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Fairwork vis-à-vis ILO Decent Work Standards

Fairwork logoHow does the Fairwork framework of five decent work standards in the gig economy – fair pay, conditions, management, contracts, representation – compare to more conventional frameworks?

As explained in a recently-published paper, Fairwork is a simplified, revised and measurable version of the 11 elements of the International Labour Organization’s decent work agenda.

Comparing the two, as shown in the table above, Fairwork is not as comprehensive.  Some ILO elements not covered were seen as unrelated to Fairwork’s purpose.  For example, the contextual elements lie outside the control of platforms, and no evidence was found of child or forced labour.  Quantum of employment measures are not directly relevant to Fairwork’s aims though it would be informative to know if platforms are creating new work as opposed to just substituting for existing work.

While outside the scope of Fairwork’s principles, work security and flexibility were investigated via open questions in worker interviews.  Workers did raise the issues of flexibility and autonomy, as positive attributes of their gig economy work.  These supposed benefits are arguably more perceptual than real.  Hours of work are often determined by client demand and shaped by incentive payments offered by the platform to work at certain times or for certain shift lengths.  Work is recorded and managed via the app and platform to a significant extent.

In sum, the Fairwork framework covers the decent work-related issues identified in the research literature on platforms, and covers the majority of decent work elements within the ILO framework.  Its ratings could nonetheless be contextualised in a number of ways by adding in broader findings about national socio-economic context, about any creation of work and autonomy by the gig economy, about dimensions of inequality within and between gig sectors, and about longer-term job (in)security and precarity.

You can find more detail about this and other foundations for the Fairwork project in the open-access paper, “Systematic Evaluation of Gig Work Against Decent Work Standards: The Development and Application of the Fairwork Framework”; published in the journal, The Information Society.

How Platforms Change Markets: The Lens of “Institutional Voids”

Void

Do digital platforms change markets for better or worse?

To help understand this, we used the lens of institutional voids in the World Development paper, “Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries”.  This argues that markets don’t work properly because they have institutional shortcomings or voids: inadequate provision of information, limited matching of buyers and sellers, poor management of transactions, ineffective market regulation, etc.

A promise of digital platforms is that they will fill these voids and change markets for the good.  We investigated this using evidence from Colombia and from the South Africa Fairwork project on taxi markets before and after the advent of three e-hailing platforms: Bolt, EasyTaxi and Uber.

The “before” picture was far from perfect.  Institutional voids led to markets with problems including high costs, crime, insecurity, opportunism, informality and discrimination.  As predicted, the gig economy platforms filled some of the institutional voids that led to this profile.  This reduced costs and risks for both drivers and passengers, improved vehicle and service quality, and enabled employment for those excluded from the traditional market.

Yet, in contrast to past research on business and institutional voids in the global South, we found that void-filling is not all that platforms companies do.  They also maintain some voids, such as lack of information and lack of formal employment status for drivers.  They expand some voids, such as lack of information available to government.  And they create some voids by circumventing the regulatory roles performed by government agencies and driver collective bodies.

The core impact of these additional strategies is to increase the relative power of the platform company vis-à-vis other market stakeholders and to make the market much more unequal.  Going far beyond the typical role of business, platform companies have internalised the institutions for the entire gamut of market functions; collapsing an entire organisational field into themselves.  The previously-distributed and -dissipated institutional power that the platform companies have concentrated into themselves is thus unprecedented, particularly given the duopolistic nature of the markets that are often created.

Filling institutional voids is not wholly beneficial – our research also identified problems caused by the digitalisations and formalisations that platforms bring.  But our key recommendation is a need to identify and address the voids that these companies retain or make.  Actions needed include information provision to address customer–driver asymmetries; revitalised state control over market supply–demand imbalance; new legislation to address lack of employment rights for workers; and more effective worker collectivisation.

Our research represents a novel insight into the relation between platforms, institutions and markets, and we look forward to further work applying these ideas to other sectors and contexts.

Protecting Gig Workers During Covid-19: What Platforms Must Do

27 April 2020 1 comment

The estimated 50 million gig workers worldwide have been particularly hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.  How are their platforms responding, and what more should platforms do?

Reports indicate half of gig workers have lost their jobs. Those still working perform functions essential to society, yet they have lost two-thirds of their income on average.  Many face the impossible choice between destitution and infection, as summed up by one worker: “either I’m starving or I’m dying of coronavirus”.

To investigate this further, the Fairwork project research team undertook a survey of platform response policies; as of April 2020, covering 120 platforms in 23 countries across Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Africa.  The report from this analysis – “The Gig Economy and Covid-19: Fairwork Report on Platform Policies” – categorises platform responses according to the five ‘Fairwork Principles’ that our ongoing action research uses to rate platforms against decent work standards:

  • Fair Pay: by far the most important issue for workers; yet only five platforms had direct policies to increase pay for those in work; more common were actions to maintain levels of business, like client fee waivers or expanded scope of services.
  • Fair Conditions 1 (Prevention): cut-and-paste hygiene guidance and contactless delivery (though not contactless collection) were the most widespread policies. Just over half of the platforms we checked said they were providing personal protection equipment (disinfectant or, less often, masks); workers report they often did not receive this.
  • Fair Conditions 2 (Illness): around half of the platforms said they were providing some payment for workers who were ill, but workers reported it could be hard to access and payments often fell well below national minimum wage equivalents.
  • Fair Contracts: the only response here, by a few platforms, has been to try to create a firewall around their current actions; still asserting an arm’s-length relation to workers as “independent contractors”.
  • Fair Management: a few companies are guaranteeing no loss of bonus or incentive levels despite temporary deactivation of workers, or are issuing statements against any attempt by clients to discriminate against certain worker groups.
  • Fair Representation: we found no evidence yet of any platform engagement with worker associations, despite a number of such groups setting out demands and even organising strikes.

Overall, we find widespread responses by platforms to the current pandemic with occasional examples of comprehensive and enlightened policies.  But there are a number of issues in most platforms’ responses to date:

  • There is a gap between rhetoric and reality: platforms have been far better at publicising responses than at actually delivering them to workers.
  • There is a skew in stakeholder focus: platform responses have served shareholders, investors and customers before workers, even though it is workers who form the foundation of all value for the platform.
  • There is a timidity: while governments have torn up ideologies and rulebooks, platforms have generally been only incremental in their response and have too often used the language of the get-out clause rather than that of the guarantee.

Platforms have loaded risks and responsibilities onto others: too many platforms interpret “wash your hands” less in terms of the virus and more in terms of their responsibilities to their workers; throwing that responsibility onto governments for financial support and onto individual workers for their own protection from coronavirus.

Finally, there is a gap between needs and policies: between what workers require in order to stay safe – free from poverty and free from infection – and what platforms are currently providing.  Our report therefore ends with a summary of platform policy recommendations, reproduced here:

Fairwork Principle Recommended Platform Action
1. Fair Pay ·      Rapid access to a minimum income (equivalent to at least the local living wage) for those unable to work due to fall-off in demand, legislative restrictions, or to pre-existing health vulnerabilities

·      Reduction in costs (e.g. platform commission/fees) or increase in per-gig payments for those still working but with reduced earnings

·      Additional hazard pay for those facing additional risks while working during the pandemic

·      Waiver (not deferral) of work-related costs such as loan repayments

·      Facilitated access to interest-free emergency loans

·      Plan for post-lockdown income recovery measures which may include higher per-gig payments or lower commission fees

·      Inclusion in income compensation and financial deferral schemes of all those who have worked for the platform during the past three months

2a. Fair Conditions (Prevention) ·      Regular, adequate, free provision of personal protection equipment: disinfectants, gloves and masks

·      Installation of physical barriers between driver and passengers in all ride-hailing cars

·      Fully contact-free supply chains (both collection and delivery) for delivery workers

·      Daily sanitisation of vehicles and upstream locations: warehouses, hubs, etc.

·      Free Covid-19 check-ups for workers and their families

2b. Fair Conditions (Illness) ·      Accessible sick pay from platforms that applies universally to all those unable to work while ill or quarantined or while providing essential care for sick family members, and which relates to pre-pandemic average earnings

·      Sick pay policies that specify precisely and openly how much workers will be paid, with simple application processes which do not impose onerous health documentation requirements that sick workers cannot meet

·      Extended sick pay for those workers hospitalised by Covid-19 infection

·      Provision of general medical insurance cover

·      Provision of life insurance cover or other death-in-service benefits

3. Fair Contracts ·      No temporary or permanent alteration of contracts during the period of the pandemic to the detriment of workers
4. Fair Management ·      Ensure all Covid-19-related communications are in a form that can be readily accessed and understood by all workers

·      Set up an accessible communications channel for workers for all issues relating to Covid-19; adequately staffed for rapid resolution of issues

·      Transparent reporting of policies, actions and funds initiated by platforms during the pandemic

·      Adhere to data privacy standards in collecting and sharing data about workers

·      No loss of incentives, bonus levels or future availability of jobs for those temporarily deactivated as a result of Covid-19

·      Public statements to customers and others that discrimination against certain worker groups during the pandemic will not be tolerated

5. Fair Representation ·      Formal receipt of, engagement with, and action on Covid-19-related demands from worker representatives

Our intention is to update our report as more platforms adopt such policies.  We would therefore welcome details of updates to existing platform policies, and addition of new platforms and countries.  These can be shared with us via: https://fair.work/contact/

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