Gig economy platforms like Uber, Deliveroo, Bolt and Glovo failed to compensate workers enough for lost income during the coronavirus pandemic and many companies still don’t offer sick pay despite increased risks of infection, a new study shows.
While many platforms touted lost-income compensation schemes, the study by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Fairwork program showed that these were actually only available for a small percentage of workers, who in turn faced much tougher competition for jobs.
The study shows between March and April 2020, Fairwork conducted a survey on the platforms’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has opened up severe fracture lines of inequality within the digital economy, placing added pressures on women, immigrants, and minority ethnic groups who comprise a core part of the gig workforce.
As of September 2020, the financial, social, physical and psychological toll of the pandemic has been immense. Yet, we are entering into a period where not only government subsidies are ending (if there were any), but also the relief packages and policies offered by the platforms and other private initiatives.
The report’s findings are based on 191 platforms in 43 countries across the world. The research was also made on low- and middle-income countries, where gig workers had less government support, and local platforms faced higher uncertainty due to financial risks.
The report says that although more platforms have started offering sick pay since April, sick pay still remains hard to access and is not commonly offered by platforms in the Global South. While government bailout and financial assistance schemes have been extended to gig workers in some parts of the world (e.g. the US, the UK, and Germany), in other parts, these schemes are either unavailable or do not cover gig workers. Amidst this uncertainty, gig workers have continued to find themselves making a dangerous calculation: Stay at home and face financial ruin or continue working but risk getting ill.
Compounding this lack of worker security, the financial assistance and sick pay schemes that have been introduced by platforms and governments all come with end dates—but with no end in sight to the pandemic, as yet. This puts extra pressure on workers, and adds to the uncertainty they face.
Many policies seem to do a good job of protecting businesses and customers, but few are fully tailored to the needs of workers. This means that some workers report that they feel they have to continue working during lockdowns—and even if they develop symptoms— simply because they do not have savings to fall back on. For workers with caring responsibilities, this means that unless they work, they cannot provide for their families. And if they work, they expose them to greater risk of contracting the virus.
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. Workers 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 or insurance policies extended by 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. Elsewhere, in Chile, the US and in South Africa, where a large share of the gig workers are undocumented migrants, workers feel particularly pressured to work even when they are ill, and they may not seek medical help for fear of hospital expenses, or their residence status being questioned.