Opinion: Gig workers deserve more than just a coronavirus tip

  • Gig economy
  • Wednesday, 04 Mar 2020

A Deliveroo food delivery worker carrying an insulated food bag in Hong Kong, Feb 20. In an increasingly global public-health crisis, it’s the foot soldiers of 21st-century capitalism – Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers, TaskRabbit jobbers, 'zero-hours' workers – who look doubly vulnerable. — Bloomberg

However messy the world gets, the only certainty is that we will still need couriers to deliver pizza. That was the vision of last year’s hit video-game Death Stranding, in which an armour-plated delivery man carries packages from bunker to bunker in post-apocalypse America.

The current Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is confirmation of sorts: As people stay cooped up at home in self-quarantine, whether by choice or by force, the occasional guilty pleasure of ordering food has become a lifeline.

On the surface, that might seem like good news for those increasingly in-demand couriers: Orders on food-delivery apps in Hong Kong and South Korea grew at double-digit rates in January and February. But the reality is that in an increasingly global public-health crisis, especially one that is already dealing damage to the economy, it’s the foot soldiers of 21st-century capitalism – Deliveroo riders, Uber drivers, TaskRabbit jobbers,"zero-hours” workers – who look doubly vulnerable. The grim reality for gig workers is that they know they can’t afford to get sick. While most people ordering burritos in self-imposed isolation have the comfort of relying on benefits, sick pay and employment law to protect them, those delivering the meals usually don’t.

The business model of the sharing economy depends on using not "employees” but rather cheap armies of contractors, or freelancers, or self-employed workers with far fewer rights and little to no vacation or sick pay. So at a time when people are being told to put their health first, gig workers are incentivised to do the opposite – work rather than self-isolate. The fact that an economic slowdown this year now looks inevitable serves as a double-whammy for those in crucial yet precarious roles, because it also means overall demand for their services will probably fall.

The services based on matching customers to cheap labourers seem happier with quick-fix measures rather than reassuring or compensating workers. In China, food deliveries come with the body temperatures of those who handle them; ride-hailing firms have installed protective sheets separating drivers from passengers. The merest suspicion can lead to brutally efficient reactions. Uber recently suspended 240 customer accounts in Mexico after one passenger was suspected of infection. And in Britain, where about two million workers do not earn the minimum £118 (RM632) a week to qualify for statutory sick pay, workers such as cleaners, truck drivers and bar staff are all under pressure to work or risk having next to nothing in the bank.

This is too sizeable a chunk of the economy to ignore. In the United States, gig work has been estimated at 10% to 16% of the labour force. It could be as high as 20%, according to Vincent Deluard, strategist at broker INTL FCStone Financial Inc. It covers a population easily hit by earnings instability, judging by 2018 evidence that showed Uber and Lyft drivers often make less than minimum wage. The long-term solution will inevitably involve securing more rights for these workers, but that is a gradual multi-year process.

A new law in California aiming to convert gig workers from independent contractors to employees with benefits is being challenged by firms such as Uber and Postmates Inc, while in Britain a legal fight over the employment status of Uber drivers backed by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain will be taken to the Supreme Court. The European Union’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, last month told Bloomberg News she wanted to help gig workers fight for better pay and conditions. But more short-term measures are needed – as evidenced by the US Federal Reserve’s emergency rate cut – and giving away money seems like an increasingly attractive idea.

This week Laurence Boone, the OECD’s chief economist, called for "temporary direct transfers” to compensate households exposed to the economic effects of the fight against Covid-19. Hong Kong might be trying that out soon: Its government is eyeing one-time handouts of HK$10,000 (RM5,387) to all permanent residents over 18. This may turn out to be the perfect test case for the idea of a universal basic income, or similar suggestions. Facebook Inc co-founder Chris Hughes has sung the praises of a guaranteed income of US$500 (RM2,093) a month for all Americans, financed through wealth taxes and moderate deficit spending.

No job is permanent: The side-gigs that were around during the 1918 Spanish flu, like street sweepers and shoe shiners, are no longer so prevalent. But the fact that the new coronavirus scare is so quickly exposing deep iniquities within the economy should be a call to action. Armour-plated couriers putting their lives at risk to deliver pizza should remain firmly within the realms of fiction. – Bloomberg

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