Role of ethics in gig economy raises questions

Picture Leon Lestrade/African News Agency(ANA)

Picture Leon Lestrade/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Sep 16, 2021


By Louise Bezuidenhout

SOUTH African consumers have a long history of engaging with ethical purchasing campaigns. Since the early 2000s, organisations such as Proudly South African and Fairtrade have been encouraging us to consider where our products were made, how workers were compensated for their time, and how resources were sourced.

Similarly, the growing interest in organic produce and low carbon footprints have made us question the impact of our lifestyle choices on the environment and local communities.

As consumers, we are demonstrating our ability to change habits of everyday store and online purchases, and to increasingly illustrate that ethics are an important consideration in our daily purchases.

While we are good at thinking about where our physical purchases come from – food, clothing, household goods – we are perhaps less stringent about thinking about the services that we use. Of course, we are familiar with conversations about minimum wage and protests about working conditions.

However, there are consumer-focused organisations that actively push us to consider the working conditions of the range of service providers that we rely on for our daily activities. This is true for the traditional service providers, but even more so for the rising number of gig workers that support everything from food delivery to transport.

In July 2021 the Fairwork Foundation released a report on the state of the gig economy in South Africa.

The Fairwork Foundation is a research network embedded in more than 20 countries worldwide and is committed to highlighting best and worst practices in the platform economy using five principles of “fair work”. These are fair pay, fair working conditions, fair contracts, fair management, and fair representation. These principles are used to conduct national scorings where prominent gig platforms are ranked according to their fairness.

The 2021 scoring of gig platforms operating in South Africa demonstrated that there is much still to do in order to ensure that gig workers are adequately paid, protected and represented.

Since 2019, South Africa has seen a massive expansion of its gig economy. Existing platforms are expanding, new platforms are being developed, and international platforms are regularly setting up business in South Africa. This increasingly crowded gig economy runs the risk of starting a “race to the bottom”, where competition within a market causes companies to undercut their competitors’ prices by sacrificing quality standards or worker safety (often defying regulation) or reducing labour costs.

Unfortunately, in the current gig economy, the vast majority of gig workers are classified as “independent contractors”, meaning that the burden of this “race” is disproportionately felt by those who are most vulnerable. Gig workers must work longer hours, accept lower pay, and assume greater risks in order to compete for jobs.

These risks and burdens are often underappreciated by the consumers who use these services due to a lack of awareness – both about how gig platforms operate and the considerable variability of workers’ treatment between different platforms.

As consumers, it’s tempting to think that we have gotten a bargain when one finds a cheaper offer online. Many consumers, for example, are starting to check multiple platforms when planning an e-hailing trip to find the lowest cost for the same journey. While it can be argued that driving the prices of gig work down impacts the platform’s profit margins, complex algorithms and variable platform design does not necessarily mean that this is always the case.

For workers on some platforms, the lower cost is simply a reflection of lower individual earnings. Reports such as the Fairwork 2021 report highlight the gaps in our current understanding of how gig platforms operate. The findings should make us question who exactly is losing out when we gain. In response to this disconnect, the Fairwork Foundation has launched a national pledge campaign that encourages organisations to commit to using platforms that have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring that their workers are adequately paid and protected.

In a similar fashion to Proudly South African and Fairtrade, the Fairwork Pledge asks that we critically question the treatment of gig workers on the platforms we use and consciously select to use platforms that have scored well on the Fairwork ranking.

Building a critical reflectiveness into our engagement with the gig economy has the potential to do much good. It rewards platforms – and their workers – with good fairness track records while actively demonstrating a collective disapproval of poor gig worker treatment. This has the potential to shape the evolving gig economy in South Africa by making fairness a core priority for the future.

*To sign up to join the Fairwork Pledge visit

Dr Louise Bezuidenhout is a Fairwork research officer at the Centre for Information Technology and National Development in Africa at the University of Cape Town.

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites


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