Disabled people forced into employment in the “gig economy” have to carry out significant levels of unpaid work to cope with the disability-related oppression and exploitation they face, new research has found.
Austerity measures, uncertain working conditions, distrust and suspicion from employers and within the social security system, and increased social care charges, combine to create barriers that they need to deal with to stay working.
These barriers mean they carry out hours of unpaid extra work every week, just to maintain their job, says the research.
The conclusions come in early findings from The Politics of Disablement and Precarious Work, a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Ioana Cerasella Chis (pictured), a disabled doctoral researcher in the University of Birmingham’s School of Government.
She interviewed disabled people who work in areas including retail, catering, social care, journalism and healthcare, with work arrangements including freelance, internships, payment by results, zero hours contracts and short-term contracts.
Disabled people who took part in her research reported high levels of uncertainty – “precarity” – about their pay, their rights, and whether reasonable adjustments would be made for them by employers.
One participant, who works in the third sector, said: “Even though I’m in a less precarious living situation than I have been previously, I think the damage that it’s done to my psyche, or the damage that it’s done to my ability to relax or to rest is that I feel very kind of on edge at times.”
Research participants also spoke of the energy they used up responding to professionals, friends, colleagues and family who misunderstood and disbelieved their experiences as disabled people.
One participant said of their family: “They think I have free time, rather than the reality that is running around, travelling, trying to flit between different classes and jobs and trying to fit in lesson prep, studying, being ill, and rest.”
Most of the research participants spoke of negative experiences of the social security system, including having their benefits sanctioned, assessors lying in their reports, and the process making them feel suicidal.
Many of them said they were “actively trying not to claim social security due to the harrowing experiences they (or people close to them) had in the past”, said Chis.
And those who did use social security had to “adhere to the demands of their Job Coaches to do job searches, apply for particular jobs, or leave their previous careers behind”.
The coaches were “acting as if they were participants’ managers”, she said, which left them, in effect, “working for the state, for free”.
This and other unpaid work takes place at the expense of activism, volunteering, mutual support, organising* and resting.
None of the 27 disabled people who took part in the research said they had enough time to rest.
A dozen of the interviewees kept diaries over eight weeks and all 12 said they wished they had more time to rest, often so they could prepare for the next day of work.
All 27 participants said they believed unions should do more to represent the interests of disabled workers in the gig economy.
Amy Wells, communications manager at National Survivor User Network (NSUN), said: “Issues relating to work have a huge impact on those living with mental ill-health, distress and trauma.
“NSUN members have told us that they are vulnerable to exploitation or discrimination at work due to disclosures around their mental health.
“Precarious and insecure work functions to keep people in the ‘poverty trap’, leaving them without a stable income to pay for food, bills, and safe housing, let alone small luxuries that could improve their wellbeing.
“On top of this, the hostile and dehumanising social security system continues to fail people and compound – or cause – distress.
“It is refreshing to see arguments arising from this research that focus on radically changing the nature of work for the better.”
Chis said her research showed that the idea that disabled people who were unemployed or worked in the gig economy were “unproductive” was false.
She said: “The fewer resources and means for support one has, the more work they are forced to do themselves, on their own.
“This situation leaves disabled people with little time and resources to rest, resist, support themselves and others, and organise.”
She told Disability News Service: “I seek to highlight the complexity and nature of the work that disabled people constantly undertake, resist, or subvert – both when they are in precarious employment and when they are unemployed.
“I hope that the participants’ insights and the project’s analysis might be useful for future disability-related discussions, campaigning, and activism** – especially if such campaigns argue for the necessity and urgency of having more time, resources, energy, and infrastructures for resting, supporting ourselves and others, and organising collectively to change society.
“Some forms of work need to be altered or completely abolished (such as, for instance, the unnecessary work of doing job searches in order to access social security).”
*Collective work aimed at challenging oppression and exploitation, for example through disabled people’s organisations, trade unions and renters’ unions
**She can be contacted through her website
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