South Africa’s COVID-19 crisis brings gig economy workers into sharper focus

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This week many South Africans are choosing to work remotely and practice social distancing in the wake of the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and its declaration as a national disaster by president Cyril Ramaphosa.

This has resulted in many people panic buying at retailers for essentials, but will also likely lead to an increase of gig economy services such as Uber, SweepSouth and OrderIn, as South Africans try not to risk travelling outside of their homes in the coming weeks.

But what about those people dependent on the gig economy as their primary source of income, how will they cope as a result of COVID-19?

Fair is fair?

This is what the Fairwork Project recently looked into, publishing a report that assessed 11 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 10.

The Fairwork Project conducted said research thanks to a collaboration with University of Oxford, University of Manchester, University of the Western Cape (UWC) and University of Cape Town (UCT).

“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,” explains Professor Jean-Paul van Belle from 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,” he added.

The researchers note that gig workers such as rideshare 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, according to the Fairwork Project.  

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, the researchers stress.

What’s being done?

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, they add.

As far as what local platforms are doing, the Fairwork Project says Uber South Africa has indicated that it will follow the international company policy of compensating workers required to self-isolate for 14 days.

That said, precise details of exactly who will be covered, and to what extent, is not known at this stage.

We too reached out to Uber Eats last week to find out if there has been an increase in the use of the service as a result of COVID-19, as well as how delivery drivers are being assisted.

At the time the firm had no statistics as to usage, but they did offer up this statement.

“We are always working to help keep everyone who uses Uber safe. We have a dedicated global team, guided by the advice of a consulting public health expert, working to respond in every market where we operate around the world. We remain in close contact with local public health authorities and will continue to follow their guidance to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” a spokesperson told us.

How that position has changed since the national disaster status was announced, remains to be seen.

Looking at the numbers

In terms of how gig economy platforms ranked in the Fairwork Project’s latest report, GetTOD, No Sweat and SweepSouth, all tied for first place among the 11 companies that were looked at.

Of potential concern was Uber and Uber Eats, each receiving a ranking of 4 and 3 respectively. Whether that ranking would change once greater clarity is created with regard to assistance for workers, remains to be seen.

One of the other interesting findings from the Fairwork Project report is the notion of quantity versus quality, when it comes to addressing the job crisis in SA and the role the gig economy plays in this.

“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,” the research team points out.

“Decent work and job creation are not mutually exclusive. 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,” adds Dr Kelle Howson, Oxford Internet Institute researcher.

The next steps

Following the release of its findings, now Fairwork is looking to engage with local gig economy platforms to ensure that their workers, employees and users are all working towards a better model for all involved.

“This is the second annual round of Fairwork Project ratings for South African platforms, and the impact is beginning to build. Fairwork engages directly with platform managers to suggest avenues for improvement, and one of their accomplishments includes securing guarantees from two platforms – NoSweat and GetTOD – that all jobs they post will pay above the living wage, calculated at R6,800 per month,” researchers highlighted.

“Furthermore, after working with the Fairwork Project, GetTOD has publicly announced its willingness to engage and negotiate with a union or workers’ association, including this in its terms and conditions,” they added.

Fairwork also seeks to disseminate enough information to consumers, so they can be intentional about the platforms they choose to interact with, thus contributing to pressure on platforms to improve their working conditions and their scores.

To find out more about the Fairwork Project and its latest report, head here.

[Image – Photo by Jacques Nel on Unsplash]

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.