Calls for fair pay and fair conditions in the gig economy

20 March 2020 | Story Kim Cloete. Photo Piqsels. Read time 8 min.
The release of a set of scores has come at a time that has also exposed the risks faced by South African gig workers with the onset of the coronavirus, said a report by the Fairwork Project.
The release of a set of scores has come at a time that has also exposed the risks faced by South African gig workers with the onset of the coronavirus, said a report by the Fairwork Project.

The Fairwork Project has highlighted the precarious nature of work in the gig economy in South Africa, shown by its ratings for digital platforms such as Uber and OrderIn. The release of a set of scores has come at a time that has also exposed the risks faced by South African gig workers with the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Fairwork is a collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of the Western Cape, the University of Oxford and the University of Manchester. The project has 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.

The Centre for Information Technology and National Development in Africa (CITANDA) at UCT is spearheading the Fairwork ratings in South Africa, along with its partners who are also implementing this ratings scheme in India, Germany and the United Kingdom. Fairwork also has a legal team from the University of the Western Cape and University of Oxford, which looks at potential government-level policy actions and regulatory interventions to better protect gig workers.

“Work in the gig economy is often unsafe and insecure. Workers lack protection afforded to regular employees and are vulnerable to unfair practices like arbitrary termination, often based on inequitable regimes of customer ratings,” said Professor Jean-Paul van Belle of the Department of Information Systems in UCT’s Faculty of Commerce. “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.”

Drivers at risk from COVID-19

Fairwork said its research is even more relevant with the spread of COVID-19, as gig workers such as rideshare drivers and delivery drivers are likely to play an essential role in the response over the coming weeks and months. Consequently, they are more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19 according to a press release from the Fairwork Project. The lack of sick pay for many workers also means they will face severe financial insecurity if they need to self-isolate. Some workers may decide to keep working to earn a living despite showing symptoms or being exposed to COVID-19. This has the potential to spread the virus.

“Without [an unemployment insurance fund] or sick pay, gig workers have no safety net,” said the Fairwork Project.

Uber South Africa has indicated that it will follow the international company policy of compensating workers required to self-isolate for 14 days, although details of who exactly will be covered, as well as to what extent, still needs to be released, said researchers at Fairwork.

Top performers

Cape Town-based platform getTOD, which connects clients with tradespeople such as plumbers, electricians and builders, together with temporary household assistance company SweepSouth and job placement company NoSweat top the list of best performers with a score of eight out of 10. This is outlined in the report: Fairwork South Africa Ratings 2020: Labour Standards in the Gig Economy.

Ride-hailing platform Bolt, formerly Taxify, is the lowest scoring, at one out of 10, while Uber Eats and OrderIn score low, with three out of 10. Uber scores four out of 10 in the ratings.

The report shows that Uber Eats pays its workers above the minimum wage and has an emergency button to mitigate risks, while Bolt pays the minimum wage. However, they have either not achieved in any of the other areas, such as contracts and working conditions, or there was insufficient data.

Supporting the rights of workers

Fairwork interacts with workers and workers’ organisations to develop and continually refine their principles, and aims to support workers in collectively asserting their rights. It also seeks to inform consumers with enough information so that they are intentional about the platforms they choose to interact with. They hope this will contribute to put pressure on platforms to improve their working conditions and their scores.

Fairwork also engages with policymakers and government to advocate for extending appropriate legal protections to all platform workers, irrespective of their legal classification.

“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 workers’ rights that are compatible with sustainable business models,” said Dr Kelle Howson, Oxford Internet Institute researcher.

Positive moves

After meeting with Fairwork, getTOD agreed to adopt a living wage policy, which ensures tradespeople do not earn below the living wage of R6 800 per month when working through the platform. It also has a clearly defined grievance and disciplinary procedure and guarantees payment to workers.

NoSweat has created detailed health and safety guidelines that clients must sign up to. It pays workers above minimum wage after costs and has committed publicly to recognise and negotiate with a collective body of workers should one be formed.

SweepSouth scored well in that workers are paid above minimum wage after costs, and they have introduced initiatives to actively improve conditions for workers, including providing death and disability insurance.

Fairwork said there are now more than 30 million digital platform workers that live all over the world doing work that is outsourced via platforms or apps. This kind of work offers essential income and opportunities. However, lacking coverage from employment law or collective agreements, many platform workers face low pay, precarity and poor and dangerous working conditions.

Growing number of people involved in ‘cloudwork’

While Fairwork said there are no reliable figures on the scale of the South African gig economy, it had previously estimated that there are around 30 000 workers in location-based platform work like taxi driving, delivery and cleaning in South Africa, and up to 100 000 actively undertaking online work, or ‘cloudwork’. The number is growing by well above 10% a year. The work people get on these platforms is coveted for many, particularly with South Africa’s high unemployment rate. Fairwork says 30% of its interviewees were unemployed before getting work on the platform – but it has to be fair.

The report also includes personal accounts from gig workers in South Africa who have shared their challenges. They include stories from drivers who say they are penalised by online platforms if orders are wrong or deliveries are delayed. Accidents and injuries are a real risk, as is crime, and there is no assistance or injury cover in many cases.

“Our scores show that the gig economy, as we know it today, already takes many forms, with some platforms displaying greater concern for workers’ needs than others. This means that we do not need to accept low pay, poor conditions, inequity and a lack of agency and voice as the norm. We hope that our work – by highlighting the contours of today’s gig economy – paints a picture of what it could become,” the report said.

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