Patching the Safety Net: Renovating social protection for 21st century workers

Patching the Safety Net: Renovating social protection for 21st century workers

This article is part of the Forum Network series on New Societal Contract and Digitalisation 

Whatever you think about the future of work, one thing is pretty clear: the economic mobility associated with work and framed by social protection institutions have not kept pace with changes in how people work today. Thibaud Simphal, Regional General Manager for Western Europe at Uber, examines how new employment models, and the technologies that drive them, can contribute to much needed policy overhauls.   

Seventy-five years ago William Beveridge published a report on how to fight the great social ills of “squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease”. In so doing he laid the groundwork for the modern welfare state but, while the tools we have to fight these ills have changed a lot, much has remained the same. The post-World War II settlement was designed primarily to look after employees in full-time work and this remains the case today.

Yet millions of people around the world, driven by the increasing pressures and commitments in their lives, are instead choosing to work in different ways, in non-traditional forms of work. Independent work through apps like Uber can be a powerful tool for creating economic opportunity for people with diverse backgrounds and aspirations.

Source: Uber

There are things Uber is already doing to support this vision, including providing genuine control and flexibility, and innovating to better support the drivers and couriers who use our apps to earn an income. For example, in the United States we have pioneered new forms of insurance, and helped independent workers find the best healthcare plans, while in Europe we have partnered with leading insurers to pursue protections for our drivers and couriers.

Around the world, we urgently need a policy debate on the need to adapt our social protection arrangements. We need to address the challenges raised by more people choosing to work independently: from the fact that not all forms of “flexible work” gives real control to the individual as it ought to, to the patchwork safety net for those that are not engaged in full-time work. We do not believe the solution can be found in restricting how people choose to work, or pushing them into traditional modes of work.

Instead we need to look at viable ways to improve work for everyone. We should come together to update the safety net and our social institutions for an age in which people will work in more fluid and varied ways throughout their careers. This will also help lay the groundwork for a more resilient workforce capable of responding to increasing change driven in part by globalisation and automation. At a basic level, everyone should have the ability to protect themselves and their loved ones when they are injured at work, get sick, or when it is time to retire.

Source: Uber

There are enormous opportunities to be unlocked if everyone is empowered to work when and how they want to. For example, in Paris we have seen the potential for Uber to provide a route out of the banlieues, especially for those who are frequently excluded from the traditional labour market. At a time when more than 100 million people across Europe and the United States are out of work, or want more, new and flexible ways of work could offer more opportunities.

Uber: a route out of the French banlieues


By renovating the social protection framework to the needs of 21st century workers, we can usher in a new era of economic opportunity that embodies the following:

  • Access  —  where everyone can reliably find and keep quality, safe work, free from discrimination, and be able to maintain a good standard of living
  • Flexibility  — where everyone is able to work in a way that suits them, and vary their portfolio of work to suit their needs at their discretion, including at different stages of life, and move freely between different modes of work
  • Security  —  where everyone is protected at work and has the option of a broad set of reliable and affordable safety nets
  • Growth  —  where everyone is socially mobile and can access lifelong learning and development opportunities

Ensuring better access to social protections stretches well beyond, and long predates, independent workers using apps, and will require broader policy changes. For this reason we published a White Paper on Work and Social Protection for Europe, building on some of these ideas; in the United States, our CEO recently signed an open letter with union leader David Rolf and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer about working together on the creation of a portable benefits system in Washington state.

We recognise that these are deep and complex questions that policy makers have grappled with for decades, but we want to bring our contribution and engage in constructive discussions on how technologies such as ours can contribute to a better future of work for all. This is just the start of a discussion that will hopefully help to deliver tangible improvements for our partners today and long-term policy solutions for all workers tomorrow.

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