Trade unions, women's labour and the gig economy

Zahn, Rebecca and Busby, Nicole; Ness, Immanuel, ed. (2022) Trade unions, women's labour and the gig economy. In: The Routledge Handbook of the Gig Economy. Routledge, Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, pp. 145-157. ISBN 9781000726589 (

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The world of work is changing rapidly and concerns abound that 'non-standard' arrangements are challenging its social and collective dimension. The rapid growth of what is collectively referred to as the 'gig economy' by which workers are engaged on short-term contracts or one-off assignments often of a peripatetic nature, sometimes online or through the use of a mobile phone app, has brought these concerns to the forefront of the debate. For traditional trade unions, this shift in working arrangements brings particular challenges. However, much of the debate in the existing literature takes as its point of departure the 'standard' (male) worker and views the divergence in working arrangements as a threat to this model. This chapter examines the characteristics of non-standard arrangements and of work in the gig economy within a feminist framework based on the work of prominent theorists Catharine MacKinnon and Martha Fineman. The resulting analysis uses MacKinnon's theory of the state and Fineman's vulnerability theory to contest the apparent received wisdom that these ‘new ways of working’ have led to a current revolution in the world of work and posits that the 'revolution' has in fact been happening for far longer than contemporary analysis might have us believe: the alternatives to the full-time, permanent 'job for life' which have now entered the mainstream have long been the norm for many women workers yet women and issues related to the gendering of work are often missing from discussions of this latest workplace revolution. Seen in this light, the gig economy is just the latest wave of supply led flexibility. The chapter concludes by considering the lessons that could be learned by 'traditional' trade unions in order to broaden their appeal to those who work under non-standard arrangements within and beyond the gig economy.