Coronavirus is showing that precarity and dangerous working conditions are a choice companies have been making for workers, not a necessary payoff for flexibility and independence, say Fairwork researchers*
In response to Covid-19, Uber did something that trade unions and activists have been demanding for years. The company has committed to paying 14 days’ sick pay to drivers who had a positive diagnosis of the virus or who were medically required to self-isolate.
With this move, Uber has tacitly acknowledged both that many drivers are wholly dependent on its platform for their income, and that it exerts an enormous amount of control over their health and safety.
Working in the gig economy is risky at the best of times. If you fall off your bike, crash your car, or get sick, you’re on your own. Your income stream is cut off exactly when you need it most. Covid-19 has only amplified these risks for gig workers – many of whom found themselves on the frontlines of this crisis.
Social distancing simply is not possible if you are delivering food or providing transportation. And while other workers who show symptoms are able to self-isolate, low pay and the lack of a safety net makes that decision difficult or unthinkable for gig workers.
This dilemma is further complicated in the transport sector, where most drivers have regular and unrelenting vehicle financing and maintenance costs. Even prior to this crisis (due to which demand for rides has plummeted), drivers often had to work in excess of 30 hours per week just to break even.
Gig workers face the double bind of facing heightened risks to their health – as the very nature of their work leaves them inordinately exposed to the virus – and their financial precarity which keeps them working even when sick.
Moreover, gig workers can also be the (unintentional) vectors of the virus, and without proper protections, they may compound the public health crisis that governments throughout the world are desperately trying to contain.
‘Just the middleman’
The Covid-19 crisis has exposed what is, at its core, a business model that is founded upon the exploitation of workers, a model that puts all of the physical risks of doing business onto workers, and allows platform companies to absolve themselves of significant responsibility.
A fundamental logic of the gig economy has begun to unravel. Up until now, platforms in every corner of the planet have presented themselves as digital intermediaries who facilitate transactions between those wanting to sell and buy services. ‘Don't look to us, we're just the middleman’ has been the attitude.
Using this logic, platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo have been able to classify gig workers as self-employed, and exempt themselves from legal obligations to provide employment protections, such as minimum wages and sick pay.
However, at this moment of crisis, these companies have come under mounting public scrutiny, as the consequences of the precarity can be seen on a mass scale.
Platforms have rolled out a series of provisions to protect gig workers, by quickly implementing measures that would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago. Sick pay schemes and the provision of personal protective equipment are now ostensibly available for millions of workers around the world.
However, gig workers and their advocates have already pointed to serious issues with the rollout of these policies, revealing them to be, at best, slow on the uptake and, at worst, more concerned with PR strategies and protecting consumers rather than workers.
Many of the measures do not go far enough, remain hard to access or are unclear in their entitlement requirements, continuing to allow too many workers to fall through the cracks. Some come with stringent conditions attached, designed to prevent large numbers of workers from actually using them. For instance, the UPHD union in the UK has pointed out that it is almost impossible for drivers to obtain the documentation required by Uber to release sick pay.
A broken model
The UK Government previously advised people experiencing symptoms to self-isolate immediately, and avoid going to the doctor or hospital unless absolutely necessary. That left most drivers unable to get doctors’ notes to satisfy Uber’s requirements until the Government changed course and started issuing sick notices online.
When a 60-year-old Uber driver in San Francisco who had contracted the virus managed to obtain a written note from his doctor, Uber erected barriers to paying his sick pay. In order to upload the doctor’s note, the platform required him to agree to onerous conditions, including sharing personal information and obliging him to declare that even though he might receive this one-off sick pay, he was still an independent contractor, and not an employee.
Even when he completed these steps and agreed to the conditions, Uber did not pay him until he tweeted his case to its CEO.
While it may seem like there is a distressing future for gig workers, there is cause for hope. The severity of the crisis has made it obvious that inaction is not a viable option in the long run. Gig workers need protection, and it is platforms that need to step into that role.
This is a genie that platforms like Uber will struggle to put back into the bottle. How would they cover the sick pay of a worker diagnosed with Covid-19 today and not a worker who breaks a bone next year?
Beginning to take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their workers is a slippery slope that most platforms undoubtedly do not want to be standing on: as is evidenced by their vocal support for recent government schemes, such as those in the US and UK, that provide financial support for the self-employed.
Instead of allowing them to shift responsibility for workers’ well-being onto taxpayers, all of us should reflect on just how much responsibility platforms bear for their workers. By putting into place even cynical and half-hearted measures, platforms are admitting that poor, precarious, and dangerous working conditions are a choice that they have been making for workers, not a necessary payoff for flexibility and independence.
This pandemic will subside, and when it does, we cannot go back to a world in which platforms once again wash their hands of all responsibility to their workers, and society at large. Because if they don’t protect their workers, who will?
Authored by a coalition of gig economy researchers at Fairwork, including: Mark Graham, Kelle Howson, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Srujana Katta, Alessio Bertolini, Adam Badger and Fabian Ferrari.