How is the platform economy responding to COVID-19?

Although there is little evidence of ‘disaster capitalism’, ‘compassionate capitalism’ has been in rather short supply.

Fairwork Foundation
14 May 2020, 12.42pm
A Domino's Pizza delivery cyclist wearing a surgical face mask rides by Chinatown in London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus
Isabel Infantes/EMPICS Entertainment

The Covid-19 pandemic has infected millions of people across the world, resulting in more than 250,000 deaths to date. While some countries have started to discuss an easing of their lockdown measures, the infections continue to spread in other parts of the world.

The estimated 50 million gig workers around the world have proven to be “key workers” during the pandemic; delivering food and household essentials to self-isolating masses and providing much-needed care services to those in need. Yet, our recent study based on the responses of 120 platforms across 23 countries reveals that the majority of gig workers do not have access to employment protections such as health insurance and sick pay. It also reveals that most platforms are falling short in even delivering the promises they made to their workers – such as handing out personal protective equipment.

Platforms are undoubtedly worried about their businesses during Covid-19. A number are struggling and there is little evidence of so-called “disaster capitalism” whereby they would seek to use Covid-19 as an opportunity for extraction of additional profit. However, “compassionate capitalism” has also been in rather short supply. There have been public spirited responses from platforms, including making substantial donations to healthcare and relief efforts, and offering free services to healthcare workers. But there have also been mean-spirited responses: making workers pay for the personal protection products necessary to reduce risk of infection while doing their job, denying sick pay to workers who have fallen ill, raising technical barriers to claiming sick pay, and allegedly dismissing those trying to organise for better pay and safety for workers whose lives and livelihoods are endangered.

Overall, we found there is a gap between rhetoric and reality: platforms have been far better at publicising responses than at actually delivering them to workers. Second, there is a skew in stakeholder focus: platform responses have served shareholders, investors and customers before workers, even though it is workers who form the foundation of all value for the platform. There is also a timidity: while governments have torn up ideologies and rulebooks, platforms have generally been only incremental in their response and have too often used the language of the get-out clause rather than that of the guarantee. Platforms have loaded risks and responsibilities onto others: too many platforms interpret “wash your hands” less in terms of the virus and more in terms of their responsibilities to their workers; throwing that responsibility onto governments for financial support and onto individual workers for their own protection from coronavirus.

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When analysing the platform responses, we have categorised platform responses according to the five ‘Fairwork Principles’ that our ongoing action research uses to rate platforms against decent work standards and our results indicate the following:

Fair Pay: By far the most important issue for workers; yet only 5 out of 120 platforms had direct policies to increase pay for those in work; more common were actions to maintain levels of business, like client fee waivers or expanding scope of services.

Fair Conditions (Prevention): Cut-and-paste hygiene guidance and contactless delivery (though not contactless collection) were the most widespread policies. Just over half of the platforms we checked said they were providing personal protection equipment (disinfectant or, less often, masks); workers reported they often failed to receive this.

Fair Conditions (Illness): Around half of the platforms said they were providing some payment for workers who were ill, but workers reported it could be hard to access and payments often fell well below national minimum wage equivalents.

Fair Contracts: The only response here, by a few platforms, has been to try to create a firewall around their current actions; still asserting an arm’s-length relation to workers as ‘independent contractors’.

Fair Management: A few companies are guaranteeing no loss of bonus or incentive levels despite temporary deactivation of workers, or are issuing statements against any attempt by clients to discriminate against certain worker groups.

Fair Representation: We found no evidence yet of any platform engagement with worker associations, despite a number of such groups setting out demands and even organising strikes.

Covid-19 has also magnified the lines of social stratification among workers. A substantial proportion of women work for platforms that offer care work, domestic work and beauty services. They report being unable to work either because platforms have suspended their services or because they have to remain at home to take care of their own families. Others report having to combine caring for their own children with care work or domestic work, including taking their children with them to workplaces – exposing both themselves and their children to the risk of contracting the virus. The sick leave policies extended by the platforms rarely include family members, and they do not provide assistance to workers who are unable to work due to caring responsibilities.

Migration background also plays a prominent role in whether or not workers are able to seek health care assistance or report poor health to their platforms. In the UK, for instance, most workers from outside the European Union have no recourse to public funds and need to pay a surcharge to access the National Health Service. Not being entitled to government benefits means that workers feel particularly pressured to work, even when they are ill, and they do not seek medical help, for fear of their visa status or hospital expenses. In London, an Uber driver from Bangalore, India, who contracted the virus sadly passed away having avoided contacting the National Health Service for fear that his landlord would evict him on learning he was infected.

Covid-19 has magnified the existing vulnerabilities of gig workers. But it is important to emphasise that these vulnerabilities are not unique to the pandemic and will continue affecting the workers, unless necessary steps are taken by the platforms, and governments that hold them accountable. Deeming gig workers as “key workers” is not sufficient to emphasise their importance for the well-being of the society. Instead, as key workers they should have access to fair conditions at work, fair management practices, decent wages and protections against the risks they face; and most importantly, protection against being penalised for engaging in collective action when they need to make demands from the platforms they work for and the governments. Covid-19 popularised social isolation as a concept, post-Covid-19, we need to popularise solidarity instead.

You can read The Gig Economy and Covid-19: Fairwork Report on Platform policies here.

This article was written by Funda Ustek-Spilda, Richard Heeks, Mark Graham, Alessio Bertolini, Srujana Katta, Sandra Fredman, Kelle Howson, Fabian Ferrari, Mounika Neerukonda, Pradyumna Taduri, Adam Badger, Nancy Salem, of the Fairwork Foundation. The organisation studies the work practices and working conditions in the emerging gig economy, and is based at the Oxford Internet Institute.

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