University of Cape Town: Fairwork report highlights precarity of work in the gig economy

Fairwork, a collaborative project involving the University of Cape Town (UCT), released its third report on work in the gig economy in South Africa on 8 July 2021. The report presents a set of scores that evaluates gig economy platforms such as Uber, SweepSouth and Mr D Food against a set of fair work standards. UCT’s partners on Fairwork are the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the University of Oxford and the University of Manchester.

Fairwork South Africa Ratings 2021: Labour Standards in the Gig Economy highlighted the precarious nature of work in the gig economy. While this situation was exacerbated during the COVID‑19 pandemic, the report also noted some positive developments. Professor Jean‑Paul van Belle of UCT’s Department of Information Systems welcomed panellists and attendees to the virtual launch of the Fairwork report.

“Work in the gig economy is often unsafe and insecure. Workers lack protections afforded to regular employees and are vulnerable to unfair practices like arbitrary termination, often based on inequitable regimes of customer ratings. It is important to understand and highlight unfair labour practices in the gig economy, and to assist workers, consumers and regulators as they hold platforms to account,” said Professor Van Belle.

Five principles

Based on Fairwork’s ratings of 12 digital labour platforms (Uber, UberEats, Bolt, inDriver, MrD, Droppa, PicUp, getTOD, SweepSouth, NoSweat, M4Jam, SecretAgent) against five global principles of fair work (fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation), getTOD – a platform for booking tradespeople – topped the 2021 table with nine out of 10 points.

M4Jam (a platform connecting brands to an ‘on-demand workforce’), SweepSouth (predominantly a home-cleaning booking platform), and NoSweat (a freelance and permanent placement platform) were tied in second place with eight points each.

“We cannot allow gig workers to assume unreasonable safety challenges simply because they need to make a living.”

“Personal safety continues to be an issue for many gig workers in South Africa,” said Pitso Tsibolane, also of the Department of Information Systems.

“Workers in the e‑hailing and food delivery sector are particularly vulnerable to theft, violent crime and hijackings. Women workers face additional threats of sexual violence. We have seen a number of platforms start to take this seriously by introducing personal insurance, panic buttons and women‑only services. But more can be done. We cannot allow gig workers to assume unreasonable safety challenges simply because they need to make a living.”

Positive developments

“This year, we are pleased to highlight platforms that have embraced their social responsibility and proactively addressed the economic impact of the pandemic among their workers. This includes [instituting] educational opportunities, food vouchers and financial COVID‑19 hardship funds,” said Dr Louise Bezuidenhout of UCT’s Department of Information Systems.

Fairwork has also launched the Fairwork pledge, which can be found on their website. The report highlighted some positive improvements during the COVID‑19 pandemic. These included SweepSouth’s public commitments to equality, diversity and collective bargaining, and the alignment of getTOD’s terms and conditions with South African rather than British legislation.

“An employee doesn’t have to be full-time.”

The panellists who responded to the report included Professor Paul Benjamin of UWC, Michel Hanouch of the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP), Mondli Hlatshwayo of the University of Johannesburg, and Faiza Haupt, an ex-Uber driver and organiser.

Asked to comment on the current challenges for the classification of platform workers in South Africa, Professor Benjamin said, “Virtually all digital platforms that place workers have adopted the view that their workers are not employees, but some sort of client.”

Benjamin stated that for “traditional categories of work like domestic work, there’s no doubt that those platforms should be treated as temporary employment services”.

“There is very little opportunity cost to being an employee, as opposed to being an independent contractor. An employee doesn’t have to be full‑time. An employee can be part‑time and work flexible hours. The underlying issue is that people who want to be independent contractors might actually want to avoid [pay‑as‑you‑earn tax] deductions. When deconstructed, workers are not better off by being independent contractors.”

Digital labour platforms hold the potential to reduce South Africa’s unemployment and inequality, with an estimated 30 000 workers engaged in location‑based platform work such as taxi driving, delivery and cleaning. Growing numbers of South Africans find work in the gig economy, and digital platforms are frequently heralded as a solution to mass unemployment. However, the employment challenge facing South Africa is not simply the quantity of jobs, but also the quality of the jobs being created.

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