Long-term labour market trends will have a greater impact on workers with protected characteristics

by Ewan Devine-Kennedy

Published: 02 Aug 2023

High quality data and evidence underpins everything that we do at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). This publication commissioned as a part of our research series has found that individuals with certain protected characteristics are more likely than the wider population to be affected by growth in certain labour market trends. These include flexible work, the gig economy and automation. 

Although the flexibility of such roles may be beneficial, they are also more likely to provide less job security and unequal pay. They could also: 

  • affect career progression, as most 'flexible' roles are in low-paid, junior positions with fewer progression opportunities  
  • provide fewer rights and limit unionisation  
  • potentially only offer one-sided flexibility, and 
  • embed biases by using AI that are based on data from unequal workplaces. 

Disabled workers in the gig economy

There has been an increase in disabled workers taking zero-hours contracts and the research also found that: 

  • younger disabled workers are most likely to be on zero-hours contracts 
  • disabled women are more likely to be on zero-hours contracts than disabled men 
  • disabled workers from ethnic minorities are more likely to be on zero-hours contracts than White British disabled people, and 
  • common occupations for disabled workers on zero-hours contracts also vary by age, sex and ethnicity. 

Although disabled workers can benefit from the flexibility on offer, they are also more likely to be affected by the insecurity of the work. Gig work can also feel like a necessity to disabled people facing discrimination in mainstream employment. 

Therefore, we need to ensure that gig work is a positive, unconstrained choice. This will also involve tackling discrimination in the mainstream labour market. 

Upskilling and training

The research also examined the importance of upskilling and training as the workforce ages, particularly as the economy requires more digital and green skills. 

Access to these opportunities is not equal:  

  • older people and ethnic minorities receive less training in many occupations and industries 
  • disabled people tend to get slightly more training, and  
  • men appear to take up less training (although caring responsibilities can restrict women). 

There are also inequalities in access to the digital world at large – older and disabled people are more likely to have gaps in digital skills. 

As we look ahead, the impact of these trends is unclear. However, it is important that governments and public bodies across the UK look at them closely to ensure that they are not disadvantaging some groups over others.  

The EHRC's Future of Work report can be found here.