If platforms do not protect gig workers, who will?

Authored by researchers at Fairwork, including: Mark Graham, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Kelle Howson and Srujana Katta, Alessio Bertolini, Adam Badger, Fabian Ferrari and Mounika Neerukonda.

The gig economy feeds on existing divides in society; between rich and poor, between women and men; between migrants and those with full citizenship rights, between the Global North and the Global South. It is an economy that gives the illusion of hope; that you can be your own boss, manage your own time and earn as little or as much as you can. Yet, working in the gig economy is risky at the best of times. If you fall off your bike, crash your car, or get sick, you’re on your own. Your income stream is cut off exactly when you need it the most; and as your own boss, you only have yourself to blame for your misfortunes. 

This narrative shifted somewhat during Covid-19. In response to the pandemic, Uber did something that trade unions and labour activists have been demanding for years. The company has committed to paying 14 days’ sick pay to drivers who had a positive diagnosis of the virus or who were medically required to self-isolate. With this move, Uber tacitly acknowledged that many drivers are wholly dependent on its platform for their income; that it exerts an enormous amount of control over their work and hence have an unalienable responsibility to protect their health and safety.

Our recent Fairwork report on Covid-19 where we surveyed the measures taken by 120 platforms across 23 countries demonstrates that the risks gig workers are facing have amplified. Many of them find themselves on the frontlines of the crisis yet struggling to make ends meet ever more than before.

Gig workers face the double bind of facing heightened risks to their health – as the very nature of their work leaves them inordinately exposed to the virus. Our findings emphasise the untenability of social distancing for workers delivering food or providing transportation. For instance, there have been several reports where Uber drivers caught the virus from passengers riding in their cars. And while other workers who show symptoms are able to self-isolate, low pay and the lack of a safety net makes that decision difficult or unthinkable for gig workers. 

This dilemma is further complicated in the transport sector, where most drivers have regular and unrelenting vehicle financing and maintenance costs. Even prior to this crisis (due to which demand for rides has plummeted), drivers often had to work in excess of 30 hours per week just to break even. Yet, in response to Covid-19, only 7 out of the 120 platforms we surveyed provided any support measures to waive or mitigate workers’ costs.

Migration background plays a prominent role in whether or not workers are able to seek health care assistance or report poor health to their platforms. In the UK, for instance, most workers from outside the European Union have no recourse to public funds and need to pay a surcharge to access the National Health Service. Not being entitled to government benefits means that workers feel particularly pressured to work, even when they are ill, and they do not seek medical help, for fear of their visa status or hospital expenses. In London, an Uber driver from Bangalore, India, Rajesh Jayaseelan, who contracted the virus sadly passed away having avoided contacting the National Health Service for fear that his landlord would evict him on learning he was infected because his previous landlord had evicted him for being an Uber driver – telling him that he would be spreading the virus to the household. 

Photo Credit: Fairwork

‘Just the middleman’

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed what is, at its core, a business model that is founded upon the exploitation of workers, a model that puts all of the physical risks of doing business onto workers, and allows platform companies to absolve themselves of significant responsibility.

A fundamental logic of the gig economy has begun to unravel. Up until now, platforms in every corner of the planet have presented themselves as digital intermediaries who facilitate transactions between those wanting to sell and buy services. ‘Don’t look to us, we’re just the middleman’ has been the attitude. Using this logic, platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo have been able to classify gig workers as self-employed and exempt themselves from legal obligations to provide employment protections, such as minimum wages and sick pay. For example, at the beginning of the crisis, Bolt, a ride-hailing platform announced that “Bolt drivers are independent service providers who use our platform. Therefore, we cannot offer provisions for drivers who have to take time off sick.” However, at this moment of crisis, these companies have come under mounting public scrutiny, as the consequences of the precarity can be seen on a mass scale. So, one week later, Bolt’s response evolved and they started offering financial assistance.

Platforms have rolled out a series of provisions to protect gig workers, by quickly implementing measures that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago. Sick pay schemes and the provision of personal protective equipment are now ostensibly available for millions of workers around the world.

Photo Credit: Fairwork

However, gig workers and their advocates have already pointed to serious issues with the rollout of these policies, revealing them to be, at best, slow on the uptake and, at worst, more concerned with PR strategies and protecting consumers rather than workers. Our research shows that, a common response among the platforms has been to distribute disinfectants (e.g. sanitising gels and sprays; 53 percent of platforms) and masks (28 percent of platforms) to workers. However, several worker accounts revealed that not all workers were able to access these provisions. There is evidence that some workers at platforms such as Uber, Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Rappi and Ola have either not been receiving promised supplies or have not been reimbursed for purchases made.

Our research shows that any of the measures do not go far enough, remain hard to access or are unclear in their entitlement requirements, continuing to allow too many workers to fall through the cracks. Some come with stringent conditions attached, designed to prevent large numbers of workers from actually using them. For instance, the UPHD union in the UK  has pointed out that it is almost impossible for drivers to obtain the documentation required by Uber to release sick pay.

A broken model

The UK Government previously advised people experiencing symptoms to self-isolate immediately and avoid going to the doctor or hospital unless absolutely necessary. That left most drivers unable to get doctors’ notes to satisfy Uber’s requirements until the Government changed course and started issuing sick notices online.

When a 60-year-old Uber driver in San Francisco who had contracted the virus managed to obtain a written note from his doctor, Uber erected barriers to paying his sick pay. In order to upload the doctor’s note, the platform required him to agree to onerous conditions, including sharing personal information and obliging him to declare that even though he might receive this one-off sick pay, he was still an independent contractor, and not an employee.

Even when he completed these steps and agreed to the conditions, Uber did not pay him until he tweeted his case to its CEO.

Uber is a global platform with operations in several countries in the world, and they have rolled out policies at the global scale against Covid-19. Their webpage lists the measures they are taking to protect their drivers across the world and assures the consumers that using the platform is safe for the consumers. Yet, the pressures workers experience are tethered to the geographies they live in and the existing social divides in those geographies. The case of the Uber driver who fought with the threat of eviction while battling for his life exposes the vulnerabilities of the migrant workers in the UK; whereas the case of the Uber driver in San Francisco exposes vividly the chasms in the healthcare system in the US. Similar examples can be found in other parts of the world, where the global policies miss what’s happening on the ground and what kind of vulnerabilities the workers are exposed to. Existence of government schemes that financially support the gig workers even when they may not be protected by the platforms and the availability of free and accessible health care systems would surely differentiate these experiences. 

While it may seem like there is a distressing future for gig workers and with the lockdown measures slowly being lifted, everything will go back to business-as-usual, there is actually room for hope. Just last week, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and Uber drivers announced that they were suing Uber over its failure to provide satisfactory income and sickness protection during Covid-19. Similarly, in Germany, a consumer organised petition demanded the protection of the Lieferando riders received nearly 10 thousand signatures, which led the platform to review and change their practices. And the US saw an unprecedented joint strike of Amazon, Instacart, FedEx and other workers in the US for better protections and benefits. The severity of the crisis has made it obvious that inaction is not a viable option for the platforms in the long run without alienating their consumers or workers. Gig workers need protection, and it is platforms that need to step into that role. 

This is a genie that platforms like Uber will struggle to put back into the bottle. How would they cover the sick pay of a worker diagnosed with Covid-19 today and not a worker who breaks a bone next year in a car crash?

Beginning to take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their workers is a slippery slope that most platforms undoubtedly do not want to be standing on: as is evidenced by their vocal support for recent government schemes, such as those in the US and UK, that provide financial support for the self-employed.

Instead of allowing them to shift responsibility for workers’ well-being onto taxpayers, all of us should reflect on just how much responsibility platforms bear for their workers. By putting into place even cynical and half-hearted measures, platforms are admitting that poor, precarious, and dangerous working conditions are a choice that they have been making for workers, not a necessary payoff for flexibility and independence.

This pandemic will eventually subside, and when it does, we cannot go back to a world in which platforms once again wash their hands of all responsibility to their workers, and society at large. Because if they don’t protect their workers, who will?

About the authors: The authors work for the Fairwork Foundation. The organisation studies the work practices and working conditions in the emerging gig economy, and is based at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. 

It builds on the recent reports “The Gig Economy and Covid-19: Fairwork Report on Platform Policies” here and “Gig Workers, Platforms and Government During Covid-19 in South Africa” here. You can also read “Fairwork Germany Ratings 2020: Labour Standards in the Gig Economy” here.

A previous version of this article was originally published on the New Internationalist, on 23 April 2020.

Suggested further reading

Woodcock, J. and Graham, M. (2019). The Gig Economy: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity.

Graham, M. (2020). Regulate, replicate, and resist – The conjunctural geographies of platform urbanism. Urban Geography.

Barns, S. (2019). Negotiating the platform pivot: From participatory digital ecosystems to infrastructures of everyday life. Geography Compass

Graham, M., Woodcock, J., Heeks, R., Mungai, P., Van Belle, J-P., du Toit, D., Fredman, S., Osiki, A., van der Spuy, A., Silberman, S. (2020). The Fairwork Foundation: Strategies for improving platform work in a global context. Geoforum.

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