The untenable luxury of self-isolation
Last week, the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced his policy for tackling coronavirus: self-isolation. Anyone with a new, continuous cough or high temperature is now advised to self-isolate for seven days as the government moves to the ‘delay’ phase of its plan to tackle the widely spreading virus.
The PM also announced that Statutory Sick Pay will now be made available from day one when individuals self-isolate, instead of day four. This policy shift, however, fails to benefit workers in the gig economy, as it can only be used by employees rather than the self-employed, which the majority of gig workers are.
Although many workplaces are moving their businesses online and encouraging remote-working, the policy of self-isolation at home rests on two fundamental assumptions: first, that everyone has a safe home where they can isolate themselves and second, that they can afford to stay at home. But who is going to provide care for the self-isolating masses and who is going to care for those providing the care? The answer to these questions reveals a fundamental issue: that unless those providing the care are protected, none of us are.
At the moment, there is no lack of photos or videos documenting the empty shelves in the supermarkets or the shortage of some key supplies, including toilet paper, hand sanitizers and canned foods. Yet, as the supermarkets assure people that we won’t be running out of food (or toilet paper for that matter), the financial, physical and mental risks faced by workers in stocking the shelves or delivering food to self-isolating individuals gets overlooked.
There have been several incidents in the past couple of weeks, where people with the symptoms of coronavirus used Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services to get to hospitals, instead of calling ambulances or seeking help from healthcare providers, which resulted in drivers getting infected. It is only a matter of time before workers who deliver food and other goods and those who provide care services face the same outcome. A New York Times article maps workers according to the coronavirus risk they face. It shows that childcare workers, maids, personal aides and couriers are in the highest risk group; the majority of them tend to be gig workers.
Gig workers are also facing tremendous psychological pressures, as they juggle decreasing or inflating demand for their work and its financial and physical implications. As many people are staying off the roads, rideshare workers are seeing a drop in the demand for their services; delivery services on the other hands are ‘thriving’ as supermarkets run out of delivery slots and online shopping platforms out of household items.
Whereas tourism is in free-fall, demand for cleaners, domestic workers and care workers is likely to increase as the UK authorities have asked those above the age of 70 and other vulnerable individuals to start isolating themselves. This is because those who previously relied on family and friends or carried out their own tasks will now need to outsource them. Gig workers are facing the tough choice between continuing to work at the risk of getting ill (and thereby infecting their families, colleagues and housemates) or not working at the cost of financial loss and increased vulnerability.
Aware of these risks, some platforms claim to have introduced measures to protect their workers. Some food delivery services, for instance, are trialing ‘contactless’ delivery options for workers; some ask their workers to wear masks and others have introduced sick pay schemes that cover workers who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Yet, these efforts fall short as they are designed with only short-term protection in mind and do not cover everyone. Our evidence shows that platforms have starkly different types of working conditions available to workers. While a small minority of workers are employed as employees of platforms, the vast majority are recruited on a self-employment basis; which means that they do not have access to employment protections, such as sick pay or unemployment benefits.
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 thus cannot hold off work until they raise what they owe.
Moreover, these short-term measures do not take into account the fact that gig workers still have to interact with restaurant workers, supermarkets and travel through public spaces. For some types of gig work, ‘contactless’ is not possible at all; drivers, care workers, domestic workers and beauticians cannot perform their services without being in contact with their clients. Also proving that one is really sick (ie having been diagnosed) may not always be possible, considering the shortage of testing facilities or the UK government’s policy that only those in hospitals will be tested.
Living hand to mouth
Self-isolation is a luxury, and as a public policy, it is untenable if it comes at the cost of one part of the population who provide the services required for the well-being of many facing heightened financial, physical and mental vulnerability.
By tracing who can and cannot (feasibly) self-isolate, 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 are the elderly, the sick or the self-isolating or those who care for them.
Both platforms and the government need to increase their efforts to protect gig workers, so that they can continue to provide care for the population. With respect to sick pay and other schemes offered to workers, our research shows that workers are not always in the know about them or the small print in their contracts limit their access to them. But they urgently need to have access to sick pay schemes that cover them for at least 14 days, in line with the government recommendation. Essentials which would enable them to carry out their work safely such as sanitizers, cleaning equipment and health check-ups need to be free and freely available. Lease fares or any other payments need to be suspended until the outbreak is over to lessen their financial burden.
Governments also need to increase their efforts and provide financial support to workers who need to self- isolate and provide unemployment benefits and sick leave for all workers – regardless of their contractual status. Moreover, these should be long-term measures to protect gig workers – and not merely temporary schemes put in place just to get us over that curve.
As consumers, we also need to change our responses. Rather than congratulating platforms that announce how they will be taking care of their workers, we need to ask how exactly they will do so, and avoid platforms who do not take their moral responsibilities to their workers seriously.
Coronavirus brings to light the essential role that gig workers play in the day-to-day life of society; it also magnifies the vulnerabilities they face every day. Through our networks of transmission and our networks of care, the pandemic shows us 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. Self-isolation is a luxury; social protection should not be.
Co-authored by Funda Ustek-Spilda, Mark Graham, Srujana Katta, Kelle Howson, Fabian Ferrari and Alessio Bertolini, a coalition of researchers at Fairwork – an organization which studies the work practices and working conditions in the emerging gig economy. Fairwork is based at the Oxford Internet Institute.