SA’s gig economy sees worsening working conditions

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 02 Feb 2024
There is a lack of formal worker representation in the South African gig economy.
There is a lack of formal worker representation in the South African gig economy.

Factors such as South Africa’s economic downturn, the aftermath of COVID-19 and poor levels of safety and security have led to the deterioration of working conditions among the country’s platform workers.

This is according to the fifth annual report rating the working conditions in SA’s platform economy, conducted by the Fairwork project at Oxford University.

Fairwork has conducted annual ratings of the working conditions in SA’s platform economy (gig economy) since 2019. The latest report reviews platform workers’ unresolved issues and takes stock of what steps are needed to address them in real terms.

The Fairwork project is an action-research project that certifies best employment practices in the gig economy.

Five online platforms – Uber, Uber Eats, Mr D, Home + and Sweep South – were rated against the Fairwork principles: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contract, fair management and fair representation.

According to the report, the platform economy in SA is reducing unemployment in various industries, providing critical income opportunities for an estimated 135 000 gig workers, or 1% of the employed population in SA’s e-hailing, e-commerce, entertainment and online delivery services.

However, there is still much to be desired in terms of the conditions that workers are subjected to on a day-to-day basis, especially in light of external factors that have worsened platform worker welfare, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

SA’s economy, in particular, which was beginning to recover after the pandemic, took a significant knock from the war in Ukraine, triggering uncertainty about economic recovery and further impacting the gig economy, it says.

“The latest price increases make fuel in SA about 40% more expensive than a year ago. In addition to increased costs and the challenging economic crisis, platform workers’ safety and security situation is worsening across all sectors,” states the report.

“Almost all workers, across ride-hailing, food delivery and domestic work sectors, noted safety is a significant issue that plagues the day-to-day realities of their working lives,” notes Dr Tobias Kuttler, Fairwork report co-author and research associate at the Fairwork Secretariat.

“While food delivery and ride-hailing workers are constantly exposed to violent crime, such as robbery and car hijacking, domestic workers face challenges in relation to customer treatment and the feeling that they need to complete household tasks they are not comfortable with.”

Dr Tobias Kuttler, Fairwork report co-author and research associate at the Fairwork Secretariat.
Dr Tobias Kuttler, Fairwork report co-author and research associate at the Fairwork Secretariat.

The study found that alongside these safety issues, and despite a long trade union history, only a few platforms in SA could evidence willingness to formally recognise workers’ unions.

The research highlights the importance of implementing an accessible channel for workers to communicate with others or a union and to listen to their grievances, it states.

Much of this is connected to platform workers being classified as independent contractors. They, therefore, are not provided with the basic labour rights embedded within South African Labour Law, including collective bargaining, freedom of association, and protection against unfair dismissal and discrimination, it says.

“The overall lack of formal worker representation in the South African platform economy continues to be a central issue that negatively impacts workers’ ability to secure better pay and working conditions.”

This is coupled with growing pay insecurity, as take-home pay has significantly decreased. The study finds workers are responding to this situation with increased mobilisation, despite unions and associations not being officially recognised.

“There is nothing inevitable about poor working conditions in the platform economy. Despite their claims to the contrary, platforms have substantial control over the nature of the jobs they mediate.

“Workers who find their jobs through these platforms are ultimately still workers, and there is no basis for denying them the key rights and protections that their counterparts in the formal sector have long enjoyed,” comments professor Mark Graham, Fairwork director.

“We do not need to accept low pay, poor conditions, inequity, and a lack of agency and voice as the norm. We hope that our work – by highlighting the contours of today’s platform economy – paints a picture of what it could become.”