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Jobs bloodbath, income loss for SA gig workers

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The majority of SA’s gig workers lost their jobs entirely during lockdown, while those able to work have on average lost four-fifths of their income.

This is one of the key findings of a report titled: “Gig Workers, Platforms and Government During COVID-19”, compiled by The Fairwork Project, a collaboration between the universities of Oxford (England), Cape Town, Western Cape, Manchester (England), Institute of Information Technology Bangalore in India and the Technical University of Berlin.

The report provides an analysis of the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19)-related lockdown on the estimated 35 000 gig workers in SA – those performing work for digital platforms like Uber, Bolt, Uber Eats, SweepSouth, M4Jam and food delivery apps such as Mr D Food – and reviewshow they are being supported by their employers and government.

The report found the non-standard employment status of gig workers has made them particularly vulnerable during the current economic shutdown, resulting in hundreds of job losses and with many gig workers reporting that just getting food to eat is their top priority.

“While a small number of platforms have stepped up during lockdown − for example, SweepSouth and M4Jam have tried to offset income losses for their workers − the majority of platforms have taken no responsibility to compensate workers for by far their major problem: loss of earnings,” reveals the report.

“Yet our survey suggests a majority of gig workers have lost their jobs entirely, while those able to work during lockdown have, on average, lost four-fifths of their income.”

Today is day 61 of SA’s national lockdown implemented to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in companies taking a huge financial blow, with markets suffering losses unseen since the 2008 financial crisis.

Digital economy firms Uber, Airbnb, WeWork and Lyft earlier this month announced they will retrench thousands of employees, as a result of the economic downturn.

The report highlights that given the control they exercise over the welfare and conditions of their workers, SA’s platforms could and must do more to help. It outlines a series of measures they could be undertaking, including reduced commissions, loan deferrals, physical protection, healthcare assistance, sick pay, improved communication, and engagement with workers and their representatives.

According to The Fairwork Project, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of SA’s gig workers: delivery services, for example, have been essential to society during lockdown, remodelling their original business models to cater to the delivery of essential goods.

However, the relative lack of response from gig economy firms is also evident. It is highlighted in a graph based on 169 responses from gig workers which shows there is evidence for action on only 27 – just under 16% of the total responses.

In particular, the report points out little is being done in relation to workers who become sick and there is little evidence of platforms improving management and supportive processes.

“There was no evidence of platforms addressing workers’ concerns about their lack of contractual status as employees. Finally, there was no evidence of platforms receiving, engaging with or taking action on COVID-19-related demands from workers or their representatives; despite there being groups and mechanisms by which this could occur,” notes the report.

Falling between the cracks

The breadth and depth of response by South Africa’s government in tackling the spread of COVID-19 has been recognised worldwide. However, as independent contractors, gig workers have been unable to access the support offered to formal employees, nor the support offered to those registered as small businesses, notes the report.

“If gig workers are to avoid destitution, government must take further action. Here, again, we outline a series of measures – pushing for gig workers’ de facto employee status to be recognised formally, but also ensuring the safety net of assistance covers gig workers.”

Last month, Uber and Bolt drivers and operators created a petition on Change.org, lobbying government to allow them to be included in the COVID-19 Relief Fund. They told ITWeb they feared their vehicles would be repossessed as their business had taken a huge blow during the lockdown.

In the longer term, The Fairwork Project suggests a legal resolution must be found to rescue gig workers from the employment-status limbo the pandemic has brought into sharp relief.

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