The world over, as countries remain in various stages of lockdown, as people stay off the roads, and as the demand for delivery services spike due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the low-paid contingent of gig workers linked to digital platforms—such as ride-hailing and food delivery—are under huge strain.

From ride-hailing drivers who have seen a drop in the demand for their services as well as loss in incomes, to delivery workers who have been at the frontlines of this crisis, to paid care workers who have lost livelihoods in an increasingly ‘no touch’, ‘stay at home’ world, the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus has supercharged the debate about the complete lack of social protections and safety nets for platform workers.

For the most part, gig workers are considered independent contractors, not entitled to workers’ compensation, healthcare benefits, or sick pay. The lack of social protections and safety nets for platform workers means that many are showing up at work in the midst of this pandemic simply because they can’t afford not to. Some platform companies have stepped in with short-term measures like providing workers with masks, sanitizers and gloves, while others have established relief funds for sick and quarantined drivers. But are these measures enough? And are they uniformly available to all workers?

The Fairwork Foundation has been conducting surveys and interviews with gig workers, worker unions and representatives in their program countries with the aim to answer three main questions: a) what do gig workers want and need in the COVID-19 crisis; b) what do platforms say they are providing gig workers; and c) what gig workers are actually experiencing in terms of the responses from platforms. Their research has covered 119 platform companies in 23 countries across Europe, North America, South America, Asia and Africa, and has thrown up the following issues in most platforms’ responses to date:

  • platforms have spent more effort in publicizing responses than delivering them to workers,
  • platform responses seem to be directed at serving customers’ interest, rather than workers,
  • platforms have been only incremental in their response,
  • platforms have sought to shift that responsibility of providing financial support to their workers onto governments, and
  • there is a gap between what workers require in order to stay safe and what platforms are currently providing.

The following insights are based on a conversation with Srujana Katta, head of communications at Fairwork Foundation.

1. How did platforms respond in the immediate aftermath of Covid-19?

The majority of responses from platforms have been preventive in nature, that is, aimed at preventing workers and customers from contracting the virus. This includes introducing contact-free services, providing different levels of personal protective equipment (PPE) like gel, spray and masks, and in some cases, providing generic health advice copied from public health sources. But these preventive measures for workers are actually for the benefit of customers, and hence platforms’ bottom lines. As such, these measures can sometimes come at the cost of constraining workers’ livelihoods. For example, some platforms are mandating temperature scans to identify workers who might be carrying the virus, some are suspending accounts of workers who’ve been diagnosed, wile others are suspending parts of their services altogether (like shared ride-hailing).

Just over half of the platforms surveyed have instituted some form of sick pay for workers diagnosed with Covid-19, but are refraining from calling it ‘sick pay’. This includes additional payments to workers to make up for lost income, increasing the hourly rate, or offering deferrals or financial loans to workers during the pandemic (the last is quite rare). Very few are providing sick pay to workers at their usual rate, or at the rate mandated by the jurisdiction in which they operate. More often than not, sick pay is available to workers only if they can prove that they have contracted the virus. This requires a licensed medical authority to authenticate their claim at a time when healthcare systems are already under severe strain. Even fewer platforms are extending sick pay to workers who have to self isolate because of family members who may have contracted the virus.

Complex subcontractor networks cannot preclude platforms from responsibility over the people who work for them, whether this is recognized through formal employment contracts or obscured through complex arrangements. Our view is that, ultimately, it is the highest node in the contracting network that is responsible for the welfare of workers.

While some measures initiated by platforms are in line with what formal employers are offering, by and large, the response has been piecemeal, and not uniformly available to all workers. Reports from multiple countries suggest that while some workers on a platform are able to access the promised PPE and sick pay, others on the same platform are unable to do so. There is also a major gap in communication. Platforms need to have a more uniform, standardized approach and clarify the process to workers, so they know what to expect and how to go about accessing these protections.

2. How do subcontracting arrangements for platform workers in the Global South affect the ability to access Covid-related protections?

We do find such complex arrangements even in contexts outside of the Global South. While researching how Amazon and Flipkart manage their delivery systems in India, we found some very complex subcontractor networks. But this is also true of how Uber operates in Germany, with immensely complex subcontracting networks with other employers, and a host of different employment contracts that workers have with third parties. In these instances, workers deal on a day-today basis with a company that is not the platform in question.

Complex subcontractor networks, however, cannot preclude platforms from responsibility over the people who work for them, whether this is recognized through formal employment contracts or obscured through complex arrangements. Our view is that, ultimately, it is the highest node in the contracting network that is responsible for the welfare of workers. Even if they don’t work for Uber or Flipkart directly, they work for a party that these platforms contract with. When we make demands on platforms to provide certain basic protections to workers, it’s important to identify that it’s not necessary that workers have a contract with the platform directly. If they are wearing a Flipkart or an Uber uniform and/or delivering their parcels and accepting rides from their users, they are adding value to the platform. So platforms can’t say that there is no relation between the two of them. Of course, this is a contentious issue, and has ended up being litigated in courts without any clear judgment one way or another, and often with contradictory judgments in the same jurisdiction.

Going forward, we not only need to hold platforms accountable, but we also need to make sure that governments, when addressing these new forms of employment arrangements, are aware of the complexities of how workers are contracted to work on different platforms. Especially during a pandemic like this when policies are being rolled out on an adhoc basis, these are complexities we need to factor into the demands that we place before governments and platforms.

3. Can Covid-19 elevate the urgency to regulate platform practices?

Even in the midst of this crisis, some platforms are distancing themselves from any responsibility and trying to pin obligations for protecting workers’ welfare on governments. In the US, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote a letter to the US federal government asking that Uber drivers be included in the federal income support package. While ostensibly advocating for the rights of Uber drivers, Khosrowshahi was effectively saying that the government should take on supporting drivers, rather than Uber itself. Some worker representatives in the US, who represent Uber and Lyft drivers, told us that workers who had contracted the virus and applied for Uber’s 14-day insurance scheme, had to sign a statement saying that any support received during this time would not constitute a change in their employment status. In these ways, platforms are trying to distance themselves from any responsibility towards platform workers.

Nevertheless, this is a big shift from platforms’ usual stance that they’re not employers, but intermediaries. Even when measures are piecemeal and inadequate, in introducing them, platforms are effectively admitting both responsibility and the ability to impact workers’ welfare.

Even when measures are piecemeal and inadequate, in introducing them, platforms are effectively admitting both responsibility and the ability to impact workers’ welfare.

Of course, platforms are also changing what they’re saying from one week to the next. At the start of this crisis, Bolt in the UK said that their drivers are independent contractors, and as such, they are free to choose how long to work and when to take a break. Later, when other platforms started rolling out Covid-19 schemes, Bolt shifted its stance and introduced policies similar to what Uber is offering. They’re now giving their drivers £100 per week for up to two weeks. Hopefully, actions like these can serve as a basis to argue that Bolt—and platforms like it—are more than just intermediaries. Hopefully, this can also influence employment classification debates in courts.

4. How is the gendered impact of Covid-19 playing out?

We know that across contexts, whether we talk about the gig economy or, more broadly, the informal economy, women form the vast majority of care workers and domestic workers. This crisis has meant that a lot of domestic and custodial work environments have closed off because offices have shut down, and people are not allowing domestic workers into their homes. The same is true of paid care work. And, therefore, work has contracted. Even when work is available, women have to combine caring for their own children at home while continuing to do their low-paid care work.

Women have also been neglected by government safety net provisions. In the UK, pregnant women are classed as being vulnerable to Covid-19 and have to remain at home. But low-income women who are pregnant, and who end up on maternity allowance, have reduced access to the government’s Universal Credit payments compared to those who get maternity payments through their employers. Women in low-wage work are disproportionately affected by this policy. While this may not have been the intention of the policy, it’s another example of how informal workers who are women are falling through the cracks of what the government is currently offering. In South Africa, there were calls to increase the child support grant, but this has not yet materialized. We know that there has been a spike in gender-based violence during the lockdown. In these ways, the pandemic is having very gendered impacts. But across countries, we’ve not yet come across any systematic initiatives from platforms or governments to provide additional support to their women workers to protect them against these specific gendered impacts.

5. How is worker solidarity trying to fill in the gaps left by platform and government responses?

There’s been a lot of advocacy and leadership by worker associations and unions—putting out information on the challenges gig workers face, making demands of platforms and governments, and so on. In South Africa, a petition demanding the extension of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) to precarious workers, including gig workers, was floated by a coalition of formal and informal worker unions and other allies. The Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) has been organizing similar petitions and reorienting their activism to help gig workers in the UK. Medical couriers who are currently transporting the very dangerous Covid samples, definitely require much greater levels of protections than they currently have. The IWGB has had some success in ensuring that these workers are better protected. Also in the UK, the United Private Hire Drivers union (UPHD) has been working hard to get some clarity from different arms of the government which are giving conflicting advice to drivers. They have pointed out that even before they make demands about accessing sick pay and providing PPE before platforms, the government needs to tell them if they should even be out driving on the road, and if it’s possible to maintain social distancing in a four-by-four car. Some app-based transport workers in the UK have sadly already lost their lives and the UPHD is working to put a spotlight on the risks workers are facing. We’ve seen this in India. We’ve seen this in Indonesia. We saw this at a global level with the international alliance of app-based transport workers, an alliance recently set up with representatives of driver unions from over 20 countries. They are currently working on releasing some demands that cut across platforms and countries.

Beyond making demands of platforms and governments, we’ve also seen strikes and other actions. The Instacart strike in the US has been one of the biggest and most sustained actions in response to Covid-19. We’re also seeing unions helping workers directly. An example is the Rideshare Drivers United in California which has put together information to help support drivers during the crisis: how to access and apply for various support schemes, how to ask landlords to extend rent payment windows, and so on.

Overall, unions and workers associations have been very vocal and in the wake of crisis. They’ve shown tremendous leadership. What we haven’t seen is platforms and governments engaging productively with them to devise optimal responses. We are hopeful that there will be some productive dialogue in this space, because we have seen clear articulations of what gig workers need, and the demands that unions are putting forth on their behalf.

The Fairwork Foundation’s latest report on platform responses to Covid-19 can be found here. This article is part of our Labor in the Digital Economy series.