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Call for SA gig economy to improve labour practices

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Pitso Tsibolane, researcher and report author, Fairwork Project.
Pitso Tsibolane, researcher and report author, Fairwork Project.

Fairwork, a non-profit organisation focused on uplifting the global digital economy, has introduced an initiative that seeks to support fairer working conditions for South Africa’s platform workers.

The organisation is looking to engage with businesses, corporates, universities, schools, local governments and other entities across the country, to gain support and demonstrate public commitment to creating fairer platform work, by pledging support for the best labour practices in SA’s digital economy.

Fairwork is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, University of Cape Town and other education instructions, which works globally to rate gig economy platforms against five principles of decent work: fair pay, fair conditions, fair contracts, fair management and fair representation.

According to the organisation, SA’s gig economy – app-controlled companies, including ride-hailing, delivery, domestic services and digital services – is growing fast, but workers on these platforms often experience low pay, poor conditions and a lack of job security.

Earlier this year, the Fairwork Project launched its third round of yearly ratings for digital platforms in South Africa. The report found that work in the gig economy is often unsafe and insecure, as workers lack protections afforded to regular employees and are vulnerable to unfair practices like arbitrary termination, often based on inequitable regimes of customer ratings.

The non-standard employment status of gig workers has also made them particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, resulting in hundreds of job losses.

The new initiative seeks to highlight unfair labour practices in SA’s gig economy, and furnish consumers and businesses with information to enable them to be intentional about the platforms they choose to interact with, thus contributing to pressure on digital economy companies to improve their working conditions and scores.

“Bloomberg recently announced South Africa has the highest unemployment rate in the world, out of its rating of the 82 countries it monitors. This is a scary statistic, and desperation for employment can lead to an acceptance of unfair working conditions," says Pitso Tsibolane, researcher and one of the Fairwork Project report’s authors.

"By launching this pledge, our goal is to create a public support system of organisations that are willing to hold gig work platforms to a standard that ensures fair labour practices.”

There are now over 30 million digital platform workers that live all over the world, doing work that is outsourced via platforms or apps, according to Fairwork.

Platform work has been touted by industry pundits as SA’s solution to joblessness, with the potential to unlock thousands of jobs.

However, lacking coverage from employment law or collective bodies, many platform workers often face precarity and dangerous working conditions, notes Fairwork.

Fairwork is offering a multi-tier system of engagement in which local organisations can pledge their support to the gig economy.

Local governments and administrations can support fairer platform work by introducing meaningful regulation that encourages minimum standards for platforms operating in their areas, or which are eligible for public funding.

Socially-responsible investors or rating agencies, meanwhile, can help improve the working conditions of gig workers by making sure they, or their clients, invest only in those platforms that offer better labour standards.

Corporations can publicly endorse the Fairwork Pledge by putting a statement on their websites, including the Fairwork logo and a link to its website. Fairwork resources can also be made available to staff members, to help them decide which platforms to engage with.

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