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:
|Recommended Platform Action
|1. Fair Pay
|2a. Fair Conditions (Prevention)
|2b. Fair Conditions (Illness)
|3. Fair Contracts
|4. Fair Management
|5. Fair Representation
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/
Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole