economy businesses were born, quickly reveals some poignant socio-cultural insights:  

  • Pay for workers within the gig economy across France, the UK and the US is low and there is no minimal earning. However, the US workers benefit far more from gratuity. Tipping is a practised social custom in the US (usually 15-20% of the overall bill). In France and the UK, tipping only happens in 5-10% of cases, and only when the service has been truly exceptional. This makes gig economy work far less lucrative in France and the UK. 

 

  • There are many cultural differences regarding work when comparing France and the UK to the US. Being employed in Europe does usually come with benefits (paid holidays, sick pay, insurances etc), whereas this is far less commonplace in the US. US gig economy workers may feel that they have less to lose because gig economy terms are more aligned with general working conditions. Likewise, the gig economy players in France and the UK are more likely to be perceived as abusing the self-employment scheme, and have to battle to protect the way it operates and its public image.

 

  • There are vast differences between the city landscapes of the US and Europe; European cities were built before the age of the private car, which means that they are denser, more congested and have a larger number of shops and restaurants that are easily accessible by foot. This impacts delivery-based gig economy services, in particular. There is arguably less of a need for these in European cities, and it’s also harder for gig economy workers to service deliveries in these places. Each ‘gig’ takes longer to complete (and get paid for) because the traffic is heavier, the road networks are more complex, and parking is often very difficult. 

 

  • There are obviously differences between France and the UK, too. The UK has an established culture of being self-employed; people accept the status, understand the limited benefits that go with it and make a deliberate choice to work in this way. In France, however, self-employment (although strongly supported by the current government) is still seen as a lower working status, chosen when fewer other options are present.The French ‘CDI’ working status (i.e. long-term salary job) is seen as the Holy Grail – and it’s very difficult to find a place to live (whether renting or buying with a mortgage) without one. This mentality is slowly changing, and more French people are acknowledging the flexibility and autonomy that comes with being self-employed, but stigma still exists. 

 

  • In the UK, the gig economy workforce and its potential for growth has been impacted by Brexit. With fewer students and migrants entering the UK, the gig economy workforce is contracting. Gig economy companies in this region may have to make working conditions more favourable and appealing to maintain growth at levels forecasted pre-Brexit. 

 

There is much more to explore and say when considering the socio-cultural nuances that impact the opportunities and obstacles that gig economy businesses face in different regions. The success in one market never guarantees success elsewhere – and that’s applicable to any company, brand or business model. However, the gig economy is an interesting example because it’s the workers in a given market – and not just the end consumers – that really fuel the success of the business model. While that can be seen to mitigate a lot of investment risk for gig economy companies localising in new markets, it also creates a unique set of challenges. Investigating the cultural context of work should be an early priority when any gig economy business is looking to expand into new regions. Want to know more? 

Read more about intO’s LOCALISE offer here:  Introducing intO’s LOCALISE offer 

Learn how localisation works in this article, written by intO’s founder, Joanna Brasset:  How we LOCALISE: When the answer is a landing place 

… Or feel welcome to get in touch with me to discuss! [email protected]

 

Laetitia is a Project Lead at intO and a specialist in qualitative and design research. A strategic thinker, she has a creative and user-centric approach, constantly striving to bridge the gap between business acumen and creative drive. Originally from Paris, Laetitia has travelled the world and is now based in London. She speaks French, English and Spanish, as well as some Hindi.

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