In her short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, Ursula le Guin describes the utopian city of Omelas whose orderliness, serenity, joyfulness, and beauty comes with a caveat: it requires a single unfortunate child to be forever kept in misery, darkness, and despair. In this social contract, the happiness of citizens depends wholly on the misery of a child. Le Guin’s story draws attention to a familiar philosophical dilemma: how far are we willing to go in sacrificing the rights, happiness, and well-being of the minority, for the happiness of the majority? And how far is too far? Amidst the Covid-19 crisis, this question is turning increasingly from a hypothetical to a real one. The situation of gig workers, who are at the bottom of the employment hierarchy, is a case in point.
Gig workers are at the frontlines of the crisis as the number of coronavirus cases continue to spread across the world. They are delivering food and household essentials to those self-isolating or practicing social distancing, and providing much-needed care services to those in need. As such, they are among the “key workers” in the current crisis, as per a UK government announcement, “maintaining essential public services during the Covid-19 response”.
In fact, the nature of their roles means that many gig workers are doing the very 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.
Social Distancing: An Unaffordable Luxury
Governments around the world are advising anyone with symptoms to self-isolate, an increasing number of countries are already in lockdown, and people are staying home barring necessary activities. 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 having their accounts blocked by the platforms or losing the level of incentives they have accumulated. 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.
Meanwhile, their physical presence in our streets and in front of our doors allows platforms to scale up orders amidst the crisis.
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, companies pay lip service to protection without investing meaningfully in action that would actually protect their workforce. We’ve seen some platforms put 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 the food delivery platform Lieferando’s workers learnt about new policies from the media rather than the company. In Turkey, Egypt and Spain, some platforms have started monitoring hand and health hygiene of their workers to assure customers about the safety of continuing to order from them. Other platforms in India and China have rolled out ethically questionable policies like measuring the temperature of workers and sharing this information in real-time with customers.
A driver who works for both Ola and Uber in India reported that he did not receive any safety equipment, notification, or help related to Covid-19. With the demand for their services decreasing, some drivers have taken the difficult decision to return to their hometowns.
The Gap Between Policy and Practice
Indeed, most measures taken by platforms as a response to Covid-19 seem primarily designed to protect customers and businesses. Among the nearly 90 platforms that we surveyed across the world, the single most common response was contact-free delivery (60%) and providing hand-sanitizers (30%) or masks to workers (20%). Some platforms even shifted the responsibility of providing workers with masks and sanitizers to their customers. Still others, at least initially, refused to provide even these basic protections, arguing that their workers are self-employed, thereby extricating the platforms from any obligation to guarantee their health and safety.
In any case, contact-free delivery and hand-sanitizers or masks are only band-aid measures, barely enough to treat an already open wound. In many parts of the world, cash is still the dominant payment option, with money changing hands between restaurants, food-delivery riders, and customers. Ride-hailing services are still the first option for people with no access to public transport or other services. Care workers still need to come in close contact with their clients while domestic workers find themselves in close contact in the private spaces of their employers.
Yet, policies on paid leave for those who need to self-isolate, either because they are sick themselves or are in contact with ill family members, are rare. Even when they exist, they are hard to access. Deliveroo, for instance, announced that workers would be eligible for 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 that paid leave is conditional on producing a sick note. Given that the people with Covid-19 symptoms should refrain from physically visiting a doctor, it is unclear how workers can actually benefit from this policy.
Our research shows that several platforms are aware of the financial uncertainty gig workers are facing and say they have introduced “hardship funds” as a backstop. But again, when we dig deeper, we notice that they do not specify how workers can access these funds or for how long. Others make donations to external agencies, but ignore the vulnerability of own their workers.
Our interviews with workers for the Fairwork project also suggest that some of these policies and safety regulations while stated, are not actually practiced. 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 sanitizers have been provided either. Rides per day have gone down too from almost 15 a day to now barely 5. 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 everybody is working from home.”
“Uber has not reached out to us regarding any safety regulations or precautions yet, either via call or messaging. No masks or sanitizers have been provided either.”
Similarly, a driver who works for both Ola and Uber in India reported that he did not receive any safety equipment, notification, or help related to Covid-19. With the demand for their services decreasing, some drivers have taken the difficult decision to return to their hometowns, even though this would mean foregoing an income for an uncertain period of time.
This situation is, of course, vastly different from the utopia of Omelas. The Covid-19 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 essential services in society? How far are we willing to go in sacrificing the well-being of those who are at the bottom rungs of the employment hierarchy, who deliver food, keep our shelves stocked, care for children, the sick, and the elderly? If we do not want platforms to determine the moral compass of our societies, we need to hold them accountable for their policies.
The authors Funda Ustek-Spilda, Mark Graham, Alessio Bertolini, Srujana Katta, Fabian Ferrari, Adam Badger, Kelle Howson, Mounika Neerukonda and Pradyumna Taduri work for Fairwork Foundation, an organization which studies work practices and working conditions in the emerging gig economy. They are based at the Oxford Internet Institute.
A previous version of this article was originally published by Red Pepper on March 26, 2020.