Looking Ahead: Latest report unveils new insights on platforms’ responses to COVID-19

Posted on 24.09.2020
Delivery Cyclists

How has the situation of gig workers changed since April? In our new report, we provide an updated and extended analysis of platforms’ efforts to protect gig workers during the COVID-19 crisis and consider whether these policies could have longer-term implications on working conditions within the global digital economy.

Between March and April 2020, Fairwork conducted a survey on the platforms’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following the positive feedback from that first report, in May 2020, we were awarded the University of Oxford Economic, Social, Cultural & Environmental Impacts of COVID-19 Urgent Response Fund, which has enabled us to continue the research, expanding our focus and outreach.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened up severe fracture lines of inequality within the digital economy, placing added pressures on women, immigrants, and minority ethnic groups who comprise a core part of the gig workforce. As of September 2020, the financial, social, physical and psychological toll of the pandemic has been immense. Yet, we are entering into a period where not only government subsidies are ending (if there were any), but also the relief packages and policies offered by the platforms and other private initiatives.

In this updated report, we present the findings based on 191 platforms in 43 countries across the world. We specifically expanded our research into low- and middle-income countries, where gig workers had less government support, and local platforms faced higher uncertainty due to financial risks. As in the previous report, we contrasted the platform policies against a set of policy recommendations for each of the five ‘Fairwork Principles’ that we regularly use to rate work standards in the platform economy. Data for this report was collected through a combination of desk research and reaching out to the platforms.

Our findings indicate that:

  • Fair Pay: While it remains the most important for workers, we found little evidence of platforms offering compensation for loss of income. Direct policies to increase pay were mostly advertised by large multinational platforms, like Uber, but were often only available to a fraction of their workforce. When government funding became available to gig workers in some countries, platforms transferred the responsibility over to the governments.
  • Fair conditions 1 (Prevention): More platforms offered hygiene guidance and protective equipment to workers, especially since many of these measures became compulsory by governments. ‘Contact-free services’ were also common but more often oriented towards clients than workers.
  • Fair Conditions 2 (Illness): Just over half of the platforms surveyed were offering some form of sick pay policy. However, these often consisted of flat-rate payments that in practice fall below the local minimum wage. Access to the schemes also remains a contested issue. Where government financial relief was extended to gig workers, platforms again shifted the responsibility to the state instead of offering extra relief measures.
  • Fair contracts: The normalisation of platforms offering (some form) of assistance to their workers during the COVID-19 crisis suggests that the meaning of ‘independent contractor’ has begun to change. Nonetheless, we still found no evidence of platforms willing to implement permanent changes in the worker’s contracts.
  • Fair Management: Only a fraction of platforms is guaranteeing no loss of bonus or incentive levels despite temporary deactivation of workers, and a lesser number issued statements against discrimination towards certain worker groups. We also found an increased number of surveillance and screening practices on workers that risk becoming normalised.
  • Fair Representation: There has been an increase in worker strikes taking place across the world sparked by the conditions of work in the gig economy during the pandemic. However, we found no examples of platforms actively engaging with the demands of worker’s unions and associations.

Overall, our findings suggest that platforms increased their efforts to provide health and safety measures to their workers as the effects of the pandemic deepened. Nonetheless, in this report we identified five overarching issues with the platform’s response to the pandemic:

  1. A gap between rhetoric and reality: Platforms have been far better at publicising responses than at actually delivering them to workers. Furthermore, platforms made clear these were temporary measures, announcing specific end dates despite it not being (yet) clear when the pandemic will end, and thus, ignoring the worker’s need for continuous support post-COVID-19.
  2. A skew in stakeholder focus: platform responses to a large extent have prioritised serving shareholders, investors and customers before workers.
  3. Conflating surveillance with safety. Health and safety measures have been being increasingly connected to surveillance and screening practices in the form of temperature scans or photos of workers taken without their consent or immediate knowledge.
  4. Widening gap between different types of platforms. Large platforms have been able to set aside larger funds for health and safety measures during the pandemic. Smaller platforms, especially in the Global South, have shown less ability to adapt to the new market conditions, facing heightened financial and operational risks which threatened their survival.
  5. A gap between needs and policies. There has been a lack of alignment between what workers require in order to stay safe—free from poverty and free from infection—and what platforms are currently providing. Meanwhile, platforms continue to load risks and responsibilities onto others: onto governments for financial support and onto individual workers for their own protection from coronavirus and recovery, should they become ill.

Ultimately, platform policies, for the most part, have been incremental rather than radical. For the time being, it is difficult to assess to what extent will these translate into long-term changes. But what is clear is that the COVID-19 crisis has made it more untenable for platforms to shy away from responsibilities in the field of health and social protection, as consumers and governments have become more aware of the need to protect gig workers, and as previously unthinkable measures have now become normalised. You can find our list of policy recommendations and platforms scorecard in the report.

We would love to hear from you. If you have any comments or would like to get in touch, please reach out through our Contact page or email us. To get the latest updates on our COVID-19 findings and the rest of our ongoing research, sign up to our newsletter and follow us on social media.