From Social Distancing to Social Solidarity: Gig economy and the Covid-19

By Funda Ustek-Spilda,  Mark Graham, Alessio Bertolini, Srujana Katta, Fabian Ferrari and Kelle Howson – A coalition of researchers at Fairwork – an organisation which studies the work practices and working conditions in the emerging gig economy. Fairwork is based at the Oxford Internet Institute.

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.

gig-econoy-covid19Social distancing and self-isolation are the policies du jour. At this point, an estimated 1.7 billion people have been asked to remain at home by their governments, whether through a full lock-down or similar measures. As people are required to self-isolate and minimise social contact, using the internet and online platforms has become the safest way to access necessary goods and services. It is therefore not surprising that “gig workers” – workers that digital platforms hire on a per-service (“gig”) basis – have been identified as “key workers” in the fight against Covid-19, be it delivering household necessities or performing services, such as stocking shelves in supermarkets or caring for the elderly or disabled.

Nevertheless, due to the nature of their jobs, gig workers have been identified as the highest risk group as they cannot always ensure keeping a 2 m social distance from their customers. Also, our interviews show that many gig workers live hand to mouth, and they just cannot afford to take time off, whether there is a public health crisis or not. Moreover, some workers have leases and other upfront payments that they have committed to make to the platforms they work for, and they are simply unable to hold off work until they raise what they owe. It is worth noting that the gig economy also relies on workers in developing countries where overall most workers are informal and very often lack safety nets and other forms of protection. In brief, Covid-19 has brought to light a major inequality in the way platform economies are set up: gig workers provide for the key needs of society, yet they do not have access to fair working conditions.

For many gig workers, staying at home is a luxury. Although in many countries, governments have been implementing targeted financial support measures to protect workers during the social distancing period, gig workers often find themselves excluded. This is because, while a small minority of workers are classified by the platforms as employees, a large majority are recruited on a self-employment basis; which means that they do not have access to social protection, such as sick pay or unemployment benefits.

In the last week, as Fairwork, we have systematically reviewed responses from 73 platforms across 12 countries in 5 different continents to track the measures they have been taking to protect their workers. Our analysis shows that, from India to the UK, from Chile to Australia, the single most common measure has been to set up contact-free deliveries; where possible, to provide masks and hand sanitisers to workers and give generic health care advice. However, the number of platforms that offer the much needed sick pay or financial support for those workers who need to self-isolate has been rather limited.

Moreover, our research shows that workers are not always aware of these policies, as platforms refrain from adequately advertising them to discourage their take up. Other times, the policies are tied to understanding and navigating complex requirements and conditions, making it difficult for workers to access them. For instance, Deliveroo announced that it will offer its 35,000 riders in excess of statutory sick pay in the UK, for up to two weeks of self-isolation, if they can document that they have contracted the virus or they can demonstrate that they were told to self-isolate by a medical authority. Up until the National Health Service started issuing online  isolation notes, it was extremely difficult for workers to prove, if not impossible, that they were required to self-isolate, as only patients in hospitals were being tested. Similarly, even though Uber issued a global policy stating that they will be providing sick pay for 14 days to those who have contracted the virus, it became apparent that this was conditional on workers’ agreeing to specific conditions, such as undersigning that the payments would not change their status as “independent contractors”. Hence, even though this public health crisis is revealing the impossibility of continuing business-as-usual for platforms, there is still much to be done to emphasise that the vulnerabilities of gig workers did not arise out of nowhere and their social protection needs will not magically disappear after this health crisis subsides.

By tracing who can and cannot (feasibly) self-isolate or ensure social distancing, we see the chasms in our society today; but also how we are linked to one another with ever more visible threads. Flattening the curve means not only delaying the risks of catching the disease for the many, but also sharing the risks faced by the vulnerable in society: be they the elderly, the sick, the self-isolating or those who care for them. Through our networks of transmission and our networks of care, the pandemic shows just how interconnected we all are. Our solutions have to be systemic, inclusive, and can no longer allow certain groups in society to fall through the cracks. We are all in this together, and we need to renew our efforts to give back and show care to the workers providing the increasingly essential services in society. This is why we need to shift our attention from social distancing as a crisis management policy to social solidarity which will protect us all both during and after the crisis.

Both platforms and governments need to increase their efforts, and developed and developing countries must learn from each other, to protect gig workers – so that they can continue to provide care for the population. The protection schemes should not be set up as one-off or short-term solutions to fix a permanent problem. Gig workers need to have access to safe and fair working conditions at all times. As consumers, we also have the responsibility to change our responses. Rather than congratulating platforms that announce only to us how they will be taking care of their workers, we need to ask how exactly they will do so and whether their workers have been adequately informed, avoiding platforms who do not take their moral responsibilities to their workers seriously. Social isolation is a luxury, social protection should not be.