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How gig economy platforms score in the treatment of South African workers

Over the past year and a half, many South Africans have relied on online services to cope with the pandemic and lockdown. As a result, those with the capacity to do so turned to gig economy platforms to deal with the risk of stepping outside of the confines of our homes.

This resulted in many gig economy platforms thriving during the past 18 months, but despite these solutions being digital in nature, they still rely on a human workforce to get things done.

As such, what toll has the past 18 months had on gig economy workers and are some platforms better at looking out for their workforce than others?

These are but two of the crucial questions that the Fairwork Project‘s SA 2021 Ratings Report (now in its third year) has looked at, with a particular focusing on scoring 12 of the most popular digital labour platforms in South Africa, including Uber, Bolt, SweepSouth and Mr D.

The report is carried out by teams at the universities of Oxford and Manchester in the UK, as well as Cape Town and the Western Cape locally.

Tougher by the day

Perhaps unsurprisingly for some, the situation that gig economy workers face daily is a difficult one, raising the question on whether more needs to be done by the platforms benefitting from the sweat and toil of those out on the streets.

“Digital labour platforms hold the potential to reduce South Africa’s sky-high unemployment and inequality, with an estimated 30 000 workers engaged in location-based platform work like taxi driving, delivery and cleaning. However, there is growing evidence that platform workers worldwide face unfair work conditions, and lack the benefits and protections afforded to employees,” outlines the report.

“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. It is important to understand and highlight unfair labour practices in the gig economy, and to assist workers, consumers and regulators as they hold platforms to account,” notes Professor Jean-Paul van Belle of Department of Information Systems at the University of Cape Town.

Looking at the report’s scoring (out of 10), locally owned and led gig economy platforms are rated better than their international counterparts.

The Fairwork Project says GetTOD leads the 2021 table with nine points, while M4Jam, SweepSouth and NoSweat are tied in second place with eight out of 10 points. In fact the top six platforms in the 2021 global rankings were South African owned and led.

The likes of Uber and Uber Eats, however, both earned four points, with the former having the same rating as last year and the latter moving up from three points in 2020.

The table of 12 platforms and scores out of 10 for 2021 is as follows:

During a media briefing for the report earlier today, the Fairwork Project researchers explained how the scoring process works.

To that end there are five key areas – Fair Pay, Fair Conditions, Fair Contracts, Fair Management and Fair Representation. Each area can assign two points, with one given for meeting basic requirements and an additional point given for going above the norm. These scores are also peer reviewed, before a final rating is assigned.

Not what it seems

Along with scoring, the report also looked at the challenges now being faced by workers as a result of the pandemic.

To that end, while the likes of Uber Eats and other delivery-based platforms have found success, a ridehailing services have fared far worse.

“All workers are more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19 due to their inability to work from home. Furthermore, the lack of sick pay for many workers means that if they need to self-isolate, they face severe financial insecurity. Without UIF or sick pay, gig workers have no safety net,” the report stresses.

“The research also found that almost all platforms operating in South Africa pay at least the minimum wage. However, when workers’ expenses (such as petrol, transport costs and waiting times) were taken into account, evidence could only be found that six out of the eleven platforms paid workers above the minimum wage. Only three of the platforms included in the ranking demonstrated evidence of workers earning above the current living wage of R41/hour,” it adds.

The report takes a look at the employment crises in SA too, with it dispelling some of the rhetoric around how gig economy platforms solve all out unemployment problems.

“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,” it explains.

“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.

While this report may seem damning, there are indeed some shining lights in the local gig economy space. That said, it is crucial that greater consideration is giving to the risky conditions and lack of benefits that workers currently have to grapple with.

To download and read the Fairwork SA 2021 Ratings Report (PDF) for yourself, head here.

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