COVID-19 brings into sharp relief the risks faced by gig workers


Dr Kelle Howson | Postdoctoral Researcher | The Fairwork Project | mail me

South Africa’s current national state of disaster, and the uncertainty that has gripped the world, will especially impact the most vulnerable groups in our society. That includes those in casual or insecure employment who face two possibilities in the reality of social distancing: loss of income, or ongoing exposure to the virus through the front-line nature of their work.

We are releasing a set of scores which evaluate gig economy platforms such as Uber, SweepSouth, and OrderIn against a set of fair work standards. In the current circumstances, our findings about the situation of gig workers in South Africa are more relevant than ever.

The state of gig work

In South Africa, digital labour platforms hold the potential to reduce our sky high unemployment and inequality.

However, there is growing evidence that platform workers worldwide face unfair work conditions, and lack the benefits and protections afforded to employees.

To understand the state of gig work in South Africa, our project, a collaboration between the Universities of Oxford, Cape Town, the Western Cape and Manchester, assessed eleven of the country’s largest digital labour platforms against five principles of fairness – fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation – giving each a fairness rating out of ten.

GetTOD, SweepSouth, and NoSweat are tied at the top of this year’s league table with eight out of ten points.

Work in the gig economy is often unsafe and insecure. Workers lack protections afforded to regular employees and are vulnerable to unfair practices like arbitrary termination, often based on inequitable regimes of customer ratings. Because of these inequities, the Fairwork team has taken action to highlight unfair labour practices in the gig economy, and to assist workers, consumers and regulators as they hold platforms to account.

– Professor Jean-Paul van Belle, Department of Information Systems, University of Cape Town.

More vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure

Our research is even more relevant with the spread of COVID-19. Gig workers such as ride-share drivers and delivery drivers are likely to play an essential role in the response over the coming weeks and months. That means that those workers are more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19.

Furthermore, the lack of sick pay for many workers means that if they need to self-isolate, they face severe financial insecurity. This may lead many to continue to work despite being exposed to COVID-19 or showing symptoms which could also, unfortunately, spread the virus. Without UIF or sick pay, gig workers have no safety net.

This emphasises the need for platforms and government to ensure that gig workers and those who are currently financially unable to stay at home are protected.

Uber South Africa has indicated that it will follow the international company policy of compensating workers required to self-isolate for 14 days. However, we await details of exactly who will be covered, and to what extent.

With regard to our other findings; almost all platforms operating in South Africa were found to pay at least the minimum wage. However, when workers’ expenses (such as petrol and transport costs) were taken into account, evidence could only be found that six out of the eleven platforms paid workers above the minimum wage.

Growing numbers of South Africans find work in the gig economy, and digital platforms are frequently heralded as a solution to mass unemployment.

However, the employment challenge facing South Africa is not simply the quantity of jobs but also the quality of jobs being created.

Decent work and job creation are not mutually exclusive. This is why, by bringing workers and other stakeholders to the table, we are developing an enforceable code of basic worker rights that are compatible with sustainable business models.



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