Low pay, unfair conditions and no safety net for Covid-hit gig workers

South Africa’s gig workers have faced severe financial insecurity, with the Covid-19 pandemic threatening their already precarious jobs, according to research by the Fairwork Project, which on Thursday released a set of scores evaluating digital labour platforms.

The 12 platforms — including Uber, SweepSouth, and Mr D Food — were scored on fair work standards, including decent pay and working conditions, fair contracts, and management and worker representation. 

GetTOD, an app that connects clients to electricians, plumbers and landscapers, scored the highest. Secret Agent, a mystery shopper app, scored the lowest. E-hailing platforms inDriver and Bolt rounded out the bottom of the list, each receiving a score of one.

The Fairwork report found that only half of the platforms could give evidence that workers were paid at or above the minimum wage, which in 2021 is R21.69 an hour. Only three of the 12 platforms paid the living wage of R41 an hour. Researchers also found that workers often have to work very long hours to cover their expenses.

The report noted that, although the digital platforms had generally fair contracts, only four of them were able to show that the employment status of their workers was clearly defined and that they did not unreasonably exclude liability on the part of the platform.

There are an estimated 30 000 workers in location-based platform jobs, like taxi driving, delivery and cleaning, and up to 100 000 actively undertaking online work. Although many of the latter are not full-time, the Fairwork report notes this still suggests that at least 1% of the workforce is involved in the gig economy.

“The majority of South African gig workers continue to be classified as ‘independent contractors’ rather than ‘employees’. Thus, where these workers fit into the spectrum between high-quality formal jobs and low-quality informal jobs remains problematic,” the report says.

“Across contexts, our research has shown that gig work skews to the latter end of the spectrum: gig workers face low pay … dangerous work conditions, opaque algorithmic management structures, and an inability to organise and bargain collectively.”

Covid-19 posed serious challenges to this already precarious sector of South Africa’s workforce, the report notes. “These lockdowns have had a significant impact on gig workers offering in-person services. As public transport options were limited during some levels of lockdown, workers faced long and complicated commutes to jobs across the cities,” it says.

“Moreover, social distancing and Covid compliance could cause disruptions to the jobs when they entered private homes as handymen or domestic workers.”

Gig workers not classed as formal employees were also left without a safety net during the pandemic, intensifying financial insecurity. Workers were unable to access the Unemployment Insurance Fund when they could not work because of lockdown conditions. If they fell ill, they did not get sick pay.

Speaking at the release of the report on Thursday, Louise Bezuidenhout from the Centre for Information Technology and National Development in Africa at the University of Cape Town, said the ratings provided evidence that platform workers “continue to face unfair working conditions and lack the benefits and protections afforded to employees”.

“The sustained impact of the Covid-19 pandemic presents additional challenges to the South Adrican economy economy,” she added.

“And unfortunately the impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately felt by those who work outside of formal employment. This includes the rising number of workers who rely on digital labour platforms for income.”

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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