SG study: Delivery, private-hire platform workers risk being trapped in poverty, precarity


The flexibility on offer is a major draw for platform workers, with 76% of the drivers citing it as a reason why they became PHV drivers. — The Straits Times/ANN

SINGAPORE: Food delivery and private-hire vehicle (PHV) platforms allow people from low-income backgrounds to earn a quick buck and much more than what they normally would, but these workers run the risk of becoming trapped in poverty and precarity.

Researchers from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) warned of this in a study published on Monday (Feb 28).

They said in their working paper that these individuals may also become entrenched in such platform work, even as they see such jobs as a way out of unemployment and helplessness.

Because of a lack of savings and voluntary Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions, being stuck in platform work also poses additional challenges to future aspirations, such as home ownership.

Hence, the IPS researchers proposed several interventions to address the downsides of platform work, including mandating or incentivising workers and companies to make contributions to CPF, health savings and insurance.

They also suggested more help be given to platform workers so they can pivot to new careers.

A basic level of protection should be made mandatory as this may allow for a more level playing field so that platform companies do not have to compromise on worker welfare in order to turn a profit.

The study used a mix of a survey and interviews with both PHV drivers and delivery riders, as well as observation.

Led by IPS principal research fellow and head of the institute’s Social Lab, Dr Mathew Mathews, it started in late 2019 and is still ongoing.

Through listings provided by ride-hailing firm Gojek, which provided funding for the study, 958 PHV drivers were surveyed.

Of these drivers, 75% drove for other platforms such as Grab as well.

The researchers also conducted 75 in-depth interviews, and followed and observed a number of study participants at work.

Presenting the findings on Monday, Dr Mathews said the team hopes to poll delivery riders as well, but has yet to get a good sample.

The researchers found that involvement in full-time platform work can impede long-term career mobility and take time away from upskilling pursuits.

Older and better educated PHV drivers had a harder time finding other jobs similar to their previous roles or relevant to their education and training. About 49% of PHV drivers polled felt they had no choice but to turn to platform work.

The flexibility on offer is a major draw for platform workers, with 76% of the drivers citing it as a reason why they became PHV drivers.

But there exists a paradox for full-time platform workers as they may not be able to afford to enjoy this autonomy.

To earn a good wage, workers have to slog and “grind”, said the researchers, citing the example of a delivery rider who earned more than S$5,000 (RM15,453) a month but had to cycle for more than 12 hours a day almost every day to hit that figure.

Before the pandemic, flexibility meant being able to earn a bigger income and spend more time with loved ones, said research associate Thian Wen Li. But with Covid-19 and changes to incentive structures, it now means volatility and insecurity.

Platform workers are also at the mercy of others, from opaque algorithms to changing policies, adding further stress to their physical and mental health.

So even though 57% of those polled said they could tolerate the pressures of being a PHV driver, only about 40% said they were satisfied with the job, and only 20% said their overall quality of life had improved.

About 44% said their health had worsened since they started driving.

Platform workers lack savings and are financially stressed, the researchers found.

Around 62% of drivers surveyed said they did not have enough money set aside to take care of their personal and family needs for the next three to six months if they stopped working.

About 50% did not make any voluntary CPF contributions.

There is also a possible trend of younger, lesser educated workers shunning conventional jobs as they view platform work as ideal.

The researchers said: “Our report does not provide insights into other types of similar work. Arguably the conditions for them may be as or more difficult.

“Nonetheless, the precarity that some of our respondents feel forebodes possible work conditions as more technology is developed to facilitate how people work.

“It is important at this juncture to consider the type of social protections that are necessary,” they added. – The Straits Times (Singapore)/Asia News Network

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