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Gig workers are at the front line of pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic will affect 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 exposure to the virus through the front-line nature of their work.

The Fairwork Project this week released a set of scores that evaluate gig economy platforms such as Uber, SweepSouth and OrderIn against a set of fair work standards. In the current crisis, their findings about the situation of gig workers in South Africa are more relevant than ever.

There is evidence that platform workers worldwide have unfair work conditions and lack benefits and protections afforded to employees. To understand the state of gig work in South Africa, Fairwork, a collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Cape Town (UCT), the Western Cape and Manchester, assessed 11 of the 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 10. GetTOD, SweepSouth and NoSweat are tied at the top of this year’s league table with eight out of 10 points.

“Work in the gig economy is often unsafe and insecure,” said Jean-Paul van Belle of the department of information systems at UCT. “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.”

Fairwork’s research is even more relevant with the spread of Covid-19. Gig workers such as rideshare and delivery drivers are likely to play an essential role in the coming weeks and months. They are more vulnerable to exposure to Covid-19. The lack of sick pay means that if they need to self-isolate, they face severe financial insecurity. This may lead many to continue to work, which could also spread the virus.

This emphasises the need for platforms and government to ensure that gig workers and those who can’t afford to stay at home are protected. Uber South Africa has indicated it will follow the international company policy of compensating workers required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Most platforms in South Africa paid the minimum wage. But, when workers’ expenses (such as transport costs) were taken into account, evidence could only be found that six out of the 11 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. But the employment problem is not simply the quantity of jobs but also the quality of jobs being created.

This is why, by bringing workers and other stakeholders to the table, Fairwork is developing an enforceable code of basic worker rights that are compatible with sustainable business models.

Fairwork works directly with platform managers to suggest avenues for improvement. One accomplishment was securing guarantees from NoSweat and GetTOD that all jobs will pay above the living wage,

calculated at R6800 a month. GetTOD has announced its willingness to work with a union or workers’ association.

Fairwork gives consumers information so they can choose who to use, thus putting pressure on platforms to improve working conditions. Fairwork also speaks to government about extending legal protections to all platform workers.

Ultimately, the project aims to support workers in collectively asserting their rights.

Dr Kelle Howson is a postdoctoral researcher on the Fairwork project

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