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Uberization of pilots: a dead end?

We have just witnessed a sad social experiment of why the ‘gig economy’ – with its bogus self-employed workers – is not a sustainable employment model. 

The pandemic delivered a punch to almost all self-employed pilots, who suddenly lost their jobs and income, resulting in financial hardship for many. While some governments did try to provide a basic income, it is clear that taxpayers are picking up the bill for employers that ran away from their responsibilities. Bogus self-employment is more than just abuse of the individual worker. It’s a problem for the entire society, which needs to be addressed. And self-employment in aviation is no exception.

Now, there is good and bad news. 

The bad news is that the aviation industry is knocked out in the corner of the ring and thousands of pilots are unemployed. Some airlines with so-called ‘new business models’ are ready to strike as never before. The high unemployment rate among pilots will almost certainly mean that once the aviation industry restarts many will probably have no other choice than to succumb to the offer of these types of 'anti-social' contracts accompanied with much lower labour conditions. And there is no shame in that because these contracts will be the only ones on offer, but will again create the same vulnerability for the pilots involved.

The good news is that the ever-expanding false self-employment seems to be driving into a brick wall

The good news is that the ever-expanding false self-employment in the gig economy seems to be driving into a brick wall. The British Supreme Court recently ruled that Uber drivers are not actually self-employed. This makes them simply workers, with all the rights that flow from this status. It is very likely that this decision will also affect other companies and perhaps have wider implications even for some airlines that use self-employed workers in the same way as Uber.

This will hopefully change the grim reality of European aviation in which 93% of self-employed pilots are actually working as bogus self-employed workers. Among other things, these pilots do not have the freedom of choice to decide when and how many hours they want to fly. These are both important criteria for determining whether someone is actually self-employed or not. And as has been demonstrated last year the job and income security is zero to none.

One thing is clear – bogus self-employment in aviation must be stopped. It is time that politicians ensure enforcement of the rules and punish the airlines that evade social responsibility in this way. 

 odb by Otjan de Bruijn, ECA President, Captain Boeing 777