DIGILABOUR publishes an interview with the Fairwork Team

Posted on 10.08.2020
Delivery motorcyclists

Why platforms should follow decent work principles

On August 3, 2020, DIGILABOUR published an interview in Portuguese with members from the Fairwork Oxford team: Professor Mark Graham, Dr. Kelle Howson and Dr. Funda Ustek-Spilda. Below we publish this interview in English. The interview was facilitated and translated to Portuguese by Fairwork Brazil Principal Investigator Prof. Dr. Rafael Grohmann from Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos.

You can read the original interview in Portuguese.

DIGILABOUR: Why is it important for platforms to follow Fairwork principles?

Mark Graham: One of the defining features of the gig economy is the way that platforms present themselves not as employers, but as intermediaries and middlemen who simply connect consumers who want a service with workers who can provide that service. In doing so, they sidestep much of the labour law that is in place to protect workers from unfair working conditions. 

Whether or not platforms are employers, it is important to recognise that the work that gig workers perform is work. And all work should be defined by minimum standards of fairness. Even though platforms may not legally be employers, they still have the power and the capability to shape conditions of work. Because they have that power, it isn’t good enough for them to simply ignore the plight of workers who earn below minimum wages or who work in dangerous conditions. The Fairwork principles were developed with this simple facts in mind: all work should be fair, and unfair work is a choice that platforms make and can unmake.  

Kelle Howson: To build on Mark’s answer, because most platforms are not legally required to meet minimum standards of fairness, we have frequently seen platforms fall far below these standards. This means that workers face low pay (often too low to cover their costs and live on), the consequential need to work very long hours (with no legal maximum), and dangerous working conditions. 

Platform workers face day to day uncertainty and insecurity. If they lose their income or get sick and can’t work, they usually have very little protection. They also experience unfair management, with decisions about deactivation or termination sometimes being made arbitrarily and without notice, or the chance to appeal. Workers may not be able to communicate with a human representative of the platform if they need to. 

So, it is important for platforms to follow Fairwork principles because they are a minimum standard of fair work, but also because so many currently don’t, meaning workers are forced into unacceptable and unfair conditions. In the absence of minimum legal standards, Fairwork provides a benchmark for what is fair in the platform economy.

Funda Ustek-Spilda: Following from above, we can say that the scale of the insecurities and vulnerabilities gig workers face in their day-to-day work has become particularly apparent in the aftermath of Covid-19. Delivery workers, care workers, drivers have all proved to be key in taking care of the society at large, yet they found themselves exposed to the risk of the virus without much protection offered by the platforms. Yet, they faced a tough choice: to continue working albeit the risk of catching the virus – even when they do not have access to healthcare, or not work, but face sinking further into poverty. While Covid-19 revealed these insecurities, workers have been experiencing them way before the pandemic. This is why it is important for platforms to follow Fairwork principles. A system built on the exploitation of its workers is unsustainable in the long run.

DIGILABOUR: In what ways have platforms and policy makers responded to Fairwork until now, for example in South Africa? 

Kelle Howson: While not all platforms are keen to work with Fairwork, many platforms have responded positively. A lot of platforms realise the benefits to providing fair working conditions. It makes them more attractive to both workers and consumers.

Some platforms have made changes to better comply with Fairwork principles. Two South African platforms agreed to pay their workers above an hourly living wage. Two also agreed to recognise and engage with a union or collective association of workers if one were formed.

This shows that change is possible – and that platforms can work towards setting fairer benchmarks for gig economy work. A big part of Fairwork’s mission is to recognise and reward fair practices in the gig economy, which in turn puts pressure on less-fair platforms to step up to the standards of their competitors. 

Some policy-makers are also recognising that Fairwork’s framework and findings can help inform policy responses to the gig economy. Fairwork has fed into consultative policy processes in South Africa, and in collaboration with our labour law colleagues in the UK and South Africa, we have produced resources for how our principles can form the basis of legislative and policy change. 

DIGILABOUR: In Brazil, many platforms have the position of “head of public policy”. Does this also occur in other countries? How does this position help us to understand the scenario that platforms design for society?

Kelle Howson: The number of platforms that include a ‘head of public policy’ position or similar, demonstrates a key feature of the platform business model: that it is highly reliant on positive consumer perception and public relations, in order to establish markets and legitimacy. It also demonstrates another important reality: that platforms are aware that they have a significant social impact – on their workers, and on the spaces in which they operate. Platforms need to invest quite heavily in PR, communications and marketing, in order to manufacture demand, and counter threats to their business model in the form of industrial action or regulation. 

DIGILABOUR: What are the expectations for Fairwork in Brazil?

Funda Ustek-Spilda: Like in other countries, Fairwork Brazil would like to improve the working conditions in the gig economy and encourage platforms to improve job quality. We also hope to reduce information asymmetries between workers, platforms and consumers, so that workers can choose, where possible, to work for platforms that treat them fairly and consumers can make a choice in using platforms that provide fair working conditions for their workers.