New Code of Good Practice to protect gig workers in SA

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 10 Nov 2020

The Fairwork Foundation has partnered with researchers and legal academics from the universities of the Western Cape, Oxford, Cape Town and Manchester, to introduce a new Code of Good Practice for platform workers in SA.

The Code of Good Practice seeks to apply existing international law to SA’s gig economy. It is intended as a resource for platform firms, workers, legal practitioners, decision-makers and policy-makers to better protect gig workers who are falling through the cracks of regulation.

The Fairwork Foundation, an action-research project that certifies best employment practices in the gig economy, is calling for the code to be applied to platform companies operating in SA.

Gig workers include independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary workers of digital economy firms such as e-hailing and delivery apps.

The new Code of Good Practice draws on the existing international legal framework, and is based around the five principles of fair platform work, developed by The Fairwork Foundation’s international research network, in consultation with workers, platforms, third sector organisations and the International Labour Organisation.

These principles comprise fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation.

The gig economy has grown significantly in recent years in SA. The country has a well-developed Internet infrastructure, policy settings that encourage digital innovation, and a high level of unemployment, notes The Fairwork Foundation.

While apps play an important role in connecting more people to income opportunities, the foundation believes those income opportunities are often characterised by poor labour conditions, and contribute to creating a new class of precarious app-based worker.

“However, at the core of the [precarious nature] and inequity that we see in the platform economy is the lack of legal protection for gig workers – something platforms around the world have taken advantage of in creating their business models. This is why the most lasting and fundamental change must happen through better application of existing law, as well as new legislation,” notes The Fairwork Foundation in a statement.

Therefore, it recommends that minimum legal standards can and must be enforced for gig work, to avoid a race to the bottom.

Professor Darcy du Toit, of the University of the Western Cape and one of the code’s main authors, explains: “It is encouraging to see some platforms responding positively to improve their ratings. But others don’t, and all workers have the same rights. That’s where the law comes in.”

While being an independent contractor holds advantages for many people, the foundation points out that most gig workers aren’t actually as independent as platforms claim they are.

They may not have set hours, or a dedicated manager, but are subject to new forms of control like algorithmic management, ratings systems, penalties and the threat of losing access to the app (and their livelihood) arbitrarily – for instance, if they get a bad rating, it notes.

Professor Sandra Fredman from the Oxford University Faculty of Law and also one of the code’s main authors, points out: “The problem of high unemployment in SA is not solved by jobs with high levels of exploitation.

“Such jobs not only undermine workers’ constitutional rights to dignity and fair labour practices, they also have a corrosive effect on working standards of workers in competing enterprises. Legal regulation is essential to ensure platforms with better practices are not undermined by competition with those who force down terms and conditions.”