UK launches “sharing economy” review, but don’t expect deep examination of workers’ rights

The British government has announced a review of the so-called sharing economy, as exemplified by the likes of Airbnb and BlaBlaCar.

Revealed on Monday by business and enterprise minister Matthew Hancock, the “independent review” will examine web-enabled services such as carpooling, house-swapping and time-sharing to “explore the potential benefits of the sharing economy to the UK, as well as any risks it may pose to traditional industries.”

The review will also look into the regulatory problems faced by sharing economy companies. However, it will not examine in great depth the issue of workers’ rights in the sharing economy — and it’s being led by the chief of a sharing economy company.

“Opening doors”

As Hancock said in a statement:

The sharing economy is disrupting existing markets and changing the face of business. By opening doors for everyday entrepreneurs to trade directly with each other online, these new market places are driving down costs and pushing the frontiers of innovation.

These new business models put money into households the length and breadth of the country by helping them get the most from their spare assets and get the best price in the market. There’s huge economic potential for the sharing economy and I want to make sure that the U.K. is front and center of that, competing with San Francisco to be the home of these young tech start-ups.

This is, in theory, a great step. Services such as [company]Uber[/company] (which went unmentioned in the review’s launch statement) and Airbnb have sometimes clashed with existing regulations around things like insurance and licensing, suggesting that those regulations may need amending. These aren’t necessarily rotten business models, even though the speed with which they have arisen has caused problems.

Right now, traditional players in the relevant sectors – cab drivers in the case of Uber or hoteliers in the case of [company]Airbnb[/company] – are sticking to regulations that their upstart rivals are generally ignoring. This is unfair; there should be a level playing field, and the only ways to achieve that are to ban Uber and Airbnb (not the ideal solution) or to change the regulations.

Balanced perspective?

The review will be led by Debbie Wosskow, the CEO of home exchange platform Love Home Swap (a sharing economy business) and also the head of the Collaborative Consumption Europe network.

Love Home Swap CEO Debbie WosskowAs I understand the concept of independent governmental reviews, they are supposed to provide a non-partisan analysis of the chosen topic. No matter how enthusiastic the relevant minister is (very, in this case), an independent review should be neutrally conducted. Can Wossow provide such neutrality, in the context of a topic that may involve enormous disruption to the current U.K. economic and employment landscape?

Workers’ rights could be jeopardized by deregulation, for example, as services such as Uber effectively provide zero-hour contracts with no benefits, no job security and very little opportunity to push back against management. Someone taking an Airbnb apartment may not have access to the fire escapes that would have to be installed if they were using a traditional hotel. These may not be insurmountable issues, but they’re deadly serious and their evaluation demands a disinterested approach.

On Monday, Wosskow told me that there are two ways of looking at independence in this context – independence in the party-political sense (she is not a member of any party) and in terms of her personal background.

“What’s incredibly important is to take the views of the incumbents on board as well. Already today I’m making sure I’m starting to talk to those people as well,” she said in a phone interview. “My perspective is genuinely impartial. I think it is important that I can a provide context for all of this.”

Wosskow, who said she would take into account people’s negative experiences with sharing economy services, argued that her experience in the field gave her “a little bit of a headstart on some of the issues.”

Workers’ rights

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) echoed this sentiment in a separate phone interview:

The minister has appointed Debbie to lead this review because she is an expert in the sharing economy. We are going to be working closely with all of the stakeholders to make sure the recommendations are balanced and informed.

There is indeed a call for evidence, so everyone can get their views across during the consultation phase. BIS’s spokeswoman said the department was “expecting recommendations around the end of the year.”

However, there is one more cause for worry here, in that the review’s terms of reference do not explicitly include workers’ rights. The term “workplace rights” is included as an “interests” tag in the sidebar of the call for evidence webpage, but that’s it.

Wosskow said the review would “touch on” this issue as part of its examination of time and skill-sharing services such as [company]TaskRabbit[/company], but confirmed that it would not go into great depth on the subject. “I’m trying to turn this around this year,” she said. “It’s a start. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to please everybody.”