The report analyses the policies of major gig economy platforms in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the precarious nature of gig work, and the risks that gig workers on the frontlines of the global crisis face daily.
The estimated 50 million gig workers worldwide have been particularly hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Reports indicate half have lost their jobs; those still working have lost two-thirds of their income on average; and many face the impossible choice between destitution and infection, as summed up by one worker: “either I’m starving or I’m dying of coronavirus”.
Gig workers maintain essential public services during the pandemic—delivering food and household essentials to those self-isolating or practicing social distancing, and providing much-needed care services to those in need. Yet, the majority of them do not have access to employment protections such as health insurance and sick pay, and since they generally work hand-to-mouth, they may not have savings to fall back on. Government bailout schemes rarely cover them or even when they do, their conditions are often too stringent for gig workers to qualify. Amidst this uncertainty, gig workers find themselves making a dangerous calculation: Stay at home and face financial ruin or continue working but risk getting ill.
To investigate this further, the research team at the Fairwork Foundation undertook a survey of platform response policies; as of April 2020 covering 120 platforms in 23 countries across Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Africa. The report titled “Gig Economy and Covid-19: Fairwork Report on Platform Policies” categorised platform responses according to the five ‘Fairwork Principles’ that our ongoing action research uses to rate platforms against decent work standards:
- Fair Pay: By far the most important issue for workers; yet only five platforms had direct policies to increase pay for those in work; more common were actions to maintain levels of business, like client fee waivers or expanded scope of services.
- Fair Conditions 1 (Prevention): Cut-and-paste hygiene guidance and contactless delivery (though not contactless collection) were the most widespread policies. Just over half of the platforms we checked said they were providing personal protection equipment (disinfectant or, less often, masks); workers report they often failed to receive this.
- Fair Conditions 2 (Illness): Around half of the platforms were providing some payment for workers who were ill, but workers reported it could be hard to access and payments often fell well below national minimum wage equivalents.
- Fair Contracts: The only response here, by a few platforms, has been to try to create a firewall around their current actions; still asserting an arm’s-length relation to workers as ‘independent contractors’.
- Fair Management: A few companies are guaranteeing no loss of bonus or incentive levels despite temporary deactivation of workers, or are issuing statements against any attempt by clients to discriminate against certain worker groups.
- Fair Representation: We found no evidence yet of any platform engagement with worker associations, despite a number of such groups setting out demands and even organising strikes.
Overall, we find widespread responses by platforms to the current pandemic with occasional examples of comprehensive and enlightened policies. But there are a number of issues in most platforms’ responses to date.
First, there is a gap between rhetoric and reality: platforms have been far better at publicising responses than at actually delivering them to workers.
Second, there is a skew in stakeholder focus: platform responses have served shareholders, investors and customers before workers, even though it is workers who form the foundation of all value for the platform.
Third, there is timidity: while governments have torn up ideologies and rulebooks, platforms have been only incremental in their response and have too often used the language of the get-out clause rather than that of the guarantee.
Platforms have loaded risks and responsibilities onto others: too many platforms interpret “wash your hands” less in terms of the virus and more in terms of their responsibilities to their workers; throwing that responsibility onto governments for financial support and onto individual workers for their own protection from coronavirus.
Finally, there is a gap between needs and policies: between what workers require in order to stay safe—free from poverty and free from infection—and what platforms are currently providing. This report therefore ends with a summary of policy recommendations, reproduced here:
|Fairwork Principle||Recommended Platform Action|
|1. Fair Pay||
|2a. Fair Conditions (Prevention)||
|2b. Fair Conditions (Illness)||
|3. Fair Contracts||
|4. Fair Management||
|5. Fair Representation||
We would love to hear your thoughts on the report, or on our broader work. We also intend to update our report with new or updated platform policies on COVID-19, so we would welcome such information. If you’d like to get in touch, head over to our Contact page, or email us.