Gig economy offers risks and rewards for transgender workers

Self-employment or casual jobs may reduce chances of discrimination

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When Owen Francis transitioned in 2011, he did so after his postgraduate studies. This was so he could have a “clean break” and avoid explaining the changes in his appearance and requesting breaks from work. “I followed the pattern of others transitioning — I didn’t want to inconvenience HR or take time out,” he says.

To keep the wolf from the door he took a job in a burger bar, for which he was overqualified. Today, however, as an ambassador for trans*formation, a networking and advocacy group for trans professionals, he sees many opting for self-employment or casual work in the gig economy because they believe there is less chance of discrimination and they do not have to commit to one workplace. Tech platforms like ride-hailing app Uber could provide a non-discriminatory workplace as jobs are triggered by an algorithm, not a human. Yet they are vulnerable to customer ratings.

As the International Labour Organisation, a UN agency, points out, “Many LGBT [people] stay away from formal employment altogether, taking up freelance or informal work, fearing a discriminatory workforce.”

Jordan Marshall, policy development manager at the UK-based Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, sees this as a positive step. “If you freelance, you can pick and choose your clients. In many sectors you don’t need to be based on the client’s premises, so your exposure to discriminatory colleagues can be minimal.” However, he makes the point that creating a network as a freelancer may help.

For Jennifer Glauche, a trans woman in Germany, it has been the support of a local co-working group that has bolstered her confidence to seek work. “My skills and the quality of my work is more important than small details about my person such as gender,” she says.

Yet for some of those who are casual workers, in warehouses, for example, their status can make them feel vulnerable. While corporate human resources departments have made strides in LGBT policies (if not always practices) those who are not employees may feel excluded.

Huma Munshi, senior policy officer for equality at the Trades Union Congress, says people in precarious work arrangements are often too frightened about losing their jobs to speak out about harassment. “LGBT disclosure rates are small and the data are very sketchy. But it’s likely that LGBT workers have higher rates of discrimination and are vulnerable in the casual workforce.” This particularly applies to younger workers, who are more likely to be casually employed.

Nigel Mackay, employment solicitor at Leigh Day, says many casual workers are in fact covered by equality laws but they assume they are not given the same rights as employees. Businesses play on this, he says: “It’s a way companies operate to prevent people from asserting their rights.” Not only are people not aware of their rights, they also feel vulnerable, assuming they will not get any work if they kick up a fuss.

Precarious contracts might make people less likely to out themselves in the workplace and concealing their true identity can have an impact on their mental health and productivity. A survey by US advocacy organisation the Human Rights Campaign found that 30 per cent of LGBT workers (all types, not just casual) were unhappy or depressed at work.

Todd Sears, founder of Out Leadership, a consultancy that works to empower LGBT executives, says the effort of “covering” your sexuality is extremely stressful. He poses the challenge to straight people: “How many pictures are on your desk? How often do you talk about your wife?”

The increasingly casualised workforce, says Ruth Hunt, chief executive of Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights campaign group, is a cause for concern. “These are massively changing tectonic plates and LGBT equality isn’t sufficiently entrenched in society for it to withstand that kind of cultural shifting. That is our worry.”

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