Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

A group of Uber drivers in Cape Town use social media messaging platform WhatsApp to share information about where their cars can be washed at discounted rates; where the latest deals for tyres or other car maintenance services are to be found; and who is looking for drivers or partner slots on the platform. But their messages also increasingly lament stories of colleagues suffering stabbings, shootings and murder as the app that has hailed new opportunities for work starts being used to hail crime.

In countries such as SA with high unemployment levels (officially 27%), “gig work” — piecemeal work structured through apps that connect workers with users — offers ample opportunities for work outside the strictures of traditional labour markets. But work for the likes of Uber (ride-hailing), SweepSouth (domestic services) and UpWork (freelance work) also raises red flags regarding the potential exploitation of vulnerable workers. Will tackling SA’s unemployment problem through potentially harmful online labour practices do more harm than good in the long run?

Perhaps not. Relatively few Africans are drawing dividends from the gig economy, estimated to be worth $5bn globally in transactions annually . Research ICT Africa (RIA) research shows only 2% of the population aged 15 years and older are working on these platforms.

Of the 53% of the SA population who use the internet, only 6% work via online or microwork platforms — a small percentage high-value digital workers but the majority undertaking manual labour sourced through a digital platform. This is fewer than in Mozambique (7.8% of only 10% with internet access) or Nigeria (7.6% of the less than 30% online in 2017 — mostly unemployed graduates).

But while still limited, gig work does appear to have a positive impact by creating jobs for people at the bottom of the pyramid. At least half (53%) of African gig workers indicate that the income they earn from digital platforms is essential for meeting their basic needs. The importance of gig income is even more pronounced in SA, with 60% of gig workers indicating that this income is crucial to meeting their basic needs.

However, small its current impact on Africa as a continent, getting the gig economy right is crucial for Africans’ future ability to participate in digital economies. Yet the standards and regulations imposed through time, legislation and long labour struggles are easily circumvented in much of the gig economy. Because most, often global, platforms do not recognise themselves as employers, they are able to extract much more wealth from the work process, and Africa, and are even able at times to avoid labour regulations altogether.

Three examples illustrate this:

  • The use of apps that track workers on the job allows employers to limit drastically the amount of time they have to pay for. Travel between jobs, breaks or cancellations are not the responsibility of the companies, but are in effect passed down to the workers. This cuts the cost of platforms and pushes workers to increase their work hours and the number of jobs they have to take on.
  • The tendency towards overwork in the gig economy is often compounded by the fact that there is a running disagreement between workers and many platforms over the nature of the relationship between the two. Most platforms refuse to acknowledge their role as employers. Instead, they argue that they simply function as technology companies connecting self-employed individuals providing services with service users.
  • The lack of employment status generates a lack of collective bargaining rights for workers in their relationship with the platforms. Platforms can, and often do, change the percentage they take from jobs, or change terms and conditions with little to no say from the workers themselves. Most of these changes are unilaterally imposed on all app users — that is to say workers — without a process of collective bargaining or accountability being available.

On the Cape Town drivers’ WhatsApp group for example, messages indicate confusion and disagreement about how these drivers should respond to safety and other concerns with Uber. One driver on the group recently called for drivers to refuse the cash payments that can expose drivers to safety risks (the so-called #CashMustFall movement).

Another asked others on the group how he could challenge being deactivated from the platform after reportedly cancelling certain rides due to safety concerns: “Uber warns about cancelling but I cannot drive in dangerous places. It’s better to cancel than risk your life.”

Policy, regulation and policymakers are slow to respond to these challenges and innovative responses to the innovative gig economy are clearly needed. One such response is the Fairwork Foundation.

Based on the principles of fair trade and the Living Wage Foundation, Fairwork aims to highlight the best and worst practices in the emerging platform economy and develop international standards and shared best practice among platforms. It gives platforms scores based on how well they achieve Fairwork’s “big five” of work standards: fair work, conditions, contracts, management, and representation.

Currently operational in SA, Fairwork has published a league table of how all big platforms in the country score against these metrics. It aims to release its scores yearly and will to add Germany and the UK to 2020’s focus countries.

In just one year of operation, Fairwork has already encouraged some platforms to change their approaches. In SA, the freelance gig platform No Sweat, for example, has introduced significant changes in several areas of fairness.

It pays above the minimum wage after taking the workers’ costs into account, has a clear process to ensure clients on the platform agree to protect workers’ health and safety while also having a clear process for workers to lodge grievance about conditions. It is further committed to the consensual and informed process of minimal data collection by the platform.

Another South African platform, Bottles, officially committed to support workers’ collective representation on its platform, free from company interference.

Fairwork provides one way to help improve gig workers’ conditions, contributing to the campaigns that are appearing around the globe over pay, working conditions, union representation, and employment status. The extent of that effectiveness will be tested out by the workers themselves, in practice.

The fact that a number of platforms have started improving their practices should also help workers such as those on the Cape Town Uber WhatsApp group to themselves demand better conditions and fairer standards from the platforms that employ them.

• The Fair Work Foundation was established by the Oxford Internet Institute. Its work in SA has been support by Research ICT Africa and the University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.

• Prof Gillwald is with Research ICT Africa and UCT. This article was co-written with colleague Anri van der Spuy as well as Prof Mark Graham, Dr Jamie Woodcock and Sai Englert of the Oxford Internet Institute.