The politics of Covid-19: gig work in the coronavirus crisis

How long are we willing to turn a blind eye to the vulnerabilities of essential workers on the bottom of the employment hierarchy, asks the Fairwork Foundation

March 26, 2020 · 7 min read
Black Friday demonstration against Deliveroo in Berlin in 2018. Photo by Leonhard Lenz Black Friday demonstration against Deliveroo in Berlin in 2018.Photo by Leonhard Lenz.

In her short story The ones who walk away from Omelas, Ursula le Guin describes a utopian city with a caveat: its orderliness, serenity, joyfulness and beauty requires that a single unfortunate child is kept in misery, darkness and despair. Le Guin’s story draws attention to a known philosophical dilemma: how far are we willing to go in sacrificing the rights, happiness, and wellbeing of the minority, for the happiness of the majority? And how far is too far? Amid the coronavirus crisis, this question is turning from hypothetical to real.

As new coronavirus cases are rapidly increasing across the world, gig workers are on the front lines of this crisis. They are delivering food and household essentials to those self-isolating or practising social distancing and are providing much needed care services to those in need. As such, they are among the ‘key workers’ the UK government announced: those ‘who are maintaining essential public services during the Covid-19 response’.

The unaffordable luxury of self-isolation

Essentially, the nature of their roles means that many gig workers are doing the opposite of social distancing. They directly interact with restaurants, shops, and customers, in public and private spaces. Subsequently, their exposure to risk is very high. Governments around the world are advising anyone with symptoms to self-isolate, while an increasing number of countries are implementing lockdown measures, obliging people to stay at home unless for necessary activities.

But for gig workers, this is easier said than done. Not working means not having the means to pay rent and put food on the table for their families. Not working also means facing their accounts being blocked by the platforms or losing the level of incentives they have accumulated. Thus, their physical presence in our streets and in front of our doors affords platforms to scale up their orders amid the crisis. For workers who need to pay rental or loan costs on their work equipment or vehicles, not working means going deeper into debt and facing financial ruin. For gig workers, self-isolation is an unaffordable luxury.

Policies stated but not practised

To see how platforms have been responding to the crisis, the Fairwork team has been systematically collecting any policies that they have put in place to mitigate the risks that gig workers face. Our results show that from India to the UK, from the US to South Africa, their responses are insufficient. In most cases, they pay lip service to protection without investing meaningfully in action that would actually protect their workforce. We’ve seen some platforms, putting a lot of energy into telling customers how they are protecting workers, without actually informing the workers themselves.

In Germany, for example, there is evidence that Lieferando workers learnt about new policies from the media rather than their platform. Indeed, several of the measures taken by the platforms for protection against coronavirus seem primarily designed to protect customers and businesses. Among the 60+ platforms we have surveyed across the world, the single most common response is contact-free delivery and providing hand sanitisers or masks to workers. Many platforms, at least initially, have even refused to provide these protections, by arguing that workers are self-employed and they do not have the obligation to guarantee their health and safety.

Policies on paid leave are rare and even when they exist, they are hard to access

Policies on paid leave for those who need to self-isolate either due to themselves getting ill or their family members, are rare and even when they exist, they are hard to access. Deliveroo, for instance, announced that workers would be able to have access to paid leave for up to 14 days, if they get ill. Similarly, Uber is providing financial support for 14 days to drivers who have been diagnosed. However, the small print in the policy notes, paid leave is conditional on producing a sick note. Given that the people with coronavirus symptoms should refrain from physically visiting a doctor, it is unclear how workers can actually benefit from this policy.

In some countries, such as France or the UK, health authorities are only testing those with severe symptoms, further reducing the possibility for gig workers to be diagnosed with the virus. In our research, we have documented that several platforms are aware of the financial uncertainty gig workers are facing and they say they are taking the needed measures against them, by introducing ‘hardship funds’. But again, when we dig deeper, we notice that they do not specify how workers can access these funds or for how long.

A Foodpanda delivery rider in Singapore. Photo A Foodpanda delivery rider in Singapore. Photo by Lgh_9.

Our interviews with workers for the Fairwork project suggest that some of these policies and safety regulations are stated, but not actually practised. As a driver who works for Uber in Bangalore told us:

‘Uber has not reached out to us regarding any safety regulations or precautions yet, either via call or messaging. No masks or sanitisers have been provided either. Rides per day have gone down too from almost 15 a day to now barely five. Me and my friends have been reaching out to other travel vendors for any outstation jobs. We’ve given up on these platforms [Uber and Ola] for now… there are no customers since everybody is working from home.’

The situation now is, of course, vastly different to any utopia. The coronavirus crisis is dominating the news today, and eventually, the world will recover. Until then, how long are we willing to turn a blind eye to the vulnerabilities of those workers who provide the essential services in society? When sacrificing the wellbeing of those who are the bottom rungs of the employment hierarchy to stock the shelves, to deliver food, to care for children, the sick or elderly – how far are we willing to go? If we do not want platforms to determine the moral compass of our societies, we need to hold them accountable for their policies.

This article was written by Funda Ustek-Spilda, Mark Graham, Alessio Bertolini, Srujana Katta, Fabian Ferrari, Adam Badger, Kelle Howson and Mounika Neerukonda, of the Fairwork Foundation. The organisation studies the work practices and working conditions in the emerging gig economy, and is based at the Oxford Internet Institute.

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