Gig Workers are Among the Most Vulnerable Groups in South Africa’s Covid-19 Crisis

Posted on 13.05.2020

How are the tens of thousands of gig workers in South Africa—those performing tasks for digital platforms like Uber, Mr D and SweepSouth—being supported during the Covid-19 crisis?

A recent Fairwork report considers this; undertaking a review of gig economy platform and government responses, supplemented by a small survey of worker experiences.

While gig workers are by no means the only vulnerable group in South Africa suffering during the pandemic, their non-standard employment status is proving a particular challenge.  Platforms – arguably incorrectly and possibly even illegally – tend to regard their workers as independent contractors rather than employees.  Notwithstanding this, a small number of platforms have stepped up during lockdown.  For example, we outline ways in which SweepSouth and M4Jam have tried to offset income losses for their workers, and cite getTOD’s efforts to enable online working for its tradespeople.

But the majority of platforms have taken no responsibility to compensate workers for by far their major problem: loss of earnings.  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.  As a result, many reported that just getting food to eat was their top priority.  While platforms have long marketed themselves as facilitators of supplementary income streams, all of this exposes the complete dependency of most workers on their platforms as the basis for their livelihood.

Given the control they exercise over the welfare and conditions of their workers, South Africa’s platforms could and must do more to help, and we outline a series of measures they could be undertaking on issues including reduced commissions, loan deferrals, physical protection, healthcare assistance, sick pay, improved communication, and engagement with workers and their representatives.

The breadth and depth of response by South Africa’s government has been recognised worldwide.  However, as yet, gig workers have fallen between two stools: able to access neither the support offered to formal employees, nor the support offered to those registered as small businesses.  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 that the safety net of assistance covers gig workers.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of South Africa’s gig workers: delivery services, for example, have been essential to society during lockdown.  Covid-19 will not be with us forever but the issues we surface in the report are just an acute manifestation of longer-standing problems.  In the longer-term, then, a legal resolution must be found to rescue gig workers from the employment-status limbo that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief.