Gig workers hit hard by Covid-19

Published May 20, 2020


CAPE TOWN - Gig workers have proven particularly vulnerable during the economic shutdown, with about half of them losing their “jobs”, according to new research by The Fairwork Project, a collaboration between various South African and foreign university research units.

Trends in South Africa through the Covid-19 lockdown broadly reflected gig economy trends around the world, according to the report, titled Gig Workers, Platforms and Government During Covid-19, which was released this month.

It was compiled by staff from the universities of Oxford, Cape Town, Western Cape, Manchester, Institute of Information Technology Bangalore in India and the Technical University of Berlin.

“Our survey suggests the 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,” the researchers note.

The report looked at gig economy platforms active in South Africa, government responses  regarding informal, freelance or gig economy workers, and actual worker experience surveys.

While most online platforms regarded workers as independent contracts rather than employees, the report found that gig technology companies M4Jam and SweepSouth actively worked to offset income losses for contracted giggers.

“While [gig economy] 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,” the researchers wrote.

Gig economy platforms, which operate by connecting jobbers with potential temporary work at corporate entities, should do more to help, such as by reducing commissions, deferring loans, offering healthcare assistance and sick pay, improving communication and engaging with workers and their representatives more effectively, the researchers wrote.

M4Jam chief executive Georgie Midgley said the report’s finding that inaction on behalf of gig platforms was the norm gave credence to the common criticism of the gig economy. 

“Unfortunately most gig economy platforms live up to negative perceptions about jobber vulnerability. In a country like South Africa where the gig economy can play a vital role in supplementing income and providing much-needed temporary employment, the down side is potential exploitation of workers who do not have the safety net permanent employees have,” he said.

“We agree with the report’s findings that if gig economy platforms direct and exercise control over the work given to contracted jobbers, they should go to greater lengths to be responsible for assisting workers in dealing with the effects of Covid-19,” said Midgely.

According to the report, gig workers tended to fall between the cracks of government financial relief measures because they fall outside the Unemployment Insurance Fund net.

“Gig workers have fallen between two stools: able to access neither the [government] 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,” the researchers said.

At the same time, the report said, the value of gig workers to the economy had been underlined by Covid-19 and lockdown.

“Delivery services, for example, have been essential to society during lockdown. In the longer term, a legal resolution must be found to rescue gig workers from the employment-status limbo that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief,” the researcher noted.


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