Choose platforms that support their gig economy workers survive during a pandemic

As South Africa returns to level 4 lockdown, many of us will turn to food delivery services to break the monotony of long evenings at home. It is likely that this will involve us using a food delivery gig platform, such as MrD or UberEats, to get our deliveries to our doors.

While this sector of the gig economy has had a boost during the pandemic, many other areas of this important economic sector have suffered during the last year. Recognising the impact that Covid-19 has had on the South African gig economy makes it important to pause and consider how these workers have been supported during this difficult time.

The national lockdowns have rapidly changed both work and personal practices, causing rapid changes in many previously stable sectors of the economy. Lockdown restrictions have seen contractions in key areas of the gig economy, such as e-hailing cars, domestic services, plumbers, handymen and electricians. 

For example, the level 5 and 4 restrictions on movement in 2020 and 2021 significantly affected the e-hailing sector as South Africans ceased to make daily trips for both work or leisure. Moreover, the extended alcohol bans and curfews that persisted into the lower lockdown stages meant fewer evening customers and a longer impact on earning potential of e-hailing drivers.

The lockdowns have also 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. Moreover, social distancing and Covid-19 compliance caused disruptions to many workers when they entered private homes as handymen or domestic workers. Over and above these challenges, gig workers faced daily health challenges as they tried to minimise contact with their customers to protect not only their own health, but that of their families.

Gig workers are not protected

While many of these challenges seem similar to those experienced by individuals in formal employment, there is one key difference that is important to discuss. Gig workers are designated as independent contractors by the platforms they work on. This means that they are not eligible for common worker protection schemes such as unemployment or health insurance. The rapid contraction of many areas of the gig economy during the Covid-19 pandemic thus left thousands of South Africans without income or any access to emergency relief. The vulnerability of gig workers during this time provided a stark example of the precarity of gig work in South Africa.

These challenges are reflected in the 2021 Fairwork Foundation report on gig work in South Africa. This report, released on 8 July, assesses the working conditions on 12 prominent gig platforms in the country and ranks the platforms according to five principles – pay, working conditions, contracts, management, and representation. 

Key to the ranking this year was how platforms offset lockdown disruptions of earnings, addressed personal safety and actively worked to improve working conditions during this difficult time.

The vast majority of platforms assessed in the ranking issued workers with Covid-19 information and some form of personal protective equipment (PPE). Nonetheless, providing PPE did not necessarily address diminished earnings or the long periods of inactivity that many gig workers had to deal with.

Novel and exciting responses

In response to these challenges, a small number of platforms responded to the vulnerability of their workforces in novel and exciting ways. In particular, a few platforms actively dedicated financial resources to their workers. Money4Jam (M4Jam) is a mobile microtask platform whose workforce is largely recruited from lower-income communities. The M4Jam “Jobbers”, as they call their workers, earn small amounts of money reviewing local businesses, completing surveys and conducting other microtasks. Unsurprisingly, during the lockdowns many of these job opportunities were not available. In recognition of the economic hardship caused by the loss of earnings, M4Jam partnered with the mobile telephone company CellC to provide financial relief to Jobbers during lockdown.

Similarly, SweepSouth, a platform for domestic work, established a “SweepStars COVID fund” to raise money for its workers, many of whom were unable to work during the lockdown of 2020 and 2021. This fund differed from M4Jam’s Covid-19 response in that it also enabled regular customers to donate money directly to the fund or to specific workers. 

On the other hand, Uber made food vouchers available to full-time drivers to offset some of the pressure from loss of earnings.

In addition to financial support, some platforms, including Uber and M4Jam, provided training opportunities to their workers. These took the form of in-app training modules on personal development, business and money management. In particular, Uber partnered with the African Management Institute training during lockdown to provide drivers access to a personal development programme.

Even as the employment of gig workers continues to be debated around the world, the Covid-19 responses of these platforms demonstrate how social responsibility can be actioned. 

We all need to ask: how can gig workers be better supported – by the platforms they work on, and by the government? Should users purposely select platforms that are going the extra mile to take care of their workers? What else can be done?

The willingness of certain platforms to enact social responsibility offers the potential to establish a dialogue on these issues. Their willingness to address worker vulnerabilities highlights the flexibility of the gig economy and the opportunities to design future platforms that take issues such as justice, responsibility and diversity seriously. The 2021 Fairwork report foregrounds these socially responsible platforms as a guide for users so they can support platforms that take the plight of their workers seriously.

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Dr Louise Bezuidenhout
Dr Louise Bezuidenhout is the Fairwork research officer at the Centre for Information Technology and National Development in Africa (Citanda) at the University of Cape Town. She is a sociologist who works on digital justice in low and middle-income countries. The Fairwork Foundation is an action research project led by the University of Oxford with partners in countries around the world. For more information on the project please visit the website www.fair.work

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