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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/

Second round of Fairwork’s yearly platform ratings in South Africa launched!

The Fairwork South Africa 2020 report highlights the precarious nature of work in the South African gig economy. This research is particularly timely in light of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which has brought the risks faced by front-line gig workers into sharp relief.

The uncertainty that has gripped the world in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic will especially impact the most vulnerable groups in our society. That includes those in casual or insecure employment, who face two possibilities: a (likely untenable) loss in income if they choose or are required to self-isolate, or ongoing exposure to the virus through the front-line nature of their work. Today the Fairwork Project is releasing a set of scores which evaluate gig economy platforms that operate in South Africa, such as Uber, SweepSouth, and OrderIn against a set of fair work standards. In the current circumstances, our findings about the situation of gig workers in South Africa are more relevant than ever.

The gig economy has flourished in South Africa, and with it, we are seeing a radical shift in how work is organised. Digital labour platforms hold the potential to reduce our sky high unemployment and inequality. However, there is growing evidence that platform workers worldwide face unfair work conditions, and lack the benefits and protections afforded to employees. To understand the state of gig work in South Africa, Fairwork, a collaboration between the Universities of Oxford, Cape Town, the Western Cape and Manchester, assessed eleven of the country’s largest digital labour platforms against five principles of fairness – fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation – and gave them each a fairness rating out of ten.

GetTOD, SweepSouth, and NoSweat are tied at the top of this year’s league table with eight out of ten points. The fairness scores aim to help South Africans understand which digital platforms are committed to providing decent work.

Fairwork’s research on shortcomings in worker protections in the gig economy is even more relevant and urgent in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gig workers such as rideshare drivers and delivery couriers will play an essential role over the coming weeks and months – enabling access to transport services, and facilitating a continuous supply of food and other necessities to those who are self-isolating. That means that those workers are more vulnerable to exposure to COVID-19. However, if they need to self-isolate, they face severe financial insecurity.  If they are unable financially to self-isolate, they could also unfortunately spread the virus. Without unemployment benefits or sick pay, gig workers have no safety net.

Platforms and governments need to ensure that gig workers and those who are currently financially unable to stay at home are protected. Uber South Africa has indicated that it will follow the international company policy of compensating workers required to self-isolate for 14 days. However, we await details of exactly who will be covered, and to what extent.

With regard to Fairwork’s other findings, almost all platforms operating in South Africa were found to pay at least the minimum wage. However, when workers’ expenses (such as petrol and transport costs) were taken into account, evidence could only be found that six out of the eleven platforms paid workers above the minimum wage.

Growing numbers of South Africans find work in the gig economy, and digital platforms are frequently heralded as a solution to mass unemployment, as they allow those who typically face barriers to employment to find work more easily. Thirty percent of the gig workers who spoke to Fairwork were unemployed before getting jobs with their respective platforms. However, there is also evidence that some people are moving from secure work into insecure gig work, and seeing reductions in income.

The employment challenge facing South Africa is not simply the quantity of jobs but also the quality of jobs being created. Across contexts, Fairwork’s research has shown that gig workers face low pay, dangerous work conditions, opaque algorithmic management structures, and barriers to organising and bargaining collectively. However, 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.

This is the second annual round of Fairwork Project ratings for South African platforms, and the impact is beginning to build.

Fairwork engages directly with platform managers to suggest avenues for improvement, and one of their accomplishments includes securing guarantees from two platforms – NoSweat and GetTOD – that all jobs they post will pay above the living wage, calculated at 6,800 South African Rand per month.

Furthermore, after working with the Fairwork Project, GetTOD has publicly announced its willingness to engage and negotiate with a union or workers’ association, including this in its terms and conditions. This is a commendable step to ensure fair worker representation. Having a voice and collective power in the workplace is essential for workers if they wish to move away from exploitative relationships.

Fairwork seeks to furnish consumers with enough information to be intentional about the platforms they choose to interact with, thus contributing to pressure on platforms to improve their working conditions and their scores. In addition, Fairwork engages with policy makers and governments to advocate for extending appropriate legal protections to all platform workers, irrespective of their legal classification.

Finally, and most importantly, they work with workers and workers’ organisations to develop and  continually refine their principles to remain in line with their needs. Ultimately, the project aims to support workers in collectively asserting their rights.

The current health crisis brings to light the essential role that gig workers play in our society, in service provision, infrastructure, and care. These workers are often working with little protections and low pay. COVID-19 is quickly revealing the injustice and unsustainability of the status quo.

Download the full report here.

A more accessible PDF is also available for users with screen-readers.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the report, or on our broader work – if you’d like to get in touch, head over to our Contact page, or email us.

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(This is a re-post of the original Fairwork blog posted by Srujana Katta.)

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