Much has been made of the gig economy in terms of assisting people earn supplementary income, as the companies behind said platforms eulogise about the ability to empower others with the flexibility to work as they want. The reality, however, is that the average gig worker faces a tough day-to-day existence where the hours put in often do not equate to any kind of worthwhile profit.
Added to this is the fact that many platforms, most notably Uber, still fail to acknowledge the gig worker as an employee, with the term contractor being thrown around instead for drivers and delivery people struggling to scrounge a living.
Acutely highlighting the harsh realities of the gig economy is the Fairwork project, which this year in collaboration with Oxford University, created a report looking at how workers are treated in South Africa, as well as noting how different platforms tackle issues like working conditions, take-home-pay, security, benefits, and more.
We have written about the Fairwork project in the past, finding post-pandemic that local gig platforms performed far better than their international counterparts on a number of metrics.
The latest iteration of the report, now in its fifth year, zeroed in on five platforms in particular – Uber, Uber Eats, Mr D, SweepSouth, and Home+.
These five represent some of the most popular gig platforms in the country, along with being some of the worst performing in the case of the food delivery options, and looking at historical data, scores have dipped consistently with each passing year.
The researchers behind the report explained that the five platforms were graded on a five-element rubric, also known as the Fairwork Principles – Pay, Conditions, Contract, Management, and Representation. Each of these principles accounts for two points, with gig platforms scoring out of a possible maximum of 10.
Worsening each year
“Our analysis shows that, despite some platforms implementing improvements through the years, more still needs to be done to ensure fair working conditions of platform workers in the country. Most importantly, the issues of workers’ safety and of collective representation rights emerge as areas that need further attention and improvement,” Dr Murali Shanmugavelan from Fairwork noted in a release shared with Hypertext.
On the issue of safety, racism and xenophobia appear to be two aspects highlighted the most among gig workers. As such, the safety concerns they often face day-to-day have little to do with the platform they work for, and more about their ethnicity or country of origin, serving as a rather damning indictment of South African society and the way we treat foreigners and gig workers.
Steps have been taken by some platforms, but not all are effective when it comes to ensuring, particularly reactive solutions compared to preventative ones.
“Workers across different sectors of the platform economy have reported risking their safety simply to earn a sufficient income. Some of the platforms surveyed have taken steps to mitigate these risks, but not all measures have proven effective. Workers reported that preventative measures like vetting customers based on past behaviour are more effective than common reactive measures like an SOS button on the app,” explained report co-author Dr Tobias Kuttler.
Two of the other glaring issues plaguing this sector are adequate representation and take-home pay. As mentioned the lack of acknowledgement by gig platforms to see drivers as employees, along with the increased cost of living and fuel, mean most workers face a losing battle when it comes to trying to make a living locally.
“Platform workers in some sectors have taken it upon themselves to organise. Our report has identified that they are organising informally through the emergence of worker-led WhatsApp and Facebook groups, highlighting the importance of these networks for information sharing and discussion of working conditions,” stressed Dr. Shanmugavelan.
“In the past few years, the economic environment in South Africa has been further challenged by high rates of inflation and fuel prices. As such, workers find it even more difficult to earn a minimum or living wage when their worked-related costs, which severely impacts their take-home pay, are taken into consideration,” said Dr. Kuttler.
Numbers don’t lie
Shifting to the scores and it does not make for great reading, especially when it comes to Uber and Uber Eats. Both failed to register a score on the minimum standards of fair work scale, with it getting progressively worse when comparing to scores of the past few years. Uber and Uber eats for example registered four out of 10 in 2021, which then halved in 2022, and is now zero in this latest report.
While Mr D Food got top honours with a respectable six out of 10, it too has slumped as the years have passed, with the same going for SweepSouth.
As all of the above platforms are independent, whether anything can ultimately be done to change the situation of the gig worker remains to be seen. In the case of Uber, we have seen municipalities and some government entities in other parts of the world step in, with New York City increasing the minimum pay rate for gig drivers and the trade unions in the UK finally being recognised.
Outside of taking the Fair Work Pledge, which is voluntary, steps will need to be taken by local regulators or politicians if the life of a gig worker in South Africa will see any change in the standard, safety, and take-home pay that this industry offers.