BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

Meet Brian, who has worked as a food delivery courier in Cape Town for four years. Back in his home country, he held an advanced professional qualification. He’s been working on having his qualification recognised in South Africa, but it’s a difficult process. In the meantime, he is supporting his family by working for the delivery platform for over 80 hours per week.

Brian* spends a lot of those hours waiting outside popular restaurants with other food delivery couriers. The problem is that, when he’s not on the bike, he’s not earning money. But he has costs to cover. Brian* estimates his weekly income to be around R2000, but he pays about R875 per week for fuel, airtime and maintenance. Brian* might make just over minimum wage, but after costs are factored in, he falls well below it.

When you’re riding a motorbike for much of the day, accidents and injuries are a real risk. But Brian* says “in terms of accidents [the platform] doesn’t care about you.” There is no assistance or injury cover. Sometimes calls to the office go unanswered. Brian* is also worried about receiving a bad rating from a customer, which can threaten his future on the platform. Once a customer reported that he had a “bad attitude”.

The platform penalises the drivers if the order is wrong or the delivery is delayed. Drivers can also face deactivation for lateness. Brian* said: “They may ‘switch you off’ if you reject an order, even though you’re supposed to be able to reject”. Brian* doesn’t mind working hard to support his family, but he is hoping that soon his qualification will be recognised in South Africa, so that he can enjoy secure employment, without the risk of injury or termination at will.

Brian is not alone, Amy shares a similar story. Amy* has driven for ridesharing platforms in Cape Town for the last year. As a woman driver, she is in the small minority, and told Fairwork researchers  that she feels particularly unsafe in her work – especially at night. She worries about crime. Before she drove for ridesharing platforms, she had full time employment as a truck driver, but she was laid off because the company was struggling. With kids to support, she couldn’t lose any time in finding a new source of income.

With the first platform she worked for, she experienced a traumatic hijacking. The passengers ordered a cash trip, which means payment isn’t guaranteed upfront. Amy* doesn’t like taking cash trips but when you’re competing with other drivers for fares, sometimes there isn’t a lot of choice. The hijackers produced a weapon and told Amy* to drive for a long time. Eventually they left her, but they took her shoes, phone and wheels. Because they took her phone, she wasn’t able to push the platform’s in-app emergency button during the ordeal.

After the hijacking, she switched to working for a different platform, which she had heard was more responsive in an emergency. Thankfully, this hasn’t been tested yet. Amy* is in a WhatsApp group with other women drivers, and they arrange social get-togethers. She hasn’t heard of a union that would help make platform work safer, but she would consider joining one if it existed.

Brian and Amy are part of the Gig Economy in South Africa. The gig economy is nothing new. For centuries, people have been performing temporary or freelance jobs. But what has changed is that technology is now enabling more widespread, flexible and on-demand work opportunities that both companies and individuals can benefit from.

According to McKinsey, some 64 million people in the US and EU use gig work to supplement their main income by choice, rather than necessity. Locally, Statistics SA’s employment outlook has found that temporary employment rose from 2.6 million in 2017 to 3.9 million in 2018.

Companies are also leveraging this growing trend, with freelancing website Upwork noting that 59% of US businesses are now using some degree of flexible workforces, be it staff working remotely or the use of freelancers.

For a country like SA that’s facing massive unemployment challenges, the growth of the gig economy – be it direct or via Uber, Airbnb or any of the many other shared labour platforms – carries with it many benefits, providing job opportunities while boosting productivity. Individuals can bolster their earning potential and realise their passion with side gigs, while businesses can tap into the sought-after skills they require, without the need to permanently employ staff.

The flipside of this is, of course, the potential for exploitation of people who are forced into gig work and don’t enjoy the many benefits associated with permanent employment.

The story of Brian and Amy illustrates the reality and working conditions of many gig workers in South Africa, as revealed in a recently published report by Fairwork Project in collaboration with the Universities of Oxford, Cape Town (UCT) and the Western Cape (UWC). Fairwork  evaluates the working conditions of digital platforms and ranks them on how well they do. It’s an Oxford University-backed initiative.

The research focused on the following platforms: Sweep South, M4Jam,Picup,GetTOD,NoSweat,Uber, OrderIn, MrD,Bolt and UberEats.

Across contexts, Fairwork research has shown that gig workers face low pay (frequently earning below minimum wages), dangerous work conditions, opaque algorithmic management structures, and an inability to organise and bargain collectively. The Fairwork research shows that some platforms are actively trying to create good-quality work, whereas there is no evidence that others are operating with the same concern.

One danger according to Fairwork researchers is a race-to-the-bottom that squeezes good practices out of the market.

The research also found that gig economy platforms benefit from a legal loophole that exists in South Africa, as in most countries, labour rights are limited to workers classified as ‘employees’. Digital platforms can avoid the costs and duties arising from employees’ rights – minimum pay, maximum hours, paid leave etc. – by classifying their workers as ‘independent contractors’. Workers on the platforms covered by this study were, without exception, classified as independent contractors.

Bolt, OrderIn and UberEats were amongst the platforms that had a low score which means their workers were not paid well, worked under difficult conditions and workers had a limited ability to voice their concerns.

The Fairwork research provides a clear framework that, if implemented by Gig economy platforms, will lead to better working conditions for gig workers.