Trade unions, the gig economy and the feminisation of work: lessons from the past?

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The world of work is changing rapidly, and concerns abound that ‘non-standard’ forms of work are challenging the social and collective dimension of work. In particular, the rapid growth of the ‘gig economy’ has brought these concerns to the forefront of the debate. For trade unions, the growth in non-standard work has long been considered problematic. However, the high degree of individualisation and lack of human contact characterising the gig economy raise profound questions about how trade unions should both organise, and represent, workers in this ‘sector’ at a time when trade union membership is in decline and there is a continuing lack of legislative support for collective bargaining. Much of the debate in the existing literature takes as its point of departure, the ‘standard’ (male) worker, and sees the rise in ‘non-standard’ work and work in the gig economy as a threat to this model. This is despite the fact that trade unions have been challenged by ‘non-standard’ work since their inception: the non-standard arrangements, which have now entered the mainstream, have long been the norm for many women workers. Yet historically, within the labour law and industrial relations literature, women and gender have rarely been the subject of discussion, although this has changed since the 1980s. In addition, much of the British literature examining the novelty of the gig economy has focussed on the scope and ability of labour law to respond to these work arrangements, and there has been less engagement with trade union responses to these ‘new’ forms of work, even though the growth in such work also creates pressure for changes in the institutions that regulate labour markets.

Against this background, and in light of this book’s overarching theme, this chapter calls for a new research agenda that considers the challenges of non-standard work, and of work in the gig economy, for trade unions within the context of the ‘feminisation of work’. The geographical focus of this chapter, in this regard, is the UK. The chapter argues that trade unions are struggling to shake off their image as the representatives of white, working-class, and blue-collar men. As a result, many of the successful efforts at organising non-standard workers, including workers in the gig economy, have been undertaken by ‘non-traditional’ trade unions (and other forms of grassroots organisations). This raises the question as to whether ‘traditional’ trade unions are able to effectively respond to the rise of non-standard forms of work, and to the gig economy in particular. It is suggested that part of the difficulty for these trade unions lies in the way in which they prioritise the functions that they adopt within the labour market, and the labour law system; functions which are based on a gendered understanding of the labour market, and which in turn hamper trade union efforts to reach out to an increasingly feminised labour force. The chapter therefore suggests that a conscious conceptual shift should take place, when thinking about the purpose of trade unions, if these organisations are to respond effectively to the feminisation of work.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationTheorising Labour Law in a Changing World
Subtitle of host publicationTowards Inclusive Labour Law
EditorsAlysia Blackham, Miriam Kullmann, Ania Zbyszewska
Place of PublicationWest Sussex
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 5 Sept 2019


  • trade unions
  • gig economy
  • non-standard work
  • labour law


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