A recently released report shows that those working in South Africa’s gig economy – for platforms like Uber, Mr D, and SweepSouth – are falling through the cracks of government and private sector responses to COVID-19. Researchers on the Fairwork project, a collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT), the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford, have highlighted how these workers are unable to access the same government assistance as other workers.
The report shows that most gig workers lost their income entirely during lockdown. Gig workers surveyed reported that their immediate concern was just getting food to eat. While the government has moved quickly to make income available to other workers who have lost their livelihoods, gig workers are classified as independent contractors, meaning they are ineligible for sick pay, UIF, and other forms of social security. Despite this classification, gig workers are also unlikely to meet the requirements to access government support for small businesses.
“Their immediate concern was just getting food to eat.”
The report also looks at the steps platforms have taken to protect their workers from both illness and destitution. Some South African platforms have taken positive action. For example, SweepSouth has set up a fund to which clients can contribute, to provide some financial assistance to domestic workers during the lockdown. M4Jam has rolled out a micro-training initiative that provides payments to its “jobbers” for completion of up to 48 short lessons.
However, Fairwork’s researchers also find that platforms can do much more to help. The report’s recommendations include reduced commissions, loan deferrals, physical protection, healthcare assistance, sick pay, improved communication, and engagement with workers and their representatives.
“While platforms have long marketed themselves as facilitators of supplementary income streams, the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the complete dependency of most of South Africa’s gig workers on their platforms as the basis for their livelihood,” said Professor Jean-Paul van Belle of the Department of Information Systems in UCT’s Faculty of Commerce.
“Government and platforms must take action now to cushion the blow to gig workers from the current crisis. But going forward, we must ensure that all workers in South Africa have the same basic rights. Platforms have the responsibility and the capability to do much more to protect the hard-working people they rely on. Government must close the legal loophole that has allowed gig workers to be without a safety net.”
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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March and implement a national lockdown from 26 March. The intention of these drastic measures is to “flatten the curve” and contain the spread of the coronavirus to enable healthcare workers to more effectively treat those affected. Although South Africa has recently reached a peak of COVID-19 infections, the country is expecting a surge in positive cases in August.
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