Platform Workers Are Not Adequately Protected During The Cost-of-living Crisis, A New Study

By Oxford University And The University Of Cape Town Finds

The fourth annual ratings of working conditions in the South African platform economy finds platform workers continue to face insufficient wages, unfair working conditions and a lack of benefits and protections afforded to employees.

More than 1% of the South African workforce finds work via digital platforms, but a new report by Fairwork finds many of these workers face low pay and dangerous conditions. Thirteen of the most popular platforms in South Africa have been rated from 0 to 10 according to five principles of fair work (pay, conditions, contracts, management and representation) in this report. 

SweepSouth ranks the highest with 7 out of 10 points, followed by getTOD, M4JAM and MrD with 6 points each. Droppa, Indriver and SecretAgent are at the bottom of the 2022 ranking, as they could not provide evidence that they meet any Fairwork criteria of decent work. Multinational companies like Uber or Bolt also scored poorly, with 2 and 1 points respectively.

Platform scores in 2022 have been overall lower than last year. SweepSouth, M4JAM and NoSweat, which scored 8 points in 2021, have seen their scores drop to 7, 6 and 5 points respectively. Similarly, Uber and Uber Eats have moved from 4 points in 2021 to 2 in 2022. These changes are partially explained by the adjustments made to the principles of Fair Conditions and Fair Representation for this year’s scoring. While in previous years it was enough for platforms to have a written policy to achieve these points, this year they were asked for its practical application by providing evidence they compensate workers for their inability to work and that workers have a real say in their working conditions. None of the platforms studied this year could prove either of the criteria.

The report shows how platform workers continue to be affected by the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis. Regardless of the sector, most platform workers reported transportation costs as the biggest contributor to their work-related expenses. As independent contractors, platform workers must cover all costs associated with their work. With rising fuel prices, some workers reported that their hourly costs exceeded their estimated hourly pay, and this extreme situation can lead them to accept more risk in their work. Almost half the platform workers interviewed this year raised safety as one of their main challenges. Delivery and ride-hailing drivers interviewed pointed out that the threat of hijacking and assault was a daily worry, a reality brought into focus recently with the murder of Abongile Mafalala, a ride-hailing driver in Cape Town.

Researcher, Pitso Tsibolane, said: “In this post-pandemic era, inflation has been on the increase around the world, with food and energy prices hitting record highs. The South African platform economy has not been spared. The low scores for eight of the thirteen platforms indicate an urgent need for regulatory reform, monitoring and enforcement. At the same time, the positive scores by some of the platforms studied point to the possibility of a better and fairer platform economy. Platform work can also mean decent and fair work.”

The report highlights a series of positive policy changes made by some platforms, after consultation with Fairwork. To improve workers’ pay, getTOD has reduced its commission rate to 20% and MrD has introduced a variable fuel surcharge to compensate drivers for additional costs arising from fuel increases. SweepSouth has simplified the language of its terms and conditions, included a process for workers to appeal disciplinary decisions, like deactivations. They also made a commitment to make an existing public statement of their willingness to engage in collective bargaining more visible to their workers.

The key findings in the report were:

  • Fair Pay: Six platforms (getTOD, Kandua, M4Jam, NoSweat, Picup, SweepSouth) can evidence that workers earn at least the minimum wage (R23.19/hour) after costs. But only four (getTOD, Kandua, M4Jam, NoSweat) can show workers earn a living wage (R43/hour). Workers often exceed the legal limit of 45 hours per seven days to cover their expenses.
  • Fair Conditions: Seven platforms (Bolt, getTOD, M4Jam, MrD, SweepSouth, Uber, UberEats) can evidence they protect workers from risks that arise on the job and have a data protection policy. But no platform could evidence they compensate workers for loss of income through illness,
  • Fair Contracts: Six platforms (getTOD, Kandua, M4Jam, MrD, NoSweat, SweepSouth) could evidence that the contract is clear and accessible and based on South African law. Only three (MrD, NoSweat, SweepSouth) can evidence they do not unreasonably exclude liability.
  • Fair Management: Seven platforms (getTOD, M4Jam, MrD, NoSweat, SweepSouth, Uber, UberEats) demonstrated they provide avenues for workers to meaningfully appeal deactivations and other decisions that affect them. But only three could prove they have clear anti-discrimination policies and are transparent about algorithms that determine pay and access to work.
  • Fair Representation: Being able to freely organise is a key workplace right. But only three platforms (getTOD, MrD, SweepSouth) were found to have mechanisms to ensure freedom of association and the free expression of workers’ collective voice. Additionally, no platforms were able to evidence that workers have a say in their working conditions.

Researchers from Fairwork South Africa are calling for stronger protections and more robust labour standards in the South African platform economy. They say: “Decent work and job creation are not mutually exclusive. Moral pressure on platforms can encourage them to make improvements but, unfortunately, not all platforms will do so voluntarily. We need to develop an enforceable code of basic worker rights that is compatible with sustainable business models, by bringing workers and other stakeholders to the table.”

The Fairwork South Africa project is also urging organisations and consumers to hold platforms accountable for their labour practices by signing the Fairwork Pledge. The pledge aims to encourage organisations such as universities, companies and investors to announce their public support for decent working conditions in the platform economy.

Professor Mark Graham, Professor of Internet Geography at Oxford Internet Institute and Director of Fairwork, said: “The low scores of many popular platforms in the Fairwork South Africa league table clearly demonstrates the need for regulatory intervention to ensure platform workers are no longer falling through the cracks, further exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis. We urge organisations and investors to sign up to the pledge today and help our vision of fair work become a reality for all platform workers.”

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