The poor working conditions that have come to characterise the platform economy are not necessary outcomes of technological development. Platforms have significant control over the jobs they mediate, and the power to shape them for the better.
For this reason, one pathway of change envisioned by Fairwork is direct action by platforms. Alongside our three other pathways – generating changes in consumer behaviour, gaining attention from policymakers and regulators, and supporting workers and collective groups – we engage with platforms directly to encourage them to improve the working conditions on their platforms and engage with them on a continuous basis to identify the ways in which they can do so and to assess their measures to learn about successes and pitfalls.
As the project has grown, platforms have become increasingly aware of the importance of the Fairwork framework. As a result of their engagement with us, multiple platforms have agreed to make changes to their policies and practices in accordance with our principles. To be specific: 160 pro-worker changes have been secured by Fairwork since 2018. 67 of those changes were achieved last year alone, as noted in the Fairwork Annual Report 2022.
Fundamentally, any changes platforms make have the potential to tangibly improve the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of workers. For that reason, Fairwork continually looks for new strategies to make such changes happen. A recent strategy to that effect was the organisation of a workshop with platform managers that previously committed to make changes to improve working conditions on their platforms through their engagement with Fairwork.
The first event of its kind, the workshop was designed to facilitate a discussion about further integrating the Fairwork principles into the African platform economy. The managers invited were from platforms that have already made commitments to improving working conditions based on their existing engagement with Fairwork. The event was held in Belle Mare, Mauritius, from 3 to 4 May 2023. A total of seven platforms were represented. The majority operated in the ride-hailing and food delivery sectors. This included The BlackRide and Eziban from Ghana; Paisha from Tanzania; Mrsool and Breadfast from Egypt; OrderManzer Ltd. from Mauritius. Home services sector was represented by Home+ (formerly getTOD) from South Africa, and the tutoring sector was represented by Orcas from Egypt. Only the local platform from Mauritius had not received a Fairwork assessment in the past, but they were keen to engage with Fairwork and evaluate the current working conditions on their platform. Fairwork team was represented by Prof. Mark Graham, Director of Fairwork, Dr. Funda Ustek-Spilda, Senior Researcher and Project Manager at Fairwork, and Dr. Daniel Arubayi, Post-doctoral Researcher at Fairwork. The Fairwork team that participated in the event has also been working on the Fairwork Ghana project, where this workshop idea initially emerged.
The event was sponsored by Invest for Jobs – an initiative of German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, that is being implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH. The initiative addresses the issue of creating jobs whilst providing decent working conditions for workers. This is particularly pertinent due to high unemployment being a persistent problem in the region. Invest for Jobs have also generously funded the Fairwork Ghana project since 2020.
The changes that platforms have committed to prior to this workshop were based on one-to-one exchanges between Fairwork and the platforms during the Fairwork assessment conducted in their respective countries. With this event, Fairwork tried a new method of exchange: securing pro-worker commitments from platforms, by engaging platform managers in peer-learning and collective knowledge exchange.
Ultimately, Fairwork is seeking to integrate fair working conditions into the platform economy, where workers continue to lack protection against work-related risks and harms. The event, like our one-to-one interviews with platform managers, was an opportunity to pass on to platform managers what we have learned from workers in thousands of in-depth interviews.
The platforms represented committed to numerous changes to policy and practices, and discussed ways in which these could be implemented in their operations. We know from our extensive experience that platforms do not always follow through on the commitments they make. However, many do. By continuing to actively engage with the platforms that participated in the workshop, Fairwork will seek to ensure that these commitments are transformed into reality. In doing so, we hope to contribute to the creation of a truly transformative platform economy in Africa: one that not only creates jobs but provides jobs that are characterised by fairness for those that perform them.
A deep dive into the sessions and their outcomes…
The workshop comprised multiple sessions covering changes made in consultation with Fairwork so far, and strategies for the operationalisation of four Fairwork principles – pay, conditions, contracts, and management – in the African platform economy.
The first principle-centred session explored the challenges and opportunities associated with the integration of the fair-pay principle into the African platform economy. To begin, managers were asked to reflect on the steps that they are currently taking to meet this principle, and those which might be taken to improve further.
With most of the platforms classifying workers as ‘independent contractors’ –Breadfast being the exception – the discussion centred on how the fair pay principle could be achieved through a piece-rate payment system. The Fairwork team emphasised the necessity of a top-up system, as well as factoring in wait-time and work-related costs to be able to be awarded a score for this principle.
Participating platform managers recognised the importance of pay for workers but raised the question about how to understand and account for the wait-time and work-related costs, specific to their sectors and operations. The Fairwork team suggested conducting a survey amongst workers to understand average wait times. Dr Arubayi also suggested distance travelled and order numbers as two potential thresholds that could be used to guarantee the minimum wage for delivery workers. Important commitments were made by platform managers around this principle. The most important takeaway from the discussion was that fair pay is achievable for all platform workers regardless of employment status.
Platform workers encounter a variety of risks depending on the tasks involved in their work. For that reason, the fair conditions session was framed around the sectoral differences and similarities in platform work conditions.
As several of the platforms represented operate in the ride hailing and food delivery sectors, the question of how to encourage workers not to speed to increase delivery rates emerged as a key point of discussion. Several strategies were shared, including incentivising speed-safe driving through pay rates, and notifying workers when they are above the speed limit.
Protective gear was also discussed. Some platforms suggested that workers may intentionally misplace what was provided. The Fairwork team emphasised that regardless of whether that is the case or not, it is essential that platforms provide the equipment to mitigate the risks that workers face. Furthermore, Prof. Graham noted that a deposit model could be introduced to alleviate concerns around misplacement, citing good practice examples from platforms that have been rated by Fairwork in different countries.
The importance of a safety net for workers occupied a significant amount of time in the session. From the perspective of the Fairwork team, this was key as only one platform – Eziban – had been able to evidence the provision of this when last evaluated for a country report (Fairwork Ghana Ratings 2021). Platforms shared strategies that they have been exploring, including the creation of internal welfare systems and the provision of up-front payments for workers in the event of their inability to work.
The fair contracts session was oriented around one question: How does the future of contracts look in the African platform economy? Six of the platforms represented (Breadfast, Orcas, Mrsool, Home+, BlackRide and Paisha) could evidence clear and transparent contracts when last evaluated by Fairwork. As such, the discussion centred, primarily, on ensuring that no unfair contract terms are imposed on workers.
Prof. Graham explained that platforms need to share the responsibility for accidents and incidents that occur while the worker is working to satisfy this more advanced threshold. Concerns were raised by platforms about potential worker ‘exploitation’ of shared liabilities, as well as the logistics of investigating incidents. However, interest in integrating this concept was also forthcoming, with certain managers outlining their intention to explore the removal of unfair clauses in their existing contracts and exploring shared liability clauses in their contracts and operations.
The fourth session centred on improving management and operational practices for workers. Reflecting on the progress made since engaging with Fairwork, several platforms described the actions they have taken to implement communication channels for workers to address grievances. The Black Ride, a local Ghanaian platform, also offered insights into changes it has made to its deactivation policy, namely consulting with the union before deactivating workers.
However, as Dr. Arubayi emphasised, the integration of fairness into management practices goes beyond improvements to due process. It also requires the provision of equity. He explained that while many platforms do not actively discriminate against certain groups of workers, they may inadvertently exacerbate already existing inequalities. In response, the discussion turned to how to implement effective anti-discrimination policies and remove barriers to work for marginalised or disadvantaged groups. Platforms including Mrsool and Home+ expressed desire to alter statements on their websites to encourage the inclusion of disadvantaged groups.
Dr Ustek-Spilda also raised the possibility of designing out unequal outcomes via the removal of rating systems. One platform made a commitment to explore the effects of ratings in relation discriminatory outcomes.
The Fairwork platform managers event was the first of its kind to bring Fairwork together with multiple platforms at the same time and have a conversation on how Fairwork principles could be implemented in platforms’ operations . This was an initiative to bring together and amplify the various initiatives that platforms across Africa have taken so far to create a better, more equitable platform economy.
Ultimately, the vast majority of change in the platform economy will come from the efforts of workers who – as the past few years have shown – are actively organising for better conditions in countries across the world. However, true to the objectives of an action research project, Fairwork can contribute by transforming our findings about workers’ experiences and concerns into actionable changes that platforms can implement. The event described here was a new experimentation in achieving that. As with other engagements with our multiple stakeholders, the proof of its actual impact will be in the changes it generates to improve working conditions for the thousands of workers who will be able to benefit from these changes.